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AND THE TRACKS WERE LAID
Contributed by Robert Latimer Hurst.
By Robert Latimer Hurst
Railroading in this area was initiated with the chartering of the Savannah and Albany Railroad in 1847...
The growth of the railroad has been synonymous with the growth of Waycross. And one man may be credited with bringing most of this growth into being.
Henry Bradley Plant, for whom Waycross' Plant Avenue is named, was reared in Connecticut, but his position as superintendent with the Adams Express Company brought him South in 1854. By 1861 he had developed a prosperous territory south of the Ohio and Potomac rivers.
Railroading in this area, however, was initiated with the chartering of the Savannah and Albany Railroad in 1847, seven years before the future railway tycoon came to this section.
Construction of tracks from the old coastal city to Southwestern Georgia had begun in 1853; when Plant began discovering the South's potentialities, this expansion of tracks had already been named the Savannah, Albany and Gulf Railroad, which would be absorbed by the Atlantic and Gulf in 1863.
In the year 1856, there were 68 miles of rails reaching from Savannah to Screven, and by 1858 the builders were moving west of this village. A year before the beginning of the Civil War (1860), Thomasville was the termination point.
Employed by the Southