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Now and Then - Dr. Roger Branch Sr.
Rivers to interstates: Pathways to change
Dr  Roger Branch March WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

According to popular stereotypes, people from back country regions are and have been impervious to change. In fact, cultural continuities hang on in isolated places in ethnic neighborhoods in huge cities as well as they do in rural regions. Also in fact, change is the only constant in all places. In rural Georgia, important modes of travel carried with them communication, commerce, government, religion — every institution of developed societies — and they were conduits of change.

As has been the case for ages across the planet, rivers provided the first avenue of exploration, settlement and connection. Before steamboats tamed currents, pole boats took goods upstream and timber rafts took timber, sometimes cargo down.

Along the highlands beside the rivers ran established roads that often dated back to Native American trails and the Spanish Kings Highway from the coast of present-day South Carolina to northwest Florida. The Old River Road along the Altamaha River in today’s Toombs County was also a part of the Kings Highway, and the Hen Cart Road. The puzzling “Hen Cart” is the result of a crude transformation from “Hand Cart”, which is tied to the use of that road by peddlers, often Jews, who took their wares from Savannah to the back country via handcarts. They were welcomed for their supplies of scarce items like needles and scissors and for the “news” they shared about the city and the next settlement down the road.

Strategic locations along rivers and river roads gave rise to settlements, including county seats, to and from which human traffic flowed. Roads and trails from various locations converged upon these “roads more traveled” and settlements along them. Breaks in transportation, like Rocky Ford, where river and road traffic slowed in Screven County, became important places. The Old River Road along the Altamaha had foot traffic from timber rafters returning up river from Darien, commercial activity from the coast and eventually stagecoach travel.

In 1804, James Perry, a physician from Virginia, made his way up the Altamaha from Brunswick to Cobb Creek and thereon built a gristmill and sawmill just above the River Road. In time, the town of Perry’s Mills contained a store, post office, church, tavern, inn, muster place for militia activities. Its academy for both boys and girls was the haven for the daughter of the governor of Georgia during the Civil War although the Union Army soldiers who bivouacked nearby never learned that fact. For most of a century, Perry’s Mills was a prominent place.

Dramatic change came to rural Georgia in the last 20 years of the 19th century with widespread building of railroads. Most were tied to extraction of natural resources, mainly timber and naval stores and efficient movement of farm products like cotton. Unlike rivers, railroads tended to run straight and began to replace rivers and old road systems. To meet the needs of steam locomotives, coal and water stops were built every five miles of so, depending upon terrain. Raw materials and consumer cargo flowed to and from the towns that grew up at such stops. 

Towns that did not become part of rail systems withered. The economic and political map was redrawn.

The Savannah-Americus-Montgomery line lay across parts of counties far removed from rivers, river roads and settlements thereon. Towns like Vidalia, Lyons, Collins, Claxton, etc., were bursting with commerce. Even those citizens who came from the older system of power wanted to decide the affairs of these new places. With influence in the state legislature, Toombs County was carved out of Tattnall, Emanuel and Montgomery, with Lyons as county seat. People in northern Tattnall became restive and joined those from big slices of Bulloch and Emanuel in Candler County with Metter as county seat. Such changes occurred in many places.

The building of the federal highway system from the 1920s forward fostered a similar pattern of growth and retreat. Towns on major highways prospered through improved transportation and the inflow of tourist dollars. Coal and water towns without such highway access shriveled, became places in name only. Counties depending on railroad towns — even those with some highway service as well — began to struggle to meet the needs for services of its citizens. Their problems worsened without solutions.

The interstate highway system is the latest avenue of communication, commerce and political structuring. Its primary reason for existence is speed of personal travel and commerce. It was designed to avoid — as much as possible — places that would slow traffic, even brushing past cities although cities quickly sprawled out around them and slowed interstate traffic to a crawl.

An extension of the thirst for “get there as quickly as possible” has been to bypass both cities and towns. Cities thrive by creating smaller versions of themselves at interchanges, but when towns in the hinterlands get bypassed, they, too often, just shrivel. This is clearly visible in towns along U.S. Highway 1, which itself has been eviscerated by I-95. It is being four-laned to retrain business, but bypasses most towns. 

My hometown of Lyons seems to be next in line. It sits athwart the old SAM line, but has little freight traffic. Manufacturing has been exported. In spite of the sweet onion ballyhoo, agriculture is a shadow of itself. The bypass will dry up tourist dollars. We are going places faster except when interstate traffic snarls. But where are we going?

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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