A River Runs Through It:
(Running through the heart of Albany, Ga, the Flint River is a constant in the city's history from the native American era to the Civil War and beyond.** )
Ambling through Albany, GA
By Susan J. Young
The Creek Indians first called it “Thronateeska," meaning “the place where flint is picked up.”, Today, Albany, GA, still embraces that heritage. Its downtown area features activities and attractions along the banks of the Flint River.
Just a 45-minute drive west of I-75 amid southwestern Georgia’s lush farm country, Albany is a friendly, laid-back, southern city of 95,000.
We visited Albany in fall 2009. Our assessment is that this is a laid-back and very pleasant destination for a long weekend getaway, a family reunion or a “snowbird break” for those making the annual trek between Canada/the northern U.S. and Florida.
What’s to do? Visitors will discover eco-fun, science, art, culture, history and river lore in Albany.
They'll enjoy a 300,000-gallon RiverQuarium (shown in the background of the photo at right*), the creative Ray Charles Plaza, the lovely Chehaw eco-area, as well as a planetarium, art museum and much more.
Albany is a welcoming destination with friendly people. For visitors, it's destination in which history and nature flow.
Albany’s Early Years
In 1836, Nelson Tift, an Augusta, GA, businessman, set up out to build a town along the Flint River in 1836. He hoped to develop a southern trade center akin to Albany, NY.
Among his accomplishments? He contracted with Horace King, a famous bridge builder who had purchased his freedom from slavery, to construct a bridge across the Flint River.
The original toll for crossing the bridge ranged from 75 cents for a carriage drawn by four horses to two cents per head for livestock. Those traveling on foot could cross for free.
Tift’s original office was in the Bridge House, which is now the Albany Welcome Center (shown at left*).
When you come into the welcome center the gift shop and brochure rack area is actual where the original bridge "toll taker" sat. Today, thankfully, you'll just find friendly help for planning and customizing your time in Albany; no tolls required!
Throughout the 1800s, Albany gained fame primarily as a cotton ginning town. It also became a major steamboat port and rail stop.
Fortunately, the city escaped any major battles during the Civil War.
Large plantations in the area functioned as the breadbasket of the Confederacy, providing both cotton and food during difficult times.
(In the photo at right, a bale of cotton and 1800s-era equipment to handle it are shown in a display at the Albany Welcome Center.*)
In future decades, those farms continued to provide cotton for the town’s textile mills.
Today, Albany's prime industries are textiles, agriculture and tourism. The city is also the county seat so you'll find many government buildings and much redevelopment in the historic downtown area
Editor’s Note: To learn more about Albany’s rich history, ask the Albany Convention & Visitors Bureau for an excellent brochure entitled “Glancing Backward: Albany 1836-1986.” This pamphlet features historical photos revealing Albany’s heritage through the decades.
Celebrating its River Heritage
Since water was the catalyst for Albany’s founding, it’s not surprising that even today, the Flint River is a top recreational draw.
Locals and visitors alike enjoy fishing, canoeing, boating and several annual festivals.
Open year-round, The Flint RiverQuarium, 117 Pine Ave., tells the eco-story of the Flint River, its 350-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico and the mysterious blue-hole springs that helped create it.
(The entrance to the facility is shown above with the river aquarium at left.*)
One unusual feature is that the 175,000-gallon, 22-foot-deep Blue Hole is “open air,” one of the few such aquariums worldwide.
The aquarium’s “flow” in term of shepherding tourists through the exhibits is quite good.
Around every turn is an interesting marine or wildlife encounter (through glass of course, as in the photo at right*).
You'll see large mouth bass, catfish, seahorses, turtles, lizards, snakes and much more.
The exhibits also showcases regional indigenous plants. And, definitely step into the outside aviary to see native birds.
Across the parking lot, the Adventure Center houses the RiverQuarium Imagination Theater, home to a large-format movie screen.
Visitors will marvel at larger-than-life nature films. They're shown on a massive movie screen that’s three stories tall and four stories wide.
The adjacent Riverfront Park (a portion is shown in the photo at right*) has expansive river views and multi-tiered grassy levels.
It’s a well-designed staging area for festivals and other events.
In addition, a riverside trail extends from the park three miles north.
Ultimately, the community hopes to extend the trail to the lovely Chehaw, a parkland and eco-area with many recreational attractions.
Georgia on My Mind
Just up the street from the Welcome Center is the highly creative Ray Charles Plaza -- located in the area between the Broad Street Bridge and Oglethorpe Bridge.
This plaza aptly celebrates the life and legacy of the musical great born Sept. 23, 1930 in Albany.
