By Amy Wenk
The same week contractor Astra Group began erosion control at Morgan Falls Overlook Park, two archaeologists sank their shovels into its history and found evidence that the cabin there could date to the 1840s.
For five days, Matt Tankersley and Justin Byrnes of Stone Mountain-based New South Associates conducted a historical assessment of the William Power cabin site and two stacked-stone chimneys, one standing and the other a pile of rubble.
The Sandy Springs Conservancy funded the $10,000 study, which commenced July 27, six days after a reluctant City Council granted permission. The city had no plans to conduct such an assessment before a citizen uproar about the site’s preservation.
“I’m really glad we could document it,” said Linda Bain, the executive director of the Sandy Springs Conservancy.
Using shovels, screens, steel probes and GPS technology, the archaeologists scoured the riverfront property around the chimney and found proof of its past. The land is thought to have belonged to area pioneer Joseph Power, who deeded the property to son William Power in 1839.
Items unearthed include two 1893 Indian-head pennies, two tiny children’s toys, architectural hardware like nails and a mother-of-pearl button.
But the best connection to the Power past was discovered when the archaeologists excavated the builder’s trench beside the fallen chimney. When constructing masonry features, builders dug a hole larger than needed, then filled in dirt around the structure. Artifacts found in those trenches likely date to when the chimney was built.
“At the very base of the pier, we found this ceramic,” said Tankersley, holding up a small piece of white pottery with delicate designs. “It’s brown, stippled transfer print, which began production about 1828 and gained in popularity in the 1870s.”
But the patterns of the 1870s were typically garish and broad, so he estimated the piece dated from 1840 to 1850 because the patterns were “fairly reserved.”
The ceramic was the only diagnostic item found in such a context. No excavation was performed at the base of the standing chimney.
“We’ve got the added conundrum of a building that has been occupied probably until the ’50s,” Tankersley said. The area today is covered in automobile debris and remnants of house renovations over the years.
“Despite the continual habitation and the dumping, there’s still a lot of information to be had from the existing features,” he said, like the standing chimney, which he called an “incredible piece of construction.”
The structure was handmade from local stone and bonded in a clay-and-lime mortar.
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of differences between the fallen one and the standing one, other than the addition of the modern brick cap, which might have contributed to it falling down,” Tankersley said.
As for the structural integrity of the chimney, he said, “It’s a bit canted to the east, but that settling occurred a long time ago.”
The stability is shown by how vertical the modern concrete seal remains as it runs up the side of the chimney.
“That chimney has been in that position for a long time,” Tankersley said. “It’s outlasted most of the stuff out here, which is somewhat a testament to the care that the builders put into it.”
Byrnes, a research analyst who crouched by the chimney all day July 30 to map its southern profile, also seemed to trust the chimney’s strength.
“I work under it, so if it were to fall, I guess I’d be the first to know about it,” he said. “I’m not too scared.”
The archaeologists also found proof of a ferry crossing on the site and are consulting the National Park Service to find the corresponding trail on the Cobb County side of the river. Bain said the ferry likely crossed at the Gold Branch unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.
“That is a pretty important element of this house because fords and ferries in this part of Fulton County were important transportation nodes,” Tankersley said. “When it came to daily life, this is how commerce and how people moved about. You can tell by the place names around here — Johnson Ferry, Shallowford and Powers Ferry — they’ve always retained that importance, that significance.”
There was no luck, however, in locating the original privy, which often provides historical clues. Other questions involve the symmetry and scale of the house. And the archaeologists still must test mortar and soil samples.
A final report on the history, architecture and landscape of the site, as well as the approximate age of the chimneys, will be complete Aug. 12. The city requires a copy by Aug. 15.
The report will include historical information collected by Jack Pyburn of Lord, Aeck & Sargent during a $3,600 study the conservancy also funded.
Dist. 2 Councilwoman Dianne Fries said the council should decide the chimney’s fate at its Sept. 15 meeting.
“It’s interesting to see how they are going through this and getting their perspective on it,” said Fries, who visited the site July 30. “I look forward to just seeing what else they uncover and getting the report.”