The engine on the corner of Jesse Jewell Parkway and West Academy Street, which the city of Gainesville may be relocating, bears the name “Gainesville Midland.”
That was a railway connecting Gainesville to Athens. In 1904, Gainesville, Jefferson and Southern Railroad became Gainesville Midland Railway. The railway started carrying passengers in 1906 and mail the year after that. The company was reorganized in 1936 under the name Gainesville Midland Railroad.
The railroad supported industrial growth, particularly in the textile industry, which emerged in the 1900s, according to David French, museum services manager with the Northeast Georgia History Center.
“(The railway) shipped a lot of raw materials to the mills here in Gainesville,” French said.
The textile industry was not the only industry served by the rail line, though. French said building materials, machinery, coal, fertilizer and other commodities also shipped on the Midland, enabling growth in Gainesville in the early 1900s.
Grace Cronic Autry worked for the Gainesville Midland from 1950 to 1986, doing a little bit of everything from accounting to secretarial work to dispatching trains. She worked out of the old depot, which is now the Arts Council.
“We had some good employees. … It was fun, and I enjoyed it,” Autry said.
The railroad was also what put the town of Pendergrass on the map. The village was known as Garden Valley before the railroad came in and built a depot, naming it for Frank Pendergrass, whose crews built the track.
The Seaboard Air Line purchased the Gainesville Midland in 1959 for $550,000.
The railroad was unique in 1959, as it was still operating seven steam locomotives, a technology that was seen as outdated by that time compared to more efficient diesels, French said. Six of those locomotives were preserved and are now in Jefferson, Duluth, Winder and Charlotte and Spencer in North Carolina. Engine 209 is now the centerpiece of a city park in downtown Gainesville.
French said that rate of preservation is high for a railroad.
Autry said she loved watching the trains arrive as she worked nearby.
“When the steam engines would come in, I would always go to the window and watch them,” she said.
She also has fond memories of riding the trains.
“I was like a kid on that. I blew the whistle and rang the bell. … I enjoyed every minute of it,” Autry said.
Autry grew up in Hoschton and always saw trains pass through but never imagined she would end up at the center of operations, she said.
“I’d always wave at the engineers and the trainmen and never thought when I was a little girl playing at the railroad tracks that I would be working for the railroad and retiring from it, but I did, 36 years and 3 months,” said Autry, who has now lived in Gainesville for more than 50 years.
French said the Seaboard Air Line then merged with the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in 1967, creating the Seaboard Coast Line. In 1980, that company merged with the Chessie System to create the CSX corporation. CSX still runs the line between Gainesville and Athens.
Engine 209 has been in its current location since 1991, along with a Southern Railway baggage car and a caboose.
Before finding a home at Jesse Jewell and West Academy Street, the engine was on display at the grounds of the old train depot and switching yard. The baggage car used to house a museum under the Georgia Mountains Museum, which became the Northeast Georgia History Center, but the museum has since closed.
A $75,000 renovation project in 2004 and 2005 helped restore the engine, repairing damaged parts, removing asbestos and reinstalling removed parts.
French said there is a popular rumor that Engine 209 was built for Imperial Russia but was never delivered due to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Engine 209 was built in 1930, though, he said — it is Engine 206, now on display in North Carolina, that was built for the Russian empire.
Engine 209 took its last trip in June 1959. Autry wrote the order for its last ride. She said she would be sad to see it move from its current prominent location downtown.
The 1.7-acre tract where Engine 209 is now displayed is owned by the Gainesville Redevelopment Authority, which hopes to sell the land so it can be redeveloped and spur additional growth in Gainesville’s downtown. The historic train would be relocated to another city-owned property, where officials hope it could be better enjoyed as part of a larger park that is easier to access.
“That train really needs to be in a place that is convenient and can be better utilized by the public. … Also, it can be used with maybe a park around it so it would be a nice amenity,” Mayor Danny Dunagan said at a Dec. 20 redevelopment authority meeting.
The exact spot where the train would go has not yet been finalized.
Knight Commercial Realty has the first option on the property, and developer Tim Knight told The Times earlier in December that he still had plans for a mixed-use development there.
The redevelopment authority has also offered the land to the Northeast Georgia Health System for $1.2 million as part of an agreement reached when the city took over the health system’s contract for a 6.8-acre property on Jesse Jewell Parkway, on the midtown end of the pedestrian bridge near downtown.
Negotiations will now be between Knight and the health system, with an agreement on who will purchase the property expected in early 2019.
For more information on the Gainesville Midland Railroad, the Northeast Georgia History Center recommends the book “The Gainesville Midland and Her Sister Short Lines” by Douglas van Veelen.