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Rail sleuths try to track down old train lines
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An informal group of railroad buffs is trying to track routes of long-gone railroads that chugged through the highlands of North Georgia.

Just before and several years after the turn of the 20th century short-line railroads were popping up all over the place, often connecting with lines such as the Atlanta and Richmond Airline that came to Gainesville in 1871. Other railroad companies formed in North Georgia, however, as early as the 1840s.

Ruddy Ellis and his colleagues are hoping to document all such efforts, successful or not, and publish a guide to them. Following leads found in local history or tips from long-time residents, they have hiked along lakeshores and riverbanks, through woods, fields and residential areas searching for clues to where the tracks ran.

They have researched and explored nearly every known railroad, though Ellis says he learned of a new one recently, the Marietta and Western. On their last field trip, Ellis and friends sought signs of the Gainesville & Northwestern, which ran from Gainesville to Robertstown. Part of the route paralleled Clarks Bridge Road and the Chattahoochee River. The group found signs of the railroad that had been covered by Lake Lanier, which is 15 feet below its normal level.

Bill Sellers, Gainesville railroad enthusiast, said the Gainesville & Northwestern ran until 1927. A passenger train left Robertstown for Gainesville every morning, connecting with depots for Southern Railway and Gainesville Midland. He recalls seeing rails still imbedded in asphalt in the New Holland area as late as the 1960s. The Gainesville & Northwestern originated to haul lumber from the mountains, as well as passengers, and served New Holland and Gainesville textile mills.

The Gainesville-Robertstown trip took four hours because of numerous stops along the way, including New Holland, Dewberry, Brookton, Clermont, Cleveland, Nacoochee and Helen. You could ride for 3 cents a mile.

Ellis's group looks for such clues as cuts and fills, culverts, bridge abutments and occasionally timbers from trestles. Sometimes they find bolts, lumps of coal or rail spikes.

The Tallulah Falls Railroad ran 57 miles from Cornelia to Franklin, N.C., until 1961. The route featured 42 wooden trestles, some of them spectacularly high, but scant remains of those are evident today. Much of the timber was salvaged for other uses.

A railroad once operated from Cler-mont to copper mines in Lumpkin County. Former state geologist N.P. Pratt discovered copper and organized Chestatee Pyrites and Chemical Corp. Ellis and fellow explorers found traces of the rail line near the Chestatee River.

Anne Amerson, in her "I Remember Dahlonega" series, wrote about a proposed railroad from Gainesville to Dahlonega. Gainesville Railroad Co. received its charter in 1847. W.P. Price, a Lumpkin County congressman using his own money, led the charge to have the line built, but it was never completed.

However, right-of-way was acquired, and grading was done from Gainesville to Leathers Ford at the Lumpkin-Hall counties line. Working valiantly to raise money, Price announced in 1879 that the first 10 miles were under construction, and in 1886 four miles of track had been laid and a bridge built over the Chattahoochee River. Dahlonega Railroad Co. formed in 1899, and A.J. Warner wanted his power dam on the Chestatee to run the railroad and supply electricity to Gainesville. The railroad part of the plan never materialized.

Ellis's explorers continue to seek evidence of that ill-fated rail effort. They don't know exactly where tracks were laid or the precise location of the bridge, though one long-time resident remembers seeing some bridge piers before Lake Lanier formed.

Another railroad that couldn't make it was the Gainesville, Dawsonville and Canton. Explorers found signs of grading along Ga. 53 and the Etowah River.

The route of the old Blue Ridge Railroad that ran in Rabun County and near the Chattooga River is pretty well documented, Ellis said, and maps for self-guided tours will be available. That is what he would like to do for all the old railroads.

Information is scarce about the route of the Conasauga Lumber Co.'s railroad in Fannin County, but Ellis hopes his explorers can find clues on future trips.

Ellis would appreciate any leads or signs of any old railroads so his group can compile information in a booklet. He can be reached at 404-237-6757.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His columns appear Sundays and on First published April 6, 2008.