RAILS TO PROGRESS: HOW THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE GEORGIA PACIFIC RAILROAD INFLUENCED THE DEVELOPMENT OF CITIES AND TOWNS IN WEST GEORGIA 1870-1900.
CHARLES A. LOTT JR.
Before the railroad came to western Georgia, freight and passengers could only be transported by the labors of man or animal. Rough roads proved damaging to cargo and uncomfortable for travelers on wooden wheeled stagecoaches or horseback. Moving raw materials proved cumbersome, slow, and expensive. The steam engine proved to be one of the most prominent influences in the development of the area. The steel rails made it possible for passengers to travel in comfort, to move freight economically, and provided the necessary impetus to bring industry, development and manufacturing jobs to areas in which gold prospecting had played out and agriculture was the primary means of employment for most area citizens. The rails also brought opportunities for savvy investors and town boosters who used the railroads as devices of speculation to increase property values in relatively isolated regions along the tracks. The following case study of six towns in North Georgia between Atlanta and the Alabama state line will show that local entrepreneurs and “boosters” also played significant roles in the effect of the Georgia Pacific Railway on local communities along its right-of-way.
In his book, The Transportation Revolution, author and historian George W. Taylor contrasted the expense of transatlantic shipping costs versus transportation costs after the cargo was offloaded in America. “In 1816, the Senate reported that one ton of goods from Europe, traveling 3,000 miles, could be shipped for $9; the same shipment could be carried only 30 miles overland in the United States for the same price.” 1 The establishment of American railroads significantly changed that equation. The steam engine and steel rail made astounding contributions to the economy and industrial development of the nation’s economy, and specifically to that of the West Georgia region after 1881. Western Georgia was typical of most rural areas prior to the railroad in terms of movement of freight and passengers. Pack animals, ox and mules teams and wagons were the primary carrier of freight and many times, damaging to cargo over the rough primitive roads. Many people rode on horseback or in cramped stagecoaches, which were slow and uncomfortable for travelers.
The war of 1861-1865 had been devastating to Georgia and the city of Atlanta, which was one of the key cities and last strongholds of the Confederate States of America. Much of Atlanta was destroyed by Union troops in 1865. After 1865, prewar infrastructure of the south, especially that of the railroads, lay in ruins. According to author Maury Kline, “During the period of 1865-1877, known as ‘Reconstruction,’ most of the rail lines were rebuilt or repaired, although the system was not greatly expanded into new areas or were efforts made to consolidate existing roads”.2 Prior to the rail, local towns and comminutes were located near old trails or roads which were mostly through fertile agricultural areas or near available water routes. According to Fannie Mae Davis (p. 153), the Georgia Western and bought and surveyed a right-of-way from Atlanta to Birmingham that was halted by the outbreak of war and what roadbed had been completed was used to drive cattle to market in Atlanta. Davis does not give a date and states that that this information is hearsay. Symbolically rising from the ashes, the rebuilding Atlanta needed steel from Birmingham, Alabama for its new buildings and bridges. There was a need to construct a rail line to transport the bulky and heavy materials and this presented an economic opportunity for savvy investors of the time. 3 Today, there is a renewed interest in local histories. According to the State of Georgia Heritage Tourism Handbook, “Tourism, the world’s largest industry, is essential to a Community’s economic vitality, sustainability, and profit-ability.”4The Douglas County Comprehensive Plan, October 2004 specifically documents the time period of the inception of an east-west rail corridor. “The idea for a railroad from Atlanta to Birmingham was conceived well before the civil war, yet it was many years before it became a reality. Work was begun on the railroad as track lying commenced in November 1881, and the track was laid to the city of Douglasville by April 1882. Villa Rica was reached in July 1882, and the line was completed between Atlanta and Birmingham by November of 1883.”5 The rail route closely followed the “Old Federal Road” as it passed through western Georgia. “It (the Federal Road) crossed the Chattahoochee at Buzzard Roost, on to Lick Skillet, Deer Lick (Lithia Springs), Vansant Place, Skinned Chestnut (Douglasville), Hix Town (Villa Rica), Hart Town, Buckhorn, Wolf Pen (Bremen), Possum Snout (Tallapoosa) and on to Jacksonville, Alabama.”6
Many counties and towns have published books or pamphlets that detail how communities were formed and the stories of the first citizens and their roles in these endeavors. Common to most of these is the documentation of how the railroads were instrumental in the development of these areas. As the reconstruction era (1865-1877) ended, the period of the “New South” brought a sense of expansion and industrialization to the south.
