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Savannah Business Then and Now: Making Things Right on Wright Square

Category: Historic Businesses "Then & Now"

by Ted Eldridge
SBJ.com Contributor


Young visitors to Savannah chatter with excitement at the gate outside the English Regency style Wayne-Gordon mansion on Bull Street. Donning sashes of patches boasting their dedication and accomplishments, they eagerly await their turn to tour the birthplace of the founder of their organization. Juliette Gordon Low is known to every American girl and woman who ever raised three fingers and took the Girl Scout oath.

But, they, as most others, have never heard of her granddaddy, William Washington Gordon, who put Savannah on the map through his accomplishments, or her mamma, Nelly Kinzie Gordon, whose dedication to a cause restored Savannah’s tarnished honor in Wright Square, just a block away.

When Eli Whitney, fresh out of Yale in 1792, came down from New England to tutor children on Savannah’s Mulberry Grove Plantation, his invention that mechanized separating cotton seed from fiber spurred the great race for dominance in the cotton export business. The competitors were Charleston and Savannah. Each sat at the mouth of a great waterway. Cotton grown near the coast could easily be shipped down the Savannah, Cooper and Ashley Rivers to the markets of the world. But, when the cotton gin cut to a fraction the number of workers needed to process massive amounts of the fiber, the sandy coastal plain of inland Georgia and South Carolina cried out to be planted in cotton. It could transform the region if only there were an efficient way to move large quantities from inland to the port cities. In 1833 South Carolinians had completed a railroad from Charleston into Aiken County, almost halfway into the state and very near the Savannah River. If Georgia were to remain in the race, a dreamer with a grand vision was needed for the little town to compete with her older sister to the north.

William Washington Gordon, born in Screven County in 1796, turned out to be the right man in the right place at the right time. In 1836, Gordon was named president of what eventually became the Central of Georgia Railroad Company. Beginning with a plan to link Savannah with Macon in the center of the state, Gordon led Georgia’s bid for superiority in the cotton export business. He believed a network of rails throughout the interior would be the ticket to growth and prosperity in Georgia and would put Savannah at the heart of the cotton export business. He was right.

Track was laid, acquisitions made and mergers forged throughout Georgia and, later, into Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina. Land was cleared along the rail lines. Settlers moved in. People planted cotton. Towns grew. Farmers, traders, shippers, the railroad – and Savannah – thrived.

With all roads (railroads) built by the Central of Georgia Railroad Company leading to the port of Savannah, by 1850 the sleepy little town had become the bustling center of the cotton export business at a time when cotton accounted for 60 percent of the exports of the entire United States. World market prices were set for cotton at the City Exchange Building on Bay Street, where Savannah City Hall stands today. It was all beyond even William Gordon’s wildest dreams.

But, sadly, William Gordon, considered the founder of the Central of Georgia Railroad system, never saw what he had envisioned. While working on his railroad he contracted malaria and died at the age of 46 in 1842. Within just one year of his death the stretch of the railroad he had championed was completed between Macon and Savannah, making the Central of Georgia the longest railroad in the country under one management company.

A magnificent monument was designed to honor William Gordon. The site selected was the center of Wright Square in the heart of the city. The area was excavated. An elaborate sculpture resting on four pink granite columns rose from a base bearing an inlaid carving of the Central of Georgia crossing a trestle. The remains of Gordon were buried beneath the monument.

This decision – to inter William Gordon and build his massive memorial in the center of Wright Square – defies explanation. Someone was already buried there and, by disturbing the grave site, ground considered sacred was desecrated.  

More than 140 years earlier, in 1739, Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe, founder of the colony of Georgia, had served as a pall bearer in the funeral procession that came to a halt in the center of Wright Square. The deceased was 97-year old Tomo-chi-chi, chief of the native Yamacraw tribe, who had welcomed the English colonists and assured their survival during the early years of settlement. Gen. Oglethorpe himself had decreed the center of Wright Square to be the fitting burial place for his dear friend. A symbolic Indian burial mound of rocks was constructed above the ground under which Tomo-chi-chi was laid to rest. Photographs reveal what appears to be a large, cast iron, stylized headdress of feathers later added.

Mystery surrounds the whereabouts of the remains of Tomo-chi-chi. The only relevant note recorded that the city had bulldozed the memorial in the early 1880s. There appears to be nothing – written or oral – that confirms Tomo-chi-chi’s bones were found, were moved, were lost or were even considered.

This appalling act of disrespect and disregard for history was addressed within a short time of the completion of the Gordon monument in 1883. His daughter-in-law, Nelly Kinzie Gordon (mother of Juliette Gordon Low), spearheaded the local movement to have a fitting memorial to Tomo-chi-chi placed in Wright Square, even if it wouldn’t cover his remains.

In 1899, Mrs. Gordon’s steadfast efforts bore fruit. A large, rough-hewn boulder of granite from Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, was transported on the Central of Georgia Railroad to Savannah, where it remains on the southeast corner of Wright Square. Dubbed Tomo-chi-chi’s Rock, it serves as a fitting memorial to this native-American and Georgian.

Nelly Kinzie Gordon requested the bill for the huge rock and its delivery. She received a response stating the charge was one dollar, to be paid on Judgment Day. True to her character, Mrs. Gordon sent a letter in return indicating she was afraid she would be quite busy on Judgment Day and unable to make payment then. She included a one-dollar bill with the note.

Those who live and work and learn in Savannah today do so among many reminders of the work of Savannah entrepreneur William Gordon: the railroad network that serves the Port of Savannah; the viaduct that arches over the Ogeechee canal; the Savannah Visitor’s Center and adjacent buildings; his home, now the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace; the Gordon monument; Gordon Street; and Gordonston, a neighborhood just east of downtown.

The opulent monument that stands in the center of Wright Square reflects the glory and fortune William Gordon brought to his city of Savannah. It is complemented and equaled by the simple, rough and worn granite boulder that commemorates the strength of peace and partnership offered by Tomo-chi-chi, Georgia’s first friend. No monument exists in Wright Square to honor Nelly Kinzie Gordon, but the story of “making things right on Wright Square” serves as an important reminder of this woman who represented the grace and integrity, the simple conscience and gentle goodness of Savannah. This last memorial goes to Nelly Kinzie Gordon.

Author’s note: The Central of Georgia Railroad name survived a merger in 1982 with Southern and Norfolk and Western, and the Central continues to be an operating unit of the Norfolk Southern Corporation (although few, if any, locomotives or rail cars have any Central markings).

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