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Gainesvillians pushed hard for rail route
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When the Air Line railroad began construction just after the Civil War, Gainesville had fewer than 500 residents, and no houses had been built in 12 years.

The first train reached Gainesville in June 1870, bringing a bunch of Knights Templar who were having a meeting in the town. By the time the railroad reached Charlotte, N.C., 2,500 people made Gainesville home, and 300 new houses had been built. In 1870, farmers sold eight bales of cotton in town; they sold nearly 3,000 in 1872. That's according to an 1873 history of the railroad by its chief engineer, B.Y. Sage.

The Georgia legislature chartered the Air Line railroad in 1856. But disputes among stockholders and proposed stops along the line delayed construction; the legislature didn't help much; the Civil War postponed any progress.

Some thought the new railroad would hurt Atlanta, which already had five lines coming into the city. But Atlantans by a 458-98 vote approved their city council's plan to put up $300,000 in bonds.

Gainesville's share of the cost was $101,000, and its backers included A.M. Cochran, J.W. Davis, W.P. Smith, P. O'Conner, A. Deal, A.J. Smith, James F. Law, A. Whelchel, James D. Rivers, John E. Brown, E.N. Gower and J.E. Redwine. Construction cost from Atlanta to Gainesville was estimated at $900,000.

Just as there was a tug of war over the location of Interstate 85 in Northeast Georgia in modern times, various interests sparred over the route of the prized Air Line railroad. The first survey in 1857 took a southern route through Lawrenceville, Jefferson and Hartwell into South Carolina.

The Gainesville crowd insisted the railroad come within a half mile of its courthouse. However, others wanted the depot to be a distance from the business section at the time, and that is why the Norfolk-Southern depot is where it is today. The closest railroad terminal at the time was in Athens.

An 1858 survey followed what was known as the Peachtree Ridge out of Atlanta, along Hog Mountain to Gainesville, Gillsville and Anderson, S.C. The eventual route followed part of that survey after the war. It went via Lula, Cornelia and Toccoa and into Seneca, S.C., instead of Anderson.

The only work on the railroad before the Civil War was some grading near Gainesville and Hartwell. But the war stopped all work and even disorganized the group financing the line.

In 1866, engineer Sage called all the parties together, and work resumed, though financial problems again delayed it until the group reorganized in 1867. More surveys were done in 1868, bids on grading 20 miles for track were taken, and ground finally broken in April that year.

The first train engine that used what tracks had been laid in September 1869 was "The South Carolina," an old Georgia Railroad switch engine. The first Air Line locomotive to run on the rails was "Dispatch" Oct. 1 that same year. The first train reached Norcross from Atlanta in May 1870. Norcross, named for Jonathon Norcross, a former president of the railroad, at the time consisted of a log cabin and a whisky shop, according to engineer Sage.

The railroad company contracted grading to Gainesville in the fall of 1869, and by December tracks reached Buford. Sage said at the time the "town" consisted of a double log cabin with one end rotted out and occupied by a widow and her five daughters. Buford got its name from Algernon Buford, president of Richmond and Danville Railroad and the Air Line Railroad.

After the train reached Gainesville the next year, contracts were awarded for grading to the Tugaloo River. Work also had begun on the other end of the line from Charlotte to Spartanburg, S.C.

On Aug. 26, 1873, President Buford drove the last spike in the Air Line Railroad at Seneca Bridge in South Carolina.

Sage said the completed railroad ran for 265 miles at a cost of $30,000 per mile or $7.9 million. You could then travel from Atlanta to New York in 41 hours after connecting with other lines. The company that eventually owned the entire route was called Southern Security, later Southern Railway and now Norfolk-Southern.

The railroad inspired names for other communities along the line: Lula and Cornelia, for relatives of railroad promoters, and Air Line.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays. and on