Charles' family moved away to Greenville, FL, when he was an infant, but Albany is proud of the musician as a native son.
Simply put, this artistic plaza is a “must see” if you’re visiting Albany. A life-sized and highly realistic bronze sculpture of Charles sits at a grand piano atop a cascading fountain (see photos above and below*).
It’s fun to admire “Ray” as he seemingly erupts in song -- thanks to speakers in the plaza.
His head is joyfully raised to the sky, his fingers glide over the keys.
A jazz, blues, pop and soul artist of impeccable talent, Charles is often best remembered for his rendition of "Georgia on My Mind," which has become the state's official tourism mantra.
Artistically, the plaza's white-and-black design resembles a piano keyboard but with several unique twists and curves.
Black keys are seats, as is a black clef note (shown at right*).
Editor’s Note: This plaza is a destination “jewel." It's precisely the type of one-of-a-kind site that travelers hope to find when they explore any destination. So even if you only have five minutes for a visit, go!
Past, Present and Future
One impressive attraction for those visiting Albany is the Thronateeska Heritage Center at 100 West Roosevelt Ave.
Located the end of an original 1800s brick street, the center is actually a collection of attractions including a modest history museum, housed in the city’s 1912-era train station.
Unusual artifacts on site include many original train station appointments (above right*), a massive Alaskan brown bear and a Bob’s Candy Company truck (above left*).
Outside on the back train platform visitors may peruse an old stationary peanut picker (shown in the photo at right*).
You'll also see an antique automobile and an impressive collection of historic railroad rolling stock.
Train buffs will "ooh" and "ahh" at the 1911-era steam locomotive, built for the Florida East Coast Railway and operated in later years by the Georgia Northern Railway.
We should mention that this is a static railway exhibition, so no train rides are given. That said, in addition to the locomotive, visitors may view several boxcars, a tank car, a railway post office car and a bay-window caboose.
An added bonus? The 1939-era “Southern Railway 518” baggage car (shown in the photo at left*) now houses a large HO scale model train layout.
This train layout is open for touring on Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m.
Reach for the Stars
Another venue at the Thronateeska Heritage Center is the Wetherbee Planetarium.
The star attraction here is a 40-foot-in-diameter Spitz “SciDome” high-definition projection system with digital surround sound. In addition to special presentations, three programs operate year-round: Oasis in Space, Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity and Molecularium.
Thronateeska's separate 11,000-square-foot Science Museum boasts interactive displays and exhibits covering meteorology, natural science, paleontology, archaeology, hydrology, virtual science, and air and space history.
For example, aviation enthusiasts will enjoy viewing a half-scale replica of the Wright Flyer, the first powered aircraft. You'll also find archaeological artifacts from southwest Georgia and such eclectic items as a NASA training spacesuit.
Chehaw: Nature's Wonderland
Named for the Chiaha or Chehaw, a tribe of Creek Indians who lived around the property and befriended European settlers centuries ago, Chehaw is a refreshing relaxing spot.
Encompassing more than 700 acres, it's home to rolling parkland, lush forests, bayous, picnic areas and plenty of activities and attractions.
The lovely park and eco-area also boasts 10 covered picnic pavilions, nature trails, RV/tent campgrounds and boat docks.
Annual events of interest to visitors include a heritage festival, fishing rodeo and the Chehaw Native American Festival.
One surprise from our perspective was the huge children’s play park (shown in the photo above*), undoubtedly a cornucopia of fun for the little ones. We later discovered it’s the largest play park in southwest Georgia.
During peak periods, visitors may ride on a small gauge Wiregrass Express train.
Also on site is a nationally sanctioned BMX Bicycle Park. For those who may not be familiar with the terminology, BMX is the place for motorcross racing -- yet with a family-friendly atmosphere and with safety in mind.
Plus, you might see skilled riders performing bike stunts including the superman, back-flip and tail-whip.
But while the need for speed attracts some guests, quiet relaxation entices others.
Even if you don’t have time for activities, enjoy a drive through the park (shown at right*). It’s particularly relaxing on weekdays in the spring or fall of the year, when the kids are in school and the park is quiet.
The park is also home to a lovely zoo – the Chehaw Wild Animal Park -- nestled amid a natural setting of forests and wetlands.
Originally laid out by noted naturalist Jim Fowler (of TV's Wild Kingdom), it’s the only zoo in southwestern Georgia accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Wooden boardwalks guide visitors from habitat to habitat. If you enjoy getting out in nature and seeing animals, birds and reptiles, then the park is great fun.
