The Gainesville Midland Railroad, now part of CSX Railroad, from Gainesville to Athens, has a storied history, and it has some stories in its history.
Wiley Cronic, who worked on the railroad for many years, said when he was fairly new to the job, Gus Clark, a senior conductor, came to tell him there was a woman who was in labor on the train. When they stopped in Pendergrass, they handed her off to depot agent Aaron Marlowe. He hunted down a doctor who delivered the baby. Cronic said the depot agent never forgave them for dropping the pregnant woman off at Pendergrass.
When they asked the woman why she ever boarded the train in her condition, she is said to have replied, "I wasn't in this condition when I got on," implying the Midland wasn't known for its speed.
Pendergrass actually was put on the map by the Midland. The little village was known as Garden Valley before the Gainesville, Jefferson and Southern Railroad, later known as the Gainesville Midland, came through and built a depot, and named it for Frank Pendergrass, whose crews laid the track.
The 1910 Gainesville High School graduating class's commencement speaker missed the ceremony not because the Midland was too slow; rather it never got to Gainesville from Athens.
The Rev. M.L. Troutman, an Athens minister who in 1904 had pastored Gainesville's First Methodist Church, was scheduled to deliver the commencement address on a Sunday morning at Gainesville's First Baptist Church. His train was to leave Athens at 7:10 that morning and arrive in Gainesville in plenty of time for the address.
Troutman became nervous when there was no sign of a train being made up by 8 o'clock. He and others with their Sunday special $1 round-trip tickets milled around the depot, getting anxious about catching the train. They finally were told that water had leaked out of the boiler of the steam engine the night before. There wasn't even enough water to move the train to a tank where it could be filled.
When they told the minister they couldn't guarantee they would get the train started in time to meet his schedule, Troutman began looking for alternative transportation. The congregation and graduates already were making their way to church in Gainesville.
Troutman did engage a motor car for the rocky ride to Gainesville on unpaved roads, but it was less than satisfactory as its tires tired out before reaching its destination. He finally arrived as the commencement service was winding down.
The Rev. H.C. Christian, who was supposed to preach at St. Paul Methodist Church that morning, took the Baptist pulpit instead and was duly praised for delivering such a fine sermon to the GHS graduates on such short notice.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Troutman, weary from the hard ride by motor vehicle from Athens, returned to his hometown immediately to deliver a sermon to his congregation that night.
Not able to rest much from the lengthy and trying Sunday, he was aroused by the telephone ringing Monday morning before he got out of bed. It was an invitation to speak at another commencement the very next Sunday. According to the Athens Banner, "He told them as gently as he could he had a previous engagement."
After the Gainesville & Northwestern Railroad began running from Gainesville to Helen, Athens residents could take the Midland to Gainesville, catch another train and be in the mountains. It cost only $1.50 for a round-trip ticket. However, it was a 4½-hour one-way run, and the train didn't get back to Athens until 8:30 at night. Of course, there wasn't as much to do in Helen in 1915 as there is today.
The Midland in the early 1900s had 42 miles of track that ran to Athens and another route to Winder and Monroe. But it was thinking big. Railroading had so much come of age, extensions were being considered to Rome and even as far as Knoxville, Tenn.
Footnote on John G. Longstreet, son of the general, who helped him run the Piedmont Hotel: In 1913 he was trying to market a soft drink called "Fermentum," which doesn't sound so soft. It was described as looking and tasting a bit like coffee.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.