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Column: Gainesville railroad had a rough route to ride
Johnny Vardeman

The Gainesville and Northwestern Railroad, which ran from Gainesville to Robertstown in White County, got off to a rough start.

First, it didn’t look like the train would ever leave the station. In the early 1900s, Byrd-Matthews Lumber Co. was plotting to cut the rich timberlands in the mountains. But they had to have a way to haul lumber to market. So somewhat of a competition began to build a railroad that would eventually connect with the Southern Railway.

Hall County leaders wanted the line to connect to the Gainesville Midland and the Southern, which already operated in Gainesville. But other places on the Southern route also were considering building a connection from the mountains.

Hall Countians in favor of the new railroad campaigned for it amid some opposition locally and along the proposed route. They had to raise money to finance it, and they finally did.

Southern Railway wasn’t entirely happy with it, apparently not wanting Gainesville Midland to cut into its freight business. Southern was so upset that when the new Gainesville and Northwestern crossed its line at New Holland, it went to extreme measures to prevent it.

At 5 a.m. on a Sunday in June 1912, Southern unloaded a crew that started tearing up the Gainesville and Northwestern’s track at its crossing. When G&NW officials were notified, they called the sheriff out on them. The sheriff arrested 10 of the workers and put a stop to the damage, which already was considerable. A judge issued an injunction against Southern.

Gainesville and Northwestern then sent a crew out to repair the damage. Word got out that Southern, despite the court order, would send armed workers out that Sunday night to finish their work of tearing up G&NW’s rails. Sheriff’s deputies were posted at the crossing, and nothing happened. 

However, when they went for breakfast the next morning, sure enough, Southern sent an engine and caboose loaded with workers. But the sheriff stopped them in their tracks, so to speak, and the courts eventually intervened to work out a settlement.

The G&NW was plagued with problems, several derailments and floods that washed out trestles. When a flood soaked Northeast Georgia in July 1916, the trestle over the Chattahoochee River at Clarks Bridge was destroyed. It was the third time rising waters had caused the replacement of a trestle at that site. Another trestle in White County was damaged in the same storm.

That caused the railroad to strand trains near Helen and Gainesville until new trestles could be built.

Despite its early troubles, the railroad prospered for a while hauling both freight and passengers between Gainesville and Robertstown. Three locomotives, seven freight cars and two passenger cars were operating in 1917. When the lumber business declined in the 1920s, the railroad’s fate was sealed as passenger service and less freight to haul weren’t enough to keep it afloat.

The mile-and-a-half rail between Helen and Robertstown was abandoned in 1928, and the rest of the line to Gainesville in 1934. Some Floridians bought what was left for scrap, and it is said it went to Japan, which might have used it in weapons during the war against the United States during the 1940s.

Gainesville Midland trivia

Before its depot was built at the corner of West Spring and Grove streets (now West Academy), Gainesville Midland Railroad offices were in the old Presbyterian Church on what was then Grove Street. 

That building later was sold to Myrtle Street Methodist Church, which became Second Methodist Church before becoming St. Paul United Methodist Church at the corner of West Washington and West Academy streets today. The old Presbyterian church, which the Methodists had occupied, was destroyed in the 1936 tornado.

Levi Prater built the Gainesville Midland Depot for $9,000 in the summer of 1914. The Gainesville and Northwestern Railroad also had offices in the depot. It is now the Smithgall Arts Center, home of The Arts Council of Gainesville. 

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or His column publishes weekly.