A new Civil War museum and a picturesque riverwalk are among the many attractions that visitors will discover.
By Kathleen Walls
Columbus may not be one of the top destination cities in Georgia. However, folks who explore it are richly rewarded. They discover that the town is a treasure trove of historical, cultural, and just-plain-fun attractions.
Columbus is at the southern terminus of Interstate 185, which branches south from Interstate 85 south of Atlanta. It lies on the western edge of the state along the Chattahoochee River, a stone’s throw from Alabama.
Columbus has long been known as the closest city to the U.S. Army’s Fort Benning. Its newest claim to fame also deals with the military. The Port Columbus National Civil War Naval Museum, which opened in the spring of 2001, is the only museum of its kind in the world. It brings both sides of the conflict together and sheds light on a too-often-ignored aspect of the war: battles that were fought in the water, not on the land.
The centerpiece of the museum is a 180-foot piece of the original 225-foot hull of the CSS Jackson. This massive ironclad was built at the Confederate shipyards approximately 1 mile away from where it now rests. You can view it from an observation platform near the bow, or from floor level.
The vessel is the largest surviving Confederate ironclad. The ship was in the naval yard and almost ready to be launched when a daring group of Union soldiers crossed the Chattahoochee River on a dark night in April 1865 and burned it to the waterline. The hull floated 30 miles downriver, where it lay covered with mud until its excavation in the early 1960s. This section is but one-third of the original ship, yet it weighs in at 560,000 pounds. It originally contained six huge guns, iron plating, and two 30,000-pound engines.
The most expensive exhibit at the Civil War Naval Museum is the reconstruction of the ironclad CSS Albemarle. The Albemarle terrorized the Union fleet until a young Union lieutenant made a daring raid in a small steam-powered launch and sank it in the Roanoke River in Virginia. As visitors stand in the hull of the ship, they experience what life was like on board. They eavesdrop on a young “powder monkey” as he writes home to his mother about life in an ironclad; encounter the enemy cannonade; and feel the deck shudder beneath as the torpedoes strike home. It’s so realistic, you imagine you can feel the flow of the river and the impact of the missiles.
The museum harbors its own bit of Confederate flag trivia. Thanks to a family from Ohio, visitors can see a particular flag that was in hiding for 137 years. On the night of July 22, 1862, the captains of the CSS Arkansas thought they had reached safety in the harbor at Vicksburg, Mississippi, when, out of the darkness, two Union ships struck. The USS Queen of the West attempted to ram the Arkansas. As the two vessels lay side to side, an enterprising civilian engineer aboard the Federal ship, John P. Skelton, saw his chance for a souvenir. He leapt aboard the Arkansas and tore down its flag. He managed to make it back to his own ship and hide the flag in a barrel of beans. After his discharge, Skelton took the purloined flag back to his family home in Ohio, where it remained until 1999 when his ancestors sent the emblem back home again. It now rests in a place of honor on the wall of the museum.
The Port Columbus National Civil War Naval Museum is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is $4.50 for adults, $3.50 for seniors and active military, $3 for students, and free for children age 6 and under. Phone (706) 327-9798 for more information.
Another branch of the armed forces offers a tribute to the infantry’s heroes, past and present. The National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, 12 miles from Columbus, is well worth a visit. This huge museum pays tribute to the two centuries of service by American infantryman. Its exhibits range widely, from armor used by medieval knights to a bust of Adolf Hitler.
This is an enjoyable museum, even for those who are not big fans of military-related exhibits. Displays include American infantry fighters’ equipment from the 1750s to the present, including the flintlock muskets of the soldiers who braved America’s first frontiers and the Davy Crockett atomic missile. This is a museum that makes every American stand a little taller.
Admission to the National Infantry Museum is free. It is open daily, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays and from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. on weekends. Phone (706) 545-2958 for more information.
In front of the museum is a memorial stone to a four-legged comrade who did much to boost the morale of lonely soldiers during the 1920s. Calculator was so named because soldiers said he knew how to “put down three and carry one.” He limped on three legs (although he wasn’t injured) to gain attention, and was every soldier’s favorite mascot. No one-man dog, “Calc” was willing to hitch a ride with anyone going into Columbus. Many a military man made a stop at the Ralston Hotel on his way back to the base just to pick up Calc. When a miscreant poisoned the dog in 1923, the soldiers took up a collection to bury him and place a monument to his memory. The inscription on the marker reads, “Calculator. Born ? Died August 29, 1923. He made a better dog of us all.”
Columbus is also home to Georgia’s State Theater, the 1871 Springer Opera House. If you had been seated in the Springer in 1876, you would have seen the plush velvet curtain rise on the incomparable Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, brother of the man who shot President Abraham Lincoln. Over the years the theater’s stage was graced by numerous stars, such as Ethel Barrymore, Oscar Wilde, Buffalo Bill, Lilly Langtry, and other famous thespians. A hotel on the upper floors provided rooms for many of the actors.
