Here's How the Railroad Built our Town
The Georgia Pacific Railroad helped to birth Douglasville and New South Boosterism.
I was walking through O'Neal Plaza the other day as a train was rolling though the downtown commercial district. I stood there and watched it for a moment. All around me cars were coming and going and pedestrians were walking back and forth on the sidewalk. I seemed to be the only one that noticed the hundreds of tons of steel, power, and freight rushing past us. The only ones that might have had the train on their mind were the drivers in their cars along Campbellton and Broad impatiently waiting to cross the track and get on with their trip.
Seriously,do we as citizens of Douglasville think about the trains that roll down the nineteen miles of track from one end of the county to another each day? Yes, of course we had the train on our mind back in January when it derailed–for a few days. It made headlines, the mess was cleaned up and then other newsworthy items took over. Occasionally, like me you might hear the sound of the train whistle late at night even if you live a few miles away from town, but I would imagine the train is not on your mind often.
Forty-five years ago, however, trains were very much on my mind. My family had moved to a location along Highway 29 in Red Oak–a lovely Craftsman style home with a huge front porch and a very clear view of the railroad tracks that ran through our front yard. Yes, a train ran through my front yard not more than seventy-five feet from my front door. Even at my young age I had seen trains before, and I realized what they were used for, but having one that close to where I played with my dolls and rode my bike was a little disconcerting.
Actually, the proper word to describe my feelings about the train was “terrifying”. Back in those days children actually played outside the majority of the time, and I was no different. Within days of moving to that house I developed a keen sense of hearing. I could hear the three or four trains that barreled down the tracks during the day several miles off way before my parents or my sister. If I even thought I heard a slight whistle sound I would drop my dolls or hop off my bike and run at breakneck speed to get into the house. Once Mom and Dad realized why I would come tearing into the house like that they were merely amused. They would smile and say, “Oh, I guess the train is coming.” Within a few minutes sure enough they could hear the train and then experience it as the noise got louder and louder until it blared past the house shaking and rattling everything including the windows and even our hearts inside our bodies.
Gradually, I got used to the noise and the fear went away, but for a few years the train was very much on my mind. I remembered this as I stood watching the train rush through the middle of town, and I also couldn’t help but think about Douglasville in the early days when the train was new, when the town was new, and how persuading the railroad to complete the tracks through Douglasville was paramount to the town’s growth and survival.
Let’s go back in time to the year 1915:
The Georgia Pacific train headed west out of Atlanta bound for Birmingham, Alabama, one of the leading industrial centers in the South. About 27 miles west of Atlanta, passengers caught site of a relatively modern railroad town, stretched along both sides of the track. Horses pulled wagons filled with cotton bales on the road running parallel to the railroad, headed west to the cotton warehouses of the town... Slowing to stop at the…station, the train passed a large brick cotton mill to the left, and impressive two-story building with large windows. The loud clattering of spinning frames producing cotton yarn escaped the open windows, providing ventilation for the busy mill workers scurrying around inside.
The train stopped at the railroad station, located near the mill, stopping to release passengers and picking up new ones, loading freight to carry westward to Birmingham and beyond, delivering mail, and dropping off goods for residents of the town and countryside. Merchants sent men, in wagons, to pick up plows for farmers, ready-to-wear clothing and furniture for the town residents, and a variety of foods for sale at the local grocery stores. Once the train started up again, it began to gather speed as it passed by a solid row of brick store fronts to the left, several blocks long, featuring both one- and two-story buildings often with stylish wooden or corbelled brick cornices and even a cast-iron front.
Men stood outside the stores, visiting under the front porches that extended the length of the street façade and stopping ever so briefly to watch the train pass by. Women wandered the covered walkways shopping for their families headed to the grocery store to buy food and stopping by the millinery to check out the newest hats.
Businessmen in the stores glanced out in expectation of the supplies that would soon be coming their way. After several blocks of brick commercial facades and ornate brick Italianate courthouse broke the pattern of the storefronts, with its tall clock tower dominating the town landscape. Soon, the train picked up speed and headed out of town, surrounded by the cotton fields, which fueled the town’s industry.
The above explanation regarding how Douglasville looked and what was going on in the immediate years following the installation of the railroad was written by Stephanie Aylworth, Douglasville's Main Street Manager, based on her extensive research regarding how our town was formed. Her description accurately shows how the unique combination of the railroad, a cotton mill and a group of men who followed the political and cultural ideology of New South booterism helped to create our town.
Aylworth maintains the espousal of the New South creed reshaped villages into railroad towns, revitalized local economies, and resurrected the cotton mill industry. She states, “The promotion of the railroad and the textile industry served as a focal point for the New South brand of ideology that evolved in Georgia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries…..The city of Douglasville, Georgia from 1880 to 1910, exemplified everything that New South boosters claimed to need to remedy the South’s post-Civil War economic stagnation (including railroad access).”
This South Cobb Patch article quotes attorney Doug Davis, South Cobb's 'unofficial historian' stating, "The thing to remember about the railroads is that each line was usually owned by a single company. By the 1850s, different companies had lines through Atlanta going north, south and east, but they didn't have any going west. Plans to change this existed as early as 1854, with the Georgia-Western Railroad.”
The Civil War interrupted their work and sometime during Reconstruction the Georgia Western Railroad went bankrupt, but by the beginning of the war grading had occurred from Atlanta to a point two miles west of Skint Chestnut/Douglasville per some sources.
Numerous attempts were made in the 1870s to revive the interest in the railroad but the cleared right-of-way just sat idle though Fannie Mae Davis’ history of Douglas County advises local stories existed about farmers using the right-of-way to move cattle from Birmingham to Atlanta for market.
While there were fits and starts during the 1870s with the railroad there was plenty going on regarding the formation of Douglas County and the city of Douglasville. The county was created in 1870 with the
Georgia General Assembly calling for an election for citizens to vote on a location for a county seat. The election resulted in a highly contested outcome that ended up in a law suit that went all the way
to the Georgia Supreme Court. The whole story can be found in my column titled Journey to a Town Center, however the organizers of the town continued their plans as best they could, and Douglasville was finally established by the General Assembly as the county seat on February 25, 1875.
In June, 1881, the Georgia Western Railroad’s few assets were sold to ex-Confederate General John B. Gordon and his associates who reorganized the company as the Georgia Pacific Railroad per The Heritage of Douglas County: 1870-2002 published by the Douglas County Genealogy Society.
It only took two months for the Georgia Pacific to actually get to work. The Weekly Star, Douglasville’s paper at the time, advised on August 23, 1881, “On Tuesday, one hundred and twenty-five hands arrived here for the purpose of beginning work on the Georgia Pacific. Yesterday morning, they began preparing the graded portion of the railroad for the reception of crossties and iron. The men are from Virginia…. This looks like business.”
Business most certainly was the correct word!
Check out next week’s column to continue the story of Douglasville and the railroad.