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Johnny Vardeman: It took a while to get the Norfolk Southern Railway to build its Gainesville depot
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

The Norfolk Southern Railway depot that stands at the end of South Main Street in Gainesville has seen plenty of visits from dignitaries, most notably presidents or presidential candidates whistle-stopping, just passing through or making official visits.

Hall Countians campaigned hard for that depot before it was completed in 1913. A wooden building had sufficed on the same spot, apparently since the railroad came in 1871.

The 1903 tornado that struck Gainesville Mill, southeast Gainesville and New Holland heavily damaged the depot at the time. The railroad repaired the depot, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy local leaders. The community continued to ask Southern Railway at the time to provide a more modern building to accommodate passengers arriving in Gainesville or departing for other points.

In 1906-07, the depot was remodeled and enlarged, but the local newspaper declared an entirely new building was needed. The campaign continued in the ensuing years until finally the railroad announced it would start on a fine new building.

Negotiations between city officials and the railroad, however, seemed to get in the way. The railroad wanted Main Street paved, as well as the area around the depot. It also wanted sewer service. The city and Southern finally agreed, and work began in August 1912. The railroad announced it would move the old wooden depot out of the way.

Perhaps Hall Countians were anxious because just a few months earlier the most important people in the U.S. presidential campaign had stopped at the old depot. President W.H. Taft had stopped briefly, as well as New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson and former President Theodore Roosevelt. All were on their way to the Southern Commercial Congress in Atlanta.

The local citizenry certainly wanted to make a good impression on dignitaries passing through, and the old depot wasn’t the best face on Gainesville.

Woodrow Wilson, whose two daughters were born in Gainesville, reminisced on his stop about the good times he had spent in Hall County. “I was very glad to have spent time in Gainesville,” he said. He would become the Democratic nominee for president and defeat Taft and Roosevelt in the 1912 presidential election. Roosevelt was a third party candidate.

In December 1912, Southern Railway announced its new depot “was about ready.” It made the same declaration the following February. The new depot was proclaimed completed in March of that year, but for some reason it wasn’t occupied until June of that year.

As it was being built and even after completed, some in the community still weren’t satisfied, grousing that the new depot wasn’t as large as was promised.

From trains to street cars

The first electric street car ran up Green Street in Gainesville Jan. 24, 1903. It was a momentous time for the city.The development came as entrepreneurs built Dunlap Dam on the Chattahoochee River, another on the Chestatee River and generated enough power to run the street railroad as well as provide electricity in much of the city.

Hall Countians saw the street railroad as the beginning of a new era. While there might have been some apprehension about “outside” interests involved in the enterprise, they nevertheless welcomed what electricity would mean to the community. The Gainesville News even criticized local business people and leaders for not initiating electric power themselves:

“We have been silently sitting by and letting outsiders come here and take advantage of our slothfulness and making use of our most valuable asset. That is all right. They have the enterprise and nerve to tackle these things, and they are doing more for us than we have done for ourselves. We welcome them and wish for them abundant success in their undertaking.”

The paper apparently was referring primarily to A.J. Warner, a Union general in the Civil War and former Ohio congressman who formed North Georgia Electric Co. The lake that formed behind Dunlap Dam was named in his honor.

Before electric street cars came to Gainesville, the cars were pulled by mules or horses. A street railroad company had formed in 1885. Although the electric street car railroad eventually failed in bankruptcy, street cars ran around the city until 1925. Some of the tracks were evident on some streets into the 1950s.

Watch for more local history in this column next Sunday.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville; 770-532-2326; vardeman1956@att.net.

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