People who remember riding a train called the Nancy Hanks from Savannah to Atlanta actually rode the Nancy Hanks II, and the trains weren't named directly for Abraham Lincoln's mother, but for a fast racehorse.
Those were two potentially surprising facts that Bulloch County Historical Society members
Rodney Harville and Sims Lanier shared with members and guests Monday. Harville and Lanier's presentation about the last regular passenger train service between Savannah and Atlanta, which ceased in 1971, and its earlier namesake, drew one of the largest crowds for a Historical Society regular meeting recently, about 100 people.
When Lanier asked who thought the train was named for Lincoln’s mother, audience members apparently sensed it was a trick question or knew better. But a number of hands went up when he asked who had ridden the Nancy Hanks.
“Ah, not true,” Lanier said. “Not unless we would need to give you a round of applause, because unless you’re 124 years old, nobody rode the Nancy Hanks.”
As Harville then explained, the original passenger train of that name was a short-lived express pulled by a fast steam locomotive in the early 1890s.
As a source he quoted observed, a railroad company in the early post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction South was unlikely to have named a train for Lincoln’s mother. Nancy Hanks Lincoln had died in 1818, when the future president was 9.
“When the train people started to think of a name for a train, they wanted to think of something that was fast,” Harville said. “There were no motorcycles, no airplanes. There were a few locomotives, but who would want to name a train after another train, so the only thing they could think of that was fast was a horse.”
The racehorse Nancy Hanks lived from 1886 to 1915.
“She was an undefeated, Standardbred trotter mare, named after Abraham Lincoln’s mother,” Harville said.
Like Lincoln, the horse was born in Kentucky.
The horse ran the mile in 2.05 minutes, and was the fastest one in 44 states at the time, Harville said. So, in 1892 when the Georgia Central Railway bought a locomotive that could run 78 mph to launch an express service linking Atlanta, Macon and Savannah, the company christened the train the Nancy Hanks.
“She was the fastest thing in America, or at least in the South, when she ran twice as fast as her namesake, the horse,” he said.
Central of Georgia planned to buy three of the fast machines built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works, so as to have the second engine ready for each return trip while keeping the third as a spare.
On the first test run, Oct. 5, 1892, the steam-powered Nancy Hanks made the 294-mile Savannah-Atlanta trip, with a 20-minute stop in Macon, in eight hours. The second test run shortened the time to seven and half hours.
“The Nancy Hanks’ fast speed had some deadly consequences,” Harville said.
Mary Short apparently thought the train was slowing down when she tried to cross the tracks near the Oakdale depot one afternoon in February 1893. She was killed instantly. A couple, the Grahams, were holding their umbrella while walking along the tracks in a rainstorm that May 28, and were also killed. On March 14, the train derailed on the approach to Smarr’s Station near Macon, damaging the engine but not causing any reported serious injuries, according to stories Harville retold.
The original Nancy Hank’s last run, at least as a passenger special with few stops, came Aug. 13, 1893, only 10 months after its launch. However, Harville and his source said service continued with the trains reduced to normal passenger speeds and stopping at every scheduled station, with the result that the Atlanta-Savannah trip took 11 hours.
The Nancy Hanks II
Georgia Central created the Nancy Hanks II service in 1947. That year, the company purchased new diesel locomotives for about $500,000 each, and also launched a passenger train named for another racehorse, Man o’ War, between Atlanta and Columbus, Lanier reported.
The engines pulled state-of-the art passenger cars, with air-conditioning and a system of electric lighting and adjustable blinds designed to keep interior light levels even and comfortable day and night, he said. “Nancy Hanks II: Modern Stream-Liner is Latest Word in Comfort,” proclaimed a July 10, 1947 Bulloch Times headline.
A horse’s head in profile, framed by a horseshoe, appeared in advertisements as the train’s logo.
People from Statesboro usually boarded at the Dover station in Screven County. A Savannah-Atlanta roundtrip excursion was possible in a day. A train leaving Savannah at 8 a.m. was scheduled to arrive in Atlanta at 1:40 p.m. Passengers without overnight accommodations had to board the train in Atlanta by 6 p.m. to arrive back in Savannah before midnight.
Early ads gave the prices of a Dover-Atlanta trip as $5.90, plus a 15 percent federal tax, as seen in Harville and Lanier’s audiovisual show.
Some special package trips brought special schedules. A Sept. 21, 1957 “Football Double-Header” allowed fans to see both the Georgia Tech vs. Kentucky game at 2 p.m. and the Georgia vs. Texas game at 8 p.m., with the return train being held in Atlanta until 11:15 p.m. Bus service to and from Grant Field was also provided.
Full meals were served on the trains. Besides listing menu items, Lanier noted some daily specials: a 75-cent “businessman’s lunch” and 50-cent “lady’s lunch.”
One of the ads shows a black maid waiting on a white woman and her baby, and a black porter carrying suitcases. Like other public transit in the South, the coaches were racially segregated for passengers during much of the Nancy Hanks II’s run, but were desegregated during the 1960s.
After Nancy Hanks II made its last run on April 30, 1971, Georgia’s remaining intercity passenger rail miles became part of the Amtrak system.
Several people shared their memories of the Nancy Hanks II when Lanier went around the room with the microphone. One woman recalled excursions when she and friends would play cards all the way to Atlanta, walk several blocks to the Rich’s department store to shop and have lunch, watch the clock carefully and be back on the train to play bridge all the way back to Dover.
When Johnny Parrish, from Portal, was in third grade, he and a classmates raised money for a trip to Atlanta by raffling a bale of cotton. The whole third grade got to ride there and back on the Nancy Hanks II.
“We went over to the Capitol and sat in the governor’s chair, went back and rode the escalators at Rich’s,” Parrish said. “You know, for somebody from Portal, that was a big deal.”
He later rode the train frequently as a student at Georgia Military Academy in College Park, and would get off the train at Millen, where he met his wife 56 years ago.
Artifacts from these trains are displayed at the Georgia State Railroad Museum, operated by the Coastal Heritage Society in the historic roundhouse of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Savannah, Lanier noted.
Most months, the Bulloch County Historical Society holds a lunch meetings in the Pittman Park United Methodist Church social hall. The next is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. May 22.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.