Gainesville’s Queen City nickname is about much more than a parkway.
From Anchorage, Alaska, to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, there are plenty of cities in the United States that are called queen cities — the name is often given to the largest cities in a state or region that aren’t also the capital.
That’s the general explanation of how cities come by the name, but Gainesville has a rich cultural and economic history that gives its name a deeper meaning.
Exactly when Gainesville earned its nickname isn’t clear. It caught on early in the city’s life — when its population was measured by hundreds instead of thousands and when installing electric street lights made it the most futuristic city south of Baltimore.
The name came to Gainesville much like “Magic City” came to Birmingham, Alabama — both cities experienced periods of intense expansion that caught the attention of many, firming Gainesville’s reputation as a jewel in the Georgia hills and Birmingham’s as a steel town capable of magical growth.
The nickname had its heyday in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th but fell out of popular use as Atlanta’s growth and the popularity of air travel erupted, pulling the spotlight away from rail-dominated Gainesville and the North Georgia mountains.
Now the Queen City label mostly comes to mind via street sign, but the name hangs above the parkway — and was once used all over the South — for a reason.
Hall County was created by the state legislature in 1818, back when Gainesville was known as Mule Camp Springs and was little more than a patch of mineral springs in the forest.
Even so, Mule Camp Springs was chosen as the county seat — it was up against Lime Kiln, what is now the New Holland area — by the newly minted Hall County court system. Choosing a county seat was the court’s first item of business, according to the late Times columnist and historian Sybil McRay.
Among the endless list historical subjects covered by McRay, a devoted genealogist, was the creation and growth of early Gainesville, including how it came by the name Queen City.
What is now Gainesville was built on 50 acres of land deeded to the original justices of the Hall County court in 1821 by Duke Williams.
The 50 acres cost the court $1,000 almost two centuries ago. Land in the city is now worth $912 million.
The area’s relatively moderate climate, mineral wealth and rich agricultural land made it a natural gathering point for merchants — a gathering that was accelerated by the entrance of railroads into the area in 1871, the same year Gainesville’s first public school opened.
By the 1880s, the commercial growth of Gainesville had already earned it the name “Queen City of the Mountains,” according to an account in The Jackson Herald, then published in Jackson County.
“She is a second Atlanta, and if she continues to hump herself at her present rate will make the Gate City look to her laurels,” the unnamed reporter wrote.
Atlanta didn’t exactly end up eating Gainesville’s dust, but the town made some significant accomplishments between 1880 and 1889, when the Herald account was written.
“When we returned to Gainesville after an absence of nine years, we would not have known the place had it not been for a few old landmarks which have survived the iconoclast of commerce,” the story goes. “When we left there the town was lighted of rainy nights by an old sputtering lamp at the Stringer corner, and Dan used to put that out at bed time because it made so much fuss he couldn’t sleep.
“But just think of it! They have harnessed the lightning, and the city is now illuminated by electric lights.”
Electric lights, readers. Today’s trivialities made for thrilling news in the 19th century.
The Queen City name also adorned Gainesville’s fire department, the Queen City Fire Company, which purchased its first horse-drawn fire engine in 1885 after several important buildings were destroyed by fire in the town, according to The Gainesville Eagle, an old Gainesville newspaper.
It wasn’t just the richness of the cotton crop drawing people to the area.
Those mineral springs that started out as water for mules — combined with a high density of physicians and medical practices — turned Gainesville into a health resort town for the wealthy and influential in the late 1800s.
Chief among the spas was Oconee White Sulphur Springs Resort — namesake of the today’s White Sulphur Springs Road.
“Within a circle of two miles ‘medicinal waters’ of nearly every variety were said to be found in Hall County,” wrote Charles Duncan for The Times in 1994. “... The area was well known throughout the nation for its ‘healing springs.’”
National fame drew national figures. Before he was elected president, Woodrow Wilson visited Gainesville and stayed in the Piedmont Hotel. His first and second daughters, Margaret Wilson and Jessie Woodrow Wilson, respectively, were born in Gainesville in the 1880s.
In the 1900s, Gainesville’s rail connections created the shipping opportunities that led to the community’s growth in heavy industry and agriculture, especially its poultry industry, which was already a booming business in the 1890s.
The community has gone through boom and bust through the years, and is once again on pace for rapid growth as an improving economy brings more people into Georgia and Hall County, one of the fastest-growing in the nation.
Just like old times.
“The perfect climate, the picturesque and inspiring scenery, the moral and religious character of the inhabitants, make it a delightful country for residence at all times,” an investor wrote of Gainesville to The Eagle in 1893. “Since its penetration by railroads in the past few years, this territory has attracted attention, and is not only visited by thousands of tourists, but has greatly increased in population, and no part of the state of Georgia exhibits more rapid advancement.
“But it is still a virgin field, and there are golden opportunities for all who come. The business center of this entire region, comprising nearly a score of counties, and the gateway to all points of interest, is Gainesville.”