The Route of the Georgia Pacific Railway from the 1883 Cram Map of Georgia. Expansion of the railroads enticed northern investors as well as northern immigrants to the south looking for new opportunities to make money as well as a place to settle to enjoy the warm climate of the region.7 Writers and historians have examined the roles of railroads and the money brokers who were behind these organizations during the formative years of 1850-1910.8 How did the building of the Georgia Pacific railroad influence the development of these cities and towns during the 1870-1900 era?
According to the Railroad History website, the Georgia Pacific Railway Company was chartered on December 31, 1881, and took advantage of the economic opportunity that a rail line along the Old Federal Road connecting Atlanta, Georgia with Birmingham, Alabama presented. “Constructed between 1882 and 1889, The G.P.R.R. connected Atlanta and Greenville Mississippi.”9 This paper focuses on the towns that sprang up between Atlanta and the Georgia-Alabama boundary on the rail line, specifically between Lithia Springs, and Tallapoosa, the westernmost Georgia town on the G.P.R.R. line.
For those people wishing to relocate to the Southern states, the new railroads made long distance travel affordable, comfortable, and economical. Writing in The Georgia Historical Quarterly of March 1942, Author C. B. Tebeau examined the state of the Southern region of the United States during and immediately after the Civil War. According to the author, “The number of railways projected in Georgia is so great as to remind one of the periods of railway mania elsewhere of unfortunate memory.”10 The railroads made manufacturing and industries more viable, and these sprang up readily in cities that were served by the rail. Immigrants found employment in job in the South that would have been available on in more developed Northern cites prior to the railroad’s arrival in small Southern towns that bordered the rail.
The railroad’s influence was felt in every aspect of Southern life, so much so that its development through west Georgia came to be known as a ‘boom time’ of economic development.11 In the 1870’s, just the mention of new railroad surveys caused flurry of activity that was in many ways, similar to that of gold rush fever. Speculators themselves fueled these rumors, primarily in newspaper articles and editorials to increase the value of their investment lands, as well as schemes to raise capital for future rail endeavors. 12 The history of rail development in western Georgia was not all favorable, however. The failed enterprises led to many local residents feeling swindled out of life savings as well as deflated hopes for local prosperity. In June 1871, with the rail line ending at Carrollton, the residents of Bowdon collectively “borrowed twenty thousand dollars and paid it over to the company” to have the rail continued to their community. “Bowdon property immediately arose in the estimation of everybody.” The rail was not built, and the repayment of the loan proved disastrous for many citizens and led many to bankruptcy. 13
The major schools of thought regarding the railroads influence in the development of West Georgia cities and towns are reflected in the historiography relating to these events. John F. Stover argued in 1955, that the Northern railroad investors during the reconstruction period (1865-1877) were detrimental to the South’s economic recovery. Stover wrote, “The late 1860’s and early 1870’s were also years of intense and profitable railroad activity by carpetbaggers and their white and colored collaborators.”14 The author indicates that the influence of these investors into the railroads and manufacturing in the South was ended by the third quarter of the 19th century, “ By the early 1870’s practically all the political railroad spoilsmen had left the South. They left behind a heritage of poorly constructed, financially weak railroads not prepared for the financial problems of the time.”15 These ‘financial problems’ referred to by Stover was a decimated infrastructure and manufacturing capacity as a result of the drawn out wartime activity in the region. However, other historians have written differing points of view regarding the role of outside investment into the rail and manufacturing recovery in the south and how these relate to town development.
