It is our county's greatest natural resource. When its waters are too voluminous, a disaster follows. A disaster precedes when its waters are too gry.(no that's the right word, look it up in the dictionary). It derives its name from the people who once lived along its banks and subsisted on its bounty of fresh water and animal life. The word "Oconee," according to the latest linguistic studies, is actually a two-word phrase - "O" meaning "of" and "Conee" meaning skunk, or "place of the skunk." Earlier linguists attribute the name to the phrase "water eyes of the hills" - a much more romantic-sounding name for this body of water which has been an integral part of our county's civilization for the last eon. Which name came first, the Indian community Oconee Old Town, which was located in southern Baldwin County, or the Oconee River cannot be determined. Other variations of the spelling of the name are Ocone, Oconi, Ocony, Ekwoni, and Ukwu'nu. The middle part of the river has been referred to as "Ethoho," while the lower portion which passes through Laurens County has been called "Ithlobee" by Indians who lived in the area until the end of the 18th century.
The Oconee River, Georgia's third longest single-stream river, begins near the sleepy community of Lula in Hall County, Georgia. It flows for two hundred fifty miles in a southeasterly direction to a point between Lumber City and Hazlehurst, where it joins the Ocmulgee River to form the Altamaha. Its basin covers fifty-four hundred square miles, which is a little larger than the size of the state of Connecticut. For thousands of years, those who lived along the river depended on the Oconee for food, water, and transportation. It has been said that its waters were crystal clear - untainted by the runoff from the sandy clay farm lands, which were highly prized by the early settlers.
Beginning in 1819, the waters of the Oconee gave merchants a way to ship goods into and out of the Central Georgia area. When the railroads came, river transportation began to subside, except for a brief period immediately prior to the Civil War. After the war, and before railroads criss-crossed the entire state, river transportation in the middle Oconee region was revived by Captain R.C. Henry, Captain W.W. Ward and financier, Col. John M. Stubbs.
In order to maintain adequate and reliable shipping lanes, financial aid, in the form of federal government money, was necessary. Congressmen James H. Blount and Charles F. Crisp complied with the demands of their constituents and supplied the necessary federal monies to study the river and to aid in the clearing of rocks, snags, and the always dangerous sandbars. A study was commissioned by Congress in 1888 directing the Army Corps of Engineers (under the direction of Lt. O.M. Carter) to prepare a report on the river, including the cost of clearing it and the cost of maintaining it as a commercial waterway. The report estimated that $171,000 was necessary to maintain a navigable channel and that an annual appropriation of $5,000 was needed to maintain the river in a navigable condition. The report only covered the 150-mile portion of the river below Milledgeville at the fall line, which was the terminus of any freight-carrying boat. Actually, by the time of the survey, no boats could go beyond the Central of Georgia Railroad bridge near Oconee in Washington County.
A.S. Cooper, in his meticulous survey, noted the course of the river, depths at standard intervals, and the volume and velocity of the water at selected sites. Cooper's men measured the mean low water velocity of the river at Dublin to be 1.34 feet per second, which converts to 4824 feet per hour. At that rate it would take about two days for the water to flow from the northern end of the county at the mouth of Big Sandy Creek along its 42.7 mile long trek to Bonnie Clabber at the southern tip of Laurens County. The engineers determined that, during the river's course through the county, its elevation above sea level fell 40.5 feet from its high point of 176.6 feet at Big Sandy to 136.1 feet at Bonnie Clabber. The volume of water passing Dublin at low water was determined to be 1990.5 cubic feet per second, which would fill an average size house in six to eight seconds. Of course, the volume in times of flood was much higher.
Cooper's report, made during the year 1889, noted thirty-five places along the river, beginning at Big Sandy Creek and including White Bluff, Kittrell's Landing, Guyton's Bluff, Hobbs' Boat Yard, Blackshear's Ferry, Blackshear's Landing, Carr's Shoal, Dominey's Landing, Keene's Landing, Dublin Ferry, Rowe's Landing, Fuller's Landing, Burch's Landing, Little Buzzard Bar, Big Buzzard Bar, Drowning Cow Bight, Fish Trap Cut, Clark's Landing, Troup's Lake, Pritchett's Landing (Smith Lake), Wring Jaw Bight, Poor Robin's Bluff, Pine Lake, Walton's Landing, Green's Folly, Shady Field Cut, Shady Bluff, Cooper's Landing, Hall's Warehouse, Cooper's Bight, Branch's Landing, Upper Travers Bight, Berry Hill, Davis' Landing, and Bonnie Clabber.
The river was at its widest point of four hundred and fifty feet just above Guyton's Bluff. In the area between Big Buzzard Bar, Fish Trap Cut, and Poor Robin's Bluff the river broadened to four hundred feet, a fact not unnoticed by the Indians who built settlements there. The river was deepest in the area near Riverview Park between Rowe's Landing and Dublin. The water was shallowest just above Guyton's Bluff, the widest spot along the entire river, except for the last mile before the Oconee's confluence with the Ocmulgee.
Most of the places along the river in Laurens County needed very little attention. The major trouble areas ranged from Carr's Shoals, where a few cubic yards of rock needed to be removed, to the main danger areas of Big and Little Buzzard Bars, where the sandbars encroached about half way into the three hundred foot wide river. The engineers recommended that two closing dams be built at the upper end of Fish Trap Cut in order to give more water at the lower end of the cut.
Over the years, the method of measuring the depth of the river has changed. The original site of the measurement of the river's depth appears to have been from the Wrightsville and Tennille Railroad Bridge. The gauge was moved to the highway bridge in 1934. The highest depth ever recorded was 33 feet at the railroad bridge in 1925. As the river reached about 27 feet, many lots and houses were flooded in the Scottsville area. The waters again rose over its flood stage on April 12, 1936. During that flood, known to have been the biggest in the last hundred years, the water at the at Blackshear's Ferry rose to 33.4 feet, while it reached 32.8 feet at Dublin. Mrs. Verdie Rowland remembered seeing water lapping against the bottom of the railroad bridge just below the passenger bridge. Rawls A. Watson, a long time ferryman, reported that the river had not been that high since 1888. Several strange sights were spotted by railroad workers. The first was a pair of wash tubs floating down the river. One contained a big clock and the other a big black cat. One questionable informant reported that he saw a log floating in the river with a wild cat on one end and a rabbit on the other.