On our visit, we enjoyed viewing rhinos, cheetahs, zebras (at right*), black bear (above**), bongos and lemurs.
In summer, kids will love watching the alligator feedings. Check the park schedule upon arrival to make sure of the times for this activity.
Just inside the entry to the zoo is Ben’s Barnyard Petting Zoo (photo of the entry is at left*), with the usual line-up of farm critters for the younger set to pet.
But there is also something a bit different in the barnyard, beyond the ducks, pigs and ponies. We admired these fuzzy and cute alpacas -- a smaller version of South American llamas, essentially (shown at right*).
Civil Rights, Art and Kids' Fun
Our stay in Albany was short, so we didn’t have time to visit all the attractions. Among other top options for visitors are these:
Albany Civil Rights Institute: In 1961, crowds gathered at Mt. Zion and neighboring Shiloh Baptist Church to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, at 326 Whitney Ave., the newly expanded Albany Civil Rights Institute tells the story of the impact of the southwestern Georgia Civil Rights movement on the rest of the world. It also showcases the Civil Rights role of the African-American church and the freedom music that emerged.
Albany Museum of Art: Located at 311 Meadowlark Drive near Darton College, this museum boasts six galleries and a permanent collection of 2,400 original works of African, American and European art.
Approximately 200 works from that collection are on display at any one time. The museum has a large collection of sub-Saharan Art including masks, sculpture, pottery, baskets, textiles, jewelry and gold weights. (At right is a photo of The AMAzing Space at the Albany Museum of Art.*)
IS KIDS, Inc. (229-431-0110) is a fun, interactive children’s museum. Kids will delight at the 32 different play stations.
In addition, shopaholics will discover a range of retail fun in Albany. Shopping venues include the Albany Mall, local antique stores, flea markets, and specialty stores.
Day Trippin' from Albany
Albany makes a good base for several interesting side trips. It’s only about a half hour from Plains, GA, home to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum
Fresh from a $10 million re-design, the museum has debuted a new introductory film narrated by "West Wing" President Martin Sheen.
You may stand at submarine periscope and view scenes from President Carter’s navy career. Or you may step into an exact replica of the Oval Office. And, for the first time, the Carter Museum now features a major section showcasing the charitable work the Carters have tackled since leaving the White House.
Just outside Americus, GA, about an hour from Albany is the Andersonville National Historic Site, operated by the U.S. National Park Service.
In the 1860s, this was an infamous Confederate prison site.
Of the 45,000 Union soldiers imprisoned at Andersonville, 13,000 died – most of disease -- much of that caused by water contamination.
Poignantly, the visitor center's museum (shown at right*) is dedicated not just to Andersonville victims but to the plight of all prisoners of war worldwide.
Editor's Note: Be advised this is an excellent museum but a highly emotional experience.
If you walk out the back door of the visitor center, you'll encounter an incredible sculpture (photo is shown at right*), again dedicated to the plight of prisoners of war.
Continue walking around the back of this artistic work and you'll arrive at the site of the former prison complex.
While the original buildings are gone - replaced by large expanses of green grass -- you'll see some archaeological remains at Andersonville, as well as the site's spring area (shown in the photo at right*).
Markers designate the stockade walls as well as a point beyond which prisoners were not permitted to stray or be shot. Several "re-created areas" including corners of the stockade and a small tented camp help visitors understand a bit about 1860s life in Andersonville.
To get a lay of the land, drive around the well-marked roadway loop. Editor's Note: Stay tuned. We'll cover Andersonville more extensively in a future story.
For a complete snapshot of all the Albany and regional attractions, ask the Albany Convention & Visitors’ Bureau for its handy Discover Albany guide.
The booklet includes city site information including attractions, hotels, restaurants as well as a day trippin’ section on side trips.
Albany fields a selection of budget and moderately priced accommodations, most affiliated with the major national lodging chains. We stayed at the new Country Inn & Suites , 2809 Nottingham Way, Albany, (as shown in the photos at right and below*).
We enjoyed the hotel's country-style lobby with its soft couches and fireplace. Everything about this property was spotless and well-maintained.
We travel a lot. Our assessment of the professionalism and friendliness of the staff -- from the front desk to housekeeping -- was A+.
The hotel serves a very good “hearty” continental breakfast including cereal, fruit, bagels and other fare in a room adjacent to the lobby.
We loved the fresh waffles. Just pour a cup of pre-measured batter into the wafflemaker, shut the lid, turn the handle and presto: the machine dings when your waffle is ready!
For guests interested in a dip or recreation on a rainy day, Country Inn & Suites has an indoor pool and spa.
