The Way We Were: Hugh Hamilton – Augusta's mayor of the 1950s – moved city forward

·3 min read
Augusta Mayor Hugh Hamilton relaxes in his office.
Augusta Mayor Hugh Hamilton relaxes in his office.

Most of Augusta's civic focus over the past century took shape in the 1950s, and the mayor during most of that formative decade was Hugh L. Hamilton.

Well-known then, and little-known today, the bespectacled Methodist and family businessman had no interest in higher office and no inclination to back down in civic debates. Longtime political reporter Margaret Twiggs called him a "scrapper."

He was Augusta's youngest mayor ever – 31 when elected – and got the office by accident, an auto accident actually, involving then-front-runner Dr. Will Jennings.

With Jennings out of the race, Augusta's Independent Party scrambled in 1951 to find a substitute and settled on Hamilton, then a young City Council member.

Using a younger person's energy and political persuasion, Hamilton campaigned in all the city's wards and won... and almost immediately, his political opponents tried to get him out of office.

A city councilman named A.O. Walker went to court, insisting Hamilton's election as mayor was illegal because he had been a seated city councilman when he ran, and state law prohibited someone from holding both a council and mayor post.

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It seems like political quibbling, but newspaper clippings on the issue fill up half the Hugh Hamilton file in The Chronicle archives. The state law was unclear and the case ended up in the state Supreme Court, which eventually favored Hamilton's election.

As mayor he got results by prodding and rewarding members of the City Council to deliver what he wanted. He was not a go-along-to-get-along politician.

He expanded the city, mostly with the annexation of suburbs such as Forest Hills and Kings Woods. He saw the city population grow. He saw new business come in.

There were water projects, sewer projects, paving projects.

He was forthright, clear and forceful in his communications.

He did not shy away from what he thought needed to be done. He pushed through the Gordon Highway extension that cut what we now call "Olde Towne" in half.

Using the existing Fifth Street Bridge and Fifth Street itself as the route would not only cost more, it would disrupt city life. He made speeches. He wrote letters, and he brought in state highway engineers to explain the project. The route was completed.

Mayor Hamilton handles a shovel at a groundbreaking
Mayor Hamilton handles a shovel at a groundbreaking

Hamilton also stood up for the city's reputation, demanding a public apology from journalist Dorothy Kilgallen for her unfavorable Good Housekeeping Magazine article on Augusta and its problems with illegal gambling.

After two terms (and still a young man) he left office in 1958 went back to work in the family bag business. That was where he stayed for 13 years, quietly helping others get elected. In 1971, however, they talked him into again running for City Council and he did, and he won, picking up where he left off. He complained about the paving of city streets, and he spoke out about the use of city finances.

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In 1972, he was encouraged to run again for mayor, he did and he lost in a runoff to Lewis A. "Pop" Newman. Although many were surprised that he lost an election, Hamilton congratulated Newman and vowed to work with him.

That did not go so well, as old Mayor Hamilton and new Mayor Newman argued for the next year over some of the smallest issues, including membership in political clubs.

Then in January, Hamilton, 53, went to see his doctor and died in the physician's office of a heart attack.

The Chronicle said goodbye in a glowing editorial which concluded with the belief that the "results of his career and of his outgoing character will live long in the memory of this city."

It didn't turn out that way.

Bill Kirby has reported, photographed and commented on life in Augusta and Georgia for 45 years.

This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: Augusta's youngest mayor – Hugh Hamilton – moved city ahead in 1950s