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Johnny Vardeman: Autos silenced familiar bells of streetcars
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Imagine yourself in the early 1900s in Gainesville when rarely seen automobiles were novelties. Horses and buggies, mules and wagons mostly got people around.

Streets and roads were dirt, dusty in the summer, mud mires in the rainy seasons. Macadamized roadways, essentially covered with crushed stone, were the most modern at the time, but less than ideal and few and far between.

The most affluent residents were still building their homes on Green Street, while other popular residential areas were just off the downtown square, toward Brenau College, West Broad, down Bradford and Main streets south of the square.

Atlanta had been in the streetcar business since the 1870s, though it would be another decade before they would run on electricity rather than steam, mules or horses.

Indeed, Gainesville had a horse-or-mule drawn system that ran a couple of miles as early as 1890.

But when entrepreneur A.J. Warner and others started talking about an electric streetcar system in Gainesville, people were both excited and skeptical. It began two decades of popular service, sometimes tainted with troubles.

North Georgia Electric Co.’s first car carried passengers Jan. 24, 1903. It was packed with company, city and county officials. It was such an occasion that speeches and celebrations broke out after the first ride. The route ran from the railroad depot to the square and out to Brenau. E.C. Kerr and A.L. Frye were the first motormen; Howard Smith and E.B. Bosworth were the first conductors.

By March, tracks were being used out Green Street, and by June they would expand to what we know now as Riverside Drive to Riverside Military Academy and Chattahoochee Park.

The Chattahoochee Park route was most popular because Warner had built a dam on the Chattahoochee River and formed a lake that carried his name. It was a popular recreation spot, and the streetcars were busy, especially on weekends, people hopping on at various stops to ride to the park.

Not everybody was happy, however. B.F. Taylor built a fence across the street in front of his Gainesville Cotton Oil Mill to keep the streetcars from operating there, claiming it was his private property. The city and the electric company eventually resolved the dilemma, with Taylor agreeing to let the cars through.

There had been a brief tiff with city officials insisting tracks out Green Street be laid in the middle of the street instead of to one side, as the streetcar people preferred. The city won that argument.

Two physicians, M.M. Ham and E.P. Ham, objected to the tracks coming so close to their property at the corner of West Washington and Main streets on the square. They even filed an injunction against the streetcars, and Judge J.J. Kimsey in Cleveland dispatched a relay of horses to Gainesville with his order to grant it temporarily. The matter was resolved, however, when the Hams sold their property to Dr. J.W. Bailey and J.H. Daniel.

The streetcar system went into bankruptcy and changed hands over the years, eventually ending up with Georgia Railway and Power Co., predecessor of today’s Georgia Power Co.

Nevertheless, streetcars chugged along for 20 years, their bells announcing their coming along routes through the city. As streets began to be paved and automobiles became more numerous, streetcars suffered. Residents complained, too, that the system’s equipment was outdated, and tracks messed up the streets.

In early 1924, the power company warned it was planning to put the brakes on the system. The people protested. The Gainesville News fussed, “It has put up with out-of-date streetcar equipment, poor schedules and torn up streets along its lines without a murmur. It submitted to the abandonment of Chattahoochee Park (closed to the public), one of nature’s prettiest playgrounds and recreation points without complaint,” noting that tourists used the service in addition to local residents.

Merchants complained they would lose business from thousands of residents, especially those in the Pacolet mill villages who depended on streetcars for transportation into town. Riverside Military Academy would be isolated, as well as those who had built homes along Riverside Drive.

Mass meetings protested the power company’s proposed abandonment of the line, urging instead improvement of equipment, service and an expansion of routes. The power company countered that ridership had declined with the advent of the automobile, with 1,000 riders per day at an average fare of 8 cents.

The back-and-forth continued for several months, but early in 1925, the Gainesville News intoned, “The old streetcar bell has ceased ringing in Gainesville, perhaps forever and aye. The era of the buzz wagon has been the finish of the streetcar system ...” The equipment was sold and the tracks scrapped, although some of them remained visible on Gainesville streets for years.

A romantic era in Gainesville had passed.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.