Other hotel perks include a guest laundry; small business center with a computer and printer; small fitness center; and an icemaker and vending area.
Our spacious one-bedroom suite was located on the second floor, reachable via elevator and also by a picturesque open staircase from the first-floor lobby.
The double queen-bedded room had two large flat-screen tvs, one in the bedroom area, another in the living area.
It was great to relax after a long day of driving in the living area, which included a couch, easy chair and large desk. Our suite seemed to fulfill every need with a microwave, small refrigerator and more.
For guests who want and need to stay connected while on the road, the free high-speed wireless Internet access was most appreciated.
Check the Albany CVB brochure for other accommodations choices. A new Fairfield Inn & Suites , a Marriott brand property, will open in January 2010 at 3011 Kensington Courrt.
A Tasty Catch
Whether you enjoy down-home country cooking or Italian, Asian or other ethnic fare, you’ll find it in Albany. We dined at The Catch Seafood & Oyster Bar, a local contemporary yet casual seafood restaurant at 1332 Whispering Pines, Albany.
Don’t let the nondescript exterior of the restaurant fool you. This establishment lives on its reputation for great food not its storefront appeal.
It lacks signage, essentially. (A photo of the exterior is shown at right so you know what to look for when traveling.*)
Inside, locals and visitors mingle, enjoy libations and chow down on succulent seafood that's cooked to perfection. You can order either gumbo or clam chowder if you want soup. A cup of either is $4, a bowl $6.
Tasty appetizers include fried oysters, shrimp, grouper fingers, seared ahi tuna, lobster egg rolls, calamari, crayfish, crab claws, crab cakes, oysters Rockefeller and oysters on the half shell; prices range from $6 to $11.
We enjoyed the grouper fingers and a house specialty-- fried cheese grits. I'm not a grits fan but I just had to try them and simply couldn't put them down!
Exuding a contemporary, casual flair with a cosmopolitan feel to its menu and wine list, this restaurant delivers surprises galore. The menu choices are extensive and the wine list creative and well thought out for the food-wine pairings.
"Market Fish" selections - with much of the seafood freshly caught in Appalachicola, FL, on the Gulf of Mexico -- include grouper, salmon or flounder (as well as other fish depending on the day). You can order your fish grilled, blackened or fried; prices range from $17 to $20.
Best of all you receive, a choice of one side, a salad and two hushpuppies for the price. You can add shrimp, scallops, oysters or crawfish to any market fish dinner for just $6 more.
House entree specialties, beyond the Market Fish, include crab cakes (which my mother can attest to as delicious and succulent with lots of lump crab meat); panko crusted grouper topped with lemon-basil beurre sauce; clams lubuono; shrimp and grits; filet mignon, chicken marsala, pasta of the week, lobster ravioli and the most expensive thing on the menu -- fried lobster tails at $34 for three tails. Most of the entrees were in the $16 to $26 range.
Sides are down-home fare -- everything from roasted red potatoes to corn on the cob, from hushpuppies to slaw, mashed potatoes, sauteed vegetables, french fries, a grit cake, garlic bread and black bean salsa.
The food is savory, the wine delectable, but it's the people that make this nondescript restaurant what it is. Locals love it and our local host knew everyone that came in the door. It's the kind of a town where people get up from the table and hug friends and acquaintances.
Yet, it's also trendy. One section of the restaurant had high topped tables and a crowd of young twenty- and thirty-somethings sipping wines and enjoying conversation. If we lived in Albany, we'd definitely patronage the place.
For More Information
Many travelers likely will drive to Albany. Flights to the city are also available, arriving at Southwest Georgia Regional Airport; look for the CVB’s information kiosk in the baggage claim area.
However you arrive in Albany, a good first stop is the new Albany Welcome Center (see photo at right*) located in the historic Bridge House, 112 North Front St.
Friendly staff, myriad brochures and exhibits await.
For visitor information, call the Albany Convention & Visitors Bureau at 229-317-4760 or visit www.visitalbanyga.com.
Nestled in the southwestern region of Georgia, Albany is in the midst of farm county, where peanuts and pecans reign.
But it also boasts big-city attractions, a good range of hotels and many family friendly diversions. For those seeking a long weekend getaway while traveling along I-75, or for families seeking an affordable, friendly and activity-filled family reunion location, Albany and the scenic beauty of the Flint River (shown below*) await.
*Photos are owned and copyrighted by Susan J .Young. All rights reserved.
**Photos are used courtesy of the Albany Convention & Visitors Bureau. All rights reserved.