Grace Autry was destined to become an important part of the Gainesville Midland Railroad.
Born in Hoschton in Jackson County, she would watch the short line’s trains coming through town, waving at the engineers, conductors and other crew. The train at that time would run to Winder and Monroe before returning to Gainesville.
Grace would walk the tracks to her aunt’s house, jumping and counting the crossties. She didn’t have any idea at the time that she would eventually work for Gainesville Midland for 36 years, advancing from a clerk keeping track of freight to dispatcher and office trainmaster. One of her jobs was finding the location of all the Midland’s cars and enough engines to keep shipments running on time.
She can cite the railroad’s history from the time it first ran to Belmont and Jefferson June 1, 1883, its first president A.D. Candler, a Gainesvillian who became Georgia governor. Service was extended to Hoschton, Jug Tavern (Winder) and Monroe in 1884. A merger with Walton Railroad took the Midland to Social Circle. Georgia Railroad bought it in 1897, then another group from Savannah that extended service to Athens.
Financial problems caused another sale to Forrest Greene in 1936. Seaboard Airline Railroad acquired the Midland stock June 22, 1959.
Grace, now 92, still has vivid and precious memories. She recalls riding the steam train with longtime engineer Leland Byrd, father of Walter Byrd; he let her operate the engine a short distance, ring its bell and blow its whistle.
Her cousin, Wiley Cronic, ran the “rail bus” from Gainesville to Monroe. He also was conductor on the passenger train from Gainesville to Athens and Gainesville to Monroe. Fare was a penny a mile.
Cronic was full of train stories. A favorite was when the Midland had a reputation for being slow. A young couple got on between Monroe and Gainesville and became impatient when the train seemed to stop at every little crossroads. Finally, the husband approached Cronic and asked him how long it would be before they got to Gainesville.
The conductor replied, “Quite a spell.”
The young man told Cronic his wife was expecting a baby, and Cronic responded that they shouldn’t have gotten on the train with her in that condition.
The father-to-be replied, “She wasn’t that way when we got on board.”
The Gainesville Midland was the last sizable railroad to convert from steam to diesel, Grace says. Steam locomotives belched their black smoke along the line between Gainesville and Athens until June 22, 1959. It had abandoned the 34-mile route from Belmont to Monroe in 1949.
Grace’s office was in the Midland depot at the corner of West Spring and West Academy streets, home of The Arts Council today. She often would look out the windows of the second story and watch crews walking atop the rail cars, switching engines, bells ringing and smoke puffing from their stacks.
It was a sad day for Grace when the steam trains made their final runs. Crowds gathered around the Midland depot in Gainesville to bid goodbye to the steam era.
Others felt the same way about steam’s demise. Myles Godfrey, formerly of Gainesville, wrote in the Barrow Eagle about taking his father, a former railroad man, to see the last steam run between Gainesville and Athens.
“We watched as they fired up the old coal-powered locomotive for the last time and stood in the swirling steam and smoke as it pulled out of the switchyard. But you couldn’t enjoy the beauty and power of the old locomotive as it chugged through town, so we piled into my old pickup and followed it as it made its run down through Belmont and Candler … ”
Godfrey rode ahead of the train and pulled to the side of the tracks to get a better view of it chuffing down the rails. His dad got out and stood beside the tracks waiting for it to come. When it passed, old friends on the train saluted him with a wave and a blast from the whistle.
When his father returned to the pickup truck, Myles noticed him wiping at his face with his hand. He turned to see what was wrong, and his father, who had been quiet the whole time, responded, “Got a cinder in my eye.”
A lot of nostalgic steam railroad fans probably got cinders in their eyes that day.
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 email@example.com. His column publishes weekly.