Historian and Professor Maury Klein described the immediate post-bellum southern railroad situations in his article, “The Strategy of Southern Railroads”, published in 1968. After the war, Southern infrastructure mostly lay in ruins and most manufacturing capability of the region was severely crippled. Klein wrote of the power brokers regarding not only railroad development, but also the location and development of towns and cities along the tracks as well. “The men who dominated southern railroads immediately after the war were for the most part, the group that had controlled them before the war,”16 Before the war, the railroads were local ventures that were keenly competitive and resistant to linking to other lines. These were predominately isolated enterprises backed by local citizens. Southern investors rebuilt rail lines; however, northern investors who invested huge sums of capital into the rail system soon bought out these roads. The newly joined lines created a network of rails and connected the South to other regions of the country.17 As these rail lines were built and allowed economical transportation of raw materials, manufacturing plants were constructed and small towns flourished in the wake of these enterprises. These manufacturing operations brought jobs for workers in those industries, but also economic opportunity for the agricultural communities as well.
Other publications focused on Northern money and expertise with hastening the development of cities and towns in the western Georgia region after the Civil War. Author Wilber W. Caldwell discussed many facets of railroad expansion and how the rail lines’ influence was felt in western Georgia during this period. In his book, The Courthouse and the Depot, a Narrative Guide to Railroad Expansion and its impact on Public Architecture in Georgia 1833-1910, Caldwell states “Beginning with the Panic of 1873, a series of bankruptcies had cleared this feast from the table set by local governments, leaving a tempting array of leftovers to be gobbled up by hungry Northern Capitalists who saw sweeping opportunities for what was amount to a second conquest of the American South.”18 Quite the opposite John Stover argues that, “By the early 1870’s practically all the political railroad spoilsmen had left the South.” According to Caldwell, Northern investors took advantage of a struggling Southern rail enterprise and infused money and expertise to influence the development of towns and cities along the railroad’s path. 19 When the railroad was completed, these towns began to update many of the buildings along the rail that were visible to passengers on the train. Speaking of Douglasville in particular, Caldwell writes, “The arrival of the Georgia Pacific in 1882 brought the usual clamor regarding a new courthouse. In 1884, the grand jury suggested that the old courthouse, which was only a few years old, ‘was in bad shape and perhaps dangerous’ and recommend that the building be ‘bolted and banded without delay.”20 The railroad’s influence in local politics and the ways that communities perceived themselves changed when the railroad arrived. Gone were the days of wooden storefronts. Impressive brick structures soon dominated the facades of the buildings facing the newly constructed railroads.
Stephanie Aylworth also wrote of the railroad’s effects on local town development along the tracks and how these influenced the local economies. “The rise of Southern railroad towns and the shift to cash-crop agriculture were mutually reinforcing trends that fostered a spirit of boosterisim among local businessmen and professionals.”21 Aylworth agrees with that of Caldwell in that both show the connection between the railroad’s arrival and the cities and towns replacing older wooden structures with new brick storefronts along the tracks.
Mississippi State University Professor Roy. V. Scott, in his article “American Railroads and Agricultural Extension, 1900-1914, A Study in Railway Developmental Techniques,” wrote about the benefits that the rail provided for the towns where the rails were laid and would seem to support both Aylworth’s and Caldwell’s appraisals of the impact of railroads on local town development. Additionally, Scott included the impact on agriculture that the railroad affected. “Railroads were far, the most important business group involved in the (agricultural) movement” Scott wrote. 22 Railroads meant inexpensive shipping of crops to market, as well as reducing the cost of equipment purchased by the farmers who had access to the depots. These developments allowed farmers to plant larger plots and raise more commodities that were direct results of railroad’s locations in these small towns.
The predominant factor in the location and development of towns and cities along the east-west corridor from Atlanta to the Georgia-Alabama state line was the influence of the railroad’s location through the region. However, local citizens also played instrumental roles that have been overlooked in many instances. Every town had local advocates of the rail who were known as ‘boosters’ who used the railroad to further expansion of their communities and business ventures. Many of these men were politically connected on the state level and used their considerable influence to further their entrepreneurial strategies. 23 In order of westward expansion from Atlanta, the rail route went through the areas that are now Lithia Springs, Douglasville, Villa Rica, Temple, Bremen, and Tallapoosa. Each town has similarities and differences worth examining, both before the railroad and how the constructed railroad affected the community. This article contributes to understanding of the development of these cities and towns by examining and comparing the particular circumstances of each. The case study of six west Georgia towns will provide insights regarding how the railroad’s location influenced each of them. There are recognizable patterns in the development of these towns that can be brought to light. Evidence from period newspaper articles, maps that depict rail lines, both antebellum and postbellum, photographs, local histories, books, and journal articles will be utilized as primary and secondary sources to show that the involvement of local citizens has been underestimated in the previous historiography concerning the development of towns and cities along the Georgia Pacific Rail Road after its completion to Birmingham, Alabama.