In the 1920s the theater began to be used as a movie house, and eventually it began a slow decline. It closed in 1959. But in 1965 the Springer was reopened after a group of citizens realized that it was an irreplaceable treasure. Now, fresh from its latest restoration in 1999, the theater envelops visitors in Edwardian splendor as they watch some of Broadway’s biggest hits. Hand-stenciled designs, columns topped with goldleaf, and lavish antiques and paintings fill its lobby and halls, all conspiring to transport patrons back into the past.
Group tours of the theater can be arranged. Please note that only group (and not individual) tours are offered. For more information, phone (706) 324-1199.
Some of us cannot make it through the day without a drink of Coca-Cola. If you’re ready to visit a shrine to the popular soda, proceed to the city’s Heritage Corner. Among the historic homes in this downtown region is a modest Greek Revival cottage purchased by Dr. John Pemberton in 1855. A pharmacist, Pemberton turned his backyard kitchen into a place for experiments with tonics and elixirs, and there he developed the formula for Coca-Cola, which he originally called “French Wine of Coca.”
While at Heritage Corner you can explore other historic homes as well, including the 1828 Walker Peters Langdon House, believed to be Columbus’s oldest remaining home. The Heritage Corner homes, including the Pemberton house, are open via guided tours only; tours are offered at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and at 2:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tours cost $5 per person, and there is a two-person minimum. For more information, phone (706) 323-7979.
Consider taking a bus-trolley tour of the downtown historic district and business district. It will help you find your way through town, and give you a glimpse of many places you may want to investigate further. The tours are offered on transit buses designed to look like trolleys. Tour stops are located at various places around town, and the cost is 60 cents for a round trip, which lasts approximately 30 minutes. A convenient stop is in front of the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau office, 1000 Bay Ave., on the Riverwalk.
Columbus’s Coca-Cola Space Science Center will fascinate kids of any age, and admission is free. This facility opened in 1996 and includes the Mead Observatory, the Omnisphere Planetarium Theatre, and many exhibits and interactive displays. A full-size replica of the first 50 feet of the NASA space shuttle orbiter is on hand, as are replicas of an Apollo capsule, a space suit, a Mars exhibit, and much more. Interactive displays simulate a flight to the moon or a rendezvous with Halley’s Comet. An astronomy program lets visitors lose themselves in the wonders of the heavens.
The Coca-Cola Space Science Center is located at 701 Front Ave. It is open Tuesday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Saturday from 1:30 to 5:00 p.m., and Sunday from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m. You must purchase a ticket to attend the planetarium shows. For more information, phone (706) 649-1470.
Columbus has so much to see and do that it’s impossible to include it all in one day. When you’re ready to relax, head for the Riverwalk, a paved path near the banks of the Chattahoochee River that leads from downtown Columbus to Fort Benning, 12 miles away. It’s perfect for walking, jogging, or bicycling, or for just sitting and taking in the scenery.
Visit the Columbus Museum once you’re ready to discover more. This facility offers a huge variety of 19th- and 20th-century American art, as well as exhibits of regional artifacts that focus on the origins and history of the city. You can even design your own artwork at Transformations, the museum’s hands-on discovery gallery. The Columbus Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. Admission is free. Phone (706) 649-0713 for more information.
Restaurants in Columbus are varied and great, especially for such a relatively small town. Try the Garlic Clove for fine dining; the Cannon Brew Pub for fun and a great pizza; and Country’s Barbecue at any location if you have a really big appetite. Of course, countless other fine restaurants can be found as well.
Your choices for camping require a hard decision. Should you stay right in town, or enjoy the splendor offered by two neighboring state parks? If you want to spend your time exploring town and stay close by, then Lake Pine Campground in Columbus should be your choice (6404 Garrett Road, 706-561-9675). It offers full hookups, pull-through sites, a pool, laundry facilities, and a dump station.
If you prefer to have a leisurely visit, try F.D. Roosevelt State Park, approximately 35 miles north of Columbus (2790 State Route 190 in Pine Mountain; 706-663-4858). This 9,047-acre park combines history with outdoor activities, which include a fine hiking trail, spectacular waterfalls, and unusual rock outcroppings. You can picnic at Dowdell’s Knob, F.D.R.’s favorite picnic spot. The Civilian Conservation Corps constructed many of the buildings and stonework at the park.
Florence Marina State Park, approximately 35 miles south of Columbus (State Route 1, Omaha; 229-838-6870), is located on the banks of the Chattahoochee River at the northern end of Lake Walter F. George. It offers boat rentals, and is the perfect spot for those who love water sports. A museum at the park offers a glimpse at Indian settlements in the area.
Information about both of these and other Georgia state parks may be obtained at www.gastateparks.org.
If you are an RVer who is active or retired military and you hold a military ID, you can take advantage of Uchee Creek Army Campground and Marina, situated at Fort Benning. It is located on a picturesque inlet of the Chattahoochee River and offers complete facilities for any size motorhome. It also boasts a full-service marina and large rally facilities. Phone (706) 545-7238 or 545-4053 for reservations and information.
Of course, these are not the only spots in the area, so please check your favorite campground directory or FMCA’s “Business Service Directory” (in the January and June issues of FMC and online at www.fmca.com) for more listings.
Regardless of which campground you choose, you’ll discover that Columbus, Georgia, is a fun place to explore.
Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau
P.O. Box 2768
Columbus, GA 31902