Among the things that changed south Georgia, new modes of transportation had dramatic effects, especially railroads. Early on, Savannah was linked by rails to Augusta and to Atlanta — a bustling new railroad town — by the Central of Georgia line and one could catch a train at Dover, a fuel and water stop across the Ogeechee, to visit “faraway” places. However, railroads did not come to the sandhills, river swamps and pineywoods of the back country until much later.
On foot, horseback (muleback), cart, buggy or wagon, people followed ancient Native American trails along ridgelines beside rivers. Since Savannah was the seaport marketplace, there were crude roads from the hinterland. Travelers were challenged by streams that had to be crossed at fords and ferries. There were stagecoach lines made famous by complaints of travelers from afar who resented having to push the coach through bogs and sandbeds. River traffic via pole boat was difficult. The advent of steamboats meant easier, more predictable transportation but only the Savannah connected with a major port. Darien, the destination for timber rafting along the Altamaha and its tributaries, is located on one of the creeks into which the Altamaha divides at its delta, no port for large ships.
East-west railroads came to south Georgia in the last two of decades of the 18th century. The SAM (Savannah-Americus-Montgomery, later part of Seaboard Railroad) line was long, cutting across a wide swath of backcountry. Most were shorter, some simply connecting to a larger line — like the SAM — to move products out of the area. Railroads could be built to conquer any terrain, bringing in massive amounts of soil to traverse lowlands and erecting trestles to span streams, large and small.
Some railroad builders were outside entrepreneurs with money to build roadbeds, span rivers and lay tracks. Sometimes local influentials would unite and pool enough capital to construct a line, often short but vital to the survival of their town.
Economic factors drove railroad ventures. South Georgia had vast amounts of untapped natural resources, especially pine trees. George Brinson built railroads mainly to transport lumber from his mill in Stillmore, which is said to have produced more lumber in a day than any other in the nation. His Stillmore Airline connected to the SAM in Collins. Manassas Foy’s enterprises — timber, naval stores, tobacco — were connected to the SAM, thus the name given to Manassas, Georgia.
Millions of acres of pines brought the naval stores (turpentine and rosin) industry to the pineywoods. Demand for these products was increasing while North Carolina’s forests declined from long use. Some North Carolinians moved their entire operations, equipment and workers, to Georgia, sometimes to self-contained camps in the forest, sometimes to railroad towns, always close to rail stops to move products to market.
Other things soon came to be shipped by rail — wool, cotton and livestock. The railroads also brought needed or desired things to the people of the backcountry. And they took some of the people to new places or on visits to more distant kinfolks.
While direct economic issues were important, it was geographical impact that reshaped south Georgia. Railroads had fuel and water stops every five miles, more if that distance ended in a river or swamp. Each stop had a name and often a depot, the foundation for a village or town. Each town became a shipping point, a place to access goods and services and a place to or from which people could travel.
Some rail stops flourished, with dry goods (clothing) stores, grocery stores, banks, livestock markets and, of course, sawmills and turpentine stills. As people moved in, churches were born and touches of civilization. There was a new thing — the drummer hotel — to accommodate men who came from Savannah to “drum up business,” take orders for apparel, groceries, etc., from the town’s retailers to wholesale businesses employed the drummers. They worked their way by train from town to town. Other travelers stayed at these hotels, but drummers were regulars.
The railroads have faded under the impact of interstate highways constructed and maintained with tax monies. Gone are the days when I sat in a car at the rail crossing in Lyons waiting for the 100-plus cars of a train to pass, carrying kaolin from Gray, sand from Mt. Vernon, pulp wood from almost anywhere nearby. Gone are many jobs related to these products. Gone is the call of the whistles of the steam locomotives that moved the products of the land and its people.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.