North Georgia is rich in railroad history, what with efforts in the 1800s to get a main line through Gainesville, trials and tribulations of the Gainesville and Northwestern Railroad into the mountains, the Gainesville Midland, one of the last steam trains in the country, as well as the colorful but troubled Tallulah Falls Railroad from Cornelia to Franklin, N.C.
The 1950s were turning points on railroads throughout the country, and 1959 was a milestone year for trains in this area. On June 23, Engine 209 steamed into Gainesville with two diesel road switch engines and 30 cars of freight. It was the final run for 209, a steam engine that chugged the tracks between Gainesville and Athens for years.
Marvin Westmoreland was at the throttle, and Wiley Morris was fireman. Rail fans from Athens followed the train in a convoy on U.S. 129 and other roads along the Midland tracks. The locomotive now sits in a Gainesville park with a caboose and baggage car at the intersection of West Academy and Jesse Jewell Parkway.
The day after that last 209 trip, diesel engines took over as the Midland became a wholly owned subsidiary of Seaboard Airline Railway, which purchased the 40-mile line for $550,000, and is now part of the CSX system.
In September 1959, what was billed as the last steam run in the state also stopped in Gainesville. The excursion originated in Atlanta, stopped in Athens, but concluded at the Gainesville Midland Depot, a building that still stands and serves as the home of the local Arts Council at the end of West Spring Street.
The train carried more than 600 passengers, some of them from as far away as Miami, New York and California. It started with diesels in Atlanta, but hooked up with steam Engines 203 and 301 in Athens 20 minutes off schedule. That didn’t bother railroad fans, many of whom lined the tracks along the way.
Cameras clicked as the steam engines belched black smoke from their stacks, whistles blew and bells rang. The train picked up passengers in Jefferson, stopped at a water tank before it got to Pendergrass and took on coal at Belmont. In Gainesville, a band played at the station, and Scouts sold boxed chicken to passengers and onlookers.
Also in July 1959, federal Judge Boyd Sloan ruled that the Tallulah Falls Railroad was safe to continue operation.
The railroad, which featured more than 40 high wooden trestles through the North Georgia mountains, had suffered several fatal accidents. Nicknamed by some as the “Total Failure,” the railroad had been in receivership since 1923. The Interstate Commerce Commission had authorized its abandonment in 1933, but the TF continued to run under the ownership of Southern Railway.
The railroad carried passengers to the mountains until 1946, but freight never paid its way, either. It played parts in two movies, “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain,” and “The Great Locomotive Chase.”
Two years after Judge Sloan’s ruling, the Tallulah Falls made its final run March 25, 1961, after an accident.
Also in 1959, the Lula Depot on the Southern Railway line closed its doors. Ed Browning locked up July 15 after serving more than a half century with the company, having worked at Lula off and on over the years. He also had presided over the closing of the depot at White Sulphur, just down the road, and had served in the Gainesville Depot, which remains one of the few in Georgia that continue to operate on the now Norfolk-Southern Railroad as an Amtrak stop.
The Lula closing was part of the trend that shuttered many of the little depots that served railroads throughout this area. Many have begun second or third lives as community centers, museums, craft shops or offices. Gainesville and Toccoa are the only working train depots in this area.
Some of the old steam engines are parked in communities along the old tracks, maintained by railroad fans and serving as a reminder of the days when they pulled carloads of tourists into the mountains, lumber, feed or other freight back and forth along their routes. Engine 208 sits in Winder, and 116 in Jefferson. Engine 203, which made that last steam run to Gainesville, is housed at the Southeastern Railroad Museum in Duluth.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.