The first city this study will examine is Lithia Springs. In her book, Douglas County Georgia, from Indian Trail to I-20, local historian Fannie Mae Davis, presents many factors that were key to the development in the cities in Douglas County along the rail line. Located thirty miles west of Atlanta, Lithia Springs in the 1880’s became one of the most popular and influential young cities in West Georgia.
Lithia Springs as a community predated the arrival of the rail. Both Indians and early white settlers used the springs, according to Davis, for its medicinal qualities. The early settlement grew up around the home of prominent early businessman John C. Bowden who, Davis wrote, “became owner of the springs and much of the surrounding land. Bowden built a comfortable home and around 1850 the post office, designated the ‘Salt Springs Post Office’ was located in his home.”24 The commercial potential for the springs began in earnest when Atlanta businessman James Watson identified their medicinal potential. Davis describes the significant trip in 1881 when Watson made a stagecoach trip from Atlanta to Douglasville to visit his mother. On his return trip to Atlanta, Watson became too ill to proceed and took refuge at the home of Bowden and remained there several days to recuperate before proceeding home. “During his stay, he drank the salty spring water and became convinced that the water was more than incidental to his recovery.”25 Watson carried a container of the water to Atlanta and had its content chemically analyzed, which proved to be “rich in sodium bi-carbonate and many other ‘healthful minerals’.26 Watson was already an established entrepreneur with large developments in Atlanta and saw the potential for a resort and hotel near the springs as a commercial venture.
Bowden was fortunate that while he began plans for his venture, principals of the Georgia Pacific railroad was making plans as well and surveying the right of way for tracks near the newly planned resort. Watson, according to Davis, “readily saw the commercial and recreational possibilities that would be opened by the railroad.”27 Through an act of the Georgia legislature, Salt Springs became an incorporated city in 1882. Although Bowden did not influence the G.P.R.R. surveyors, he was indeed fortunate in that the railroads location was relatively close to the salt springs.
John. C. Bowden sold 700 acres of land to a new development company led by Watson, E.W. Marsh, and Hugh Inman, but retained the water and mineral rights. Bowden began the Bowden Lithia Bottling Company, and in 1884, began the first commercial sales of the mineral rich water. 28 The subsequent development of the Sweetwater Park Hotel, one of the largest in the eastern United States, met the need for more visitor access to the area, and the Salt Springs and Bowden Lithia Shortline Railroad was built to carry passengers and freight from the G.P.R.R. Lithia Springs Depot to the Sweetwater Park Hotel.
The Sweetwater Park Hotel c.1900
Photo: Douglas County Bank Federal Slide Collection The Weekly Star newspaper, printed in nearby Douglasville, included in a story about the hotel, that the company will “have a new engine and cars on the narrow gauge to the Springs just as soon as the money and energy can get them there.”29 The narrow gauge rail connected Salt Springs and the recently completed Georgia Pacific track. The train, according to Davis, “pulled a car over a ‘dummy’ line carrying passengers (from the Lithia railroad station to the new hotel) for five cents.”30 The train carried cargoes of bottled and packaged Bowden Mineral Water to ship on the new rails as well as passengers arriving and departing to the resort. Wilber W. Caldwell, writing of the connector railroad between the G.P.R.R. and the Sweetwater Park Hotel, carried “a host of the nation’s wealthiest families including Vanderbilts, Astors, and four U.S. presidents” from the depot in Lithia Springs to the Sweetwater hotel. 31
Steam engine and passenger cars en route from Lithia Springs Depot to the Sweetwater Park Hotel c.1895. Photo: Douglas County Federal Bank slide collection
The town along the G.P.R.R., originally Salt Springs, became known as Bowden Lithia Springs and in the late 1880’s the name was shortened to ‘Lithia Springs’. The city of Lithia Springs grew as a direct consequence of the influx of passengers and cargo to the rail depot on the G.P.R.R. in the center of the new city. Town boosters, such as John C. Bowden were instrumental in crafting a city on the new rail line when the opportunity was presented to develop the area for commercial purposes.