There has been talk in recent years about commuter rail from Hall County to Atlanta. Some folks see in the future an extension of Atlanta’s rapid rail, MARTA, into Gwinnett County, maybe light rail to Gainesville.
Seems hard to believe, but a commuter train once came through Gainesville. The Airline Belle operated round trip between Toccoa and Atlanta. Gainesville, Oakwood, Flowery Branch, White Sulphur Station, Bellton, Lula and O’Dell’s near Oakwood were among the stops.
The train first rolled out in 1879 and operated until 1931. Its origin was in Norcross, where citizens petitioned for a commuter train between there and Atlanta. G.J. Foreacre, superintendent of Piedmont Airline Railroad, a forerunner of Southern Railway, was skeptical. But the persistent Norcross people guaranteed to cover any debts during the first year, and Foreacre consented to give it a try.
It quickly became so successful, the petitioners were released from guaranteeing the debt before the year was up. It showed such a bright future that Foreacre extended the service in stages to other distant stops north of Atlanta. Mrs. Foreacre liked the line so well she gave it her name, Belle, or Airline Belle.
In all, the train made 39 stops along its 93 miles. Seems impossible for a steam train chugging along tracks that sometimes had to climb considerable grades, but it achieved 98 to 99 percent on-time stops. It even made some unscheduled stops if the engineer saw people waiting at some crossroads.
The Airline Belle didn’t have to make all its stops every run, and the engineer usually could see far enough up the tracks to spy any potential passengers waiting to be picked up. If there were none, he would goose the train onto the next stop where there were passengers.
Other scheduled stops included Buford, Suwanee, Duluth, Alto, New Switzerland, Raoul, Cagle, Sugar Hill and Mount Airy. Though some stops were only about a mile apart, the Airline Belle could reach speeds up to 50 miles per hour between them. The entire Toccoa-to-Atlanta run would take three hours.
B.F. Dewberry was one of the original engineers. He died in a 1908 derailment at Armour, near Buford, along with his fireman, Mayson Wadkins. The engineer was praised for reversing and braking the engine in time to save the lives of passengers behind him. There were numerous injuries, including Hall Countians who were on their way to Atlanta for a Joe Brown gubernatorial rally.
That accident was the only major one the Airline Belle experienced.
Another engineer was H.R.Blackwell, and one of the most popular was Capt. Ike Roberts. As he advanced in age, Roberts refused to retire. But he continued until on his final trip, he pulled into Terminal Station in Atlanta and died, still at the steam engine’s throttle. He was 77 years old.
The train’s passengers got to know one another and the crew on the trips, which delivered passengers to Atlanta at 7:50 a.m., time enough to get to their jobs or for shoppers to take in the big-city stores. It came through Gainesville at 7:02 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Conductors such as H.T. Cox and W.A. Willingham often said on some days they knew everybody in the two cars the engine pulled.
Of course, all the passengers didn’t go all the way to Atlanta. Some would get off for jobs in Gainesville or Buford, for instance.
Seats often were a premium by the time the Belle reached Buford going to Atlanta, as well as on the return trip. The Southern Railroad regular train from Atlanta to Washington and back took over the Belle’s run, making all its stops, but it eventually had to phase them out. Better highways, more automobiles and buses had cut into train travel.
And that’s the problem with commuter rail today. So many people would rather take their own cars to work; despite congestion on multilane highways, too few take the train.
When the Airline Belle made its last run in July 1931, passengers mourned its passing. It was duly noted in the Atlanta and Gainesville newspapers.
“It was the passing of an institution,” one Atlanta writer reported. “Hail and farewell,” the Gainesville News wrote. “You served your day and generation nobly and well. We shall not see your likes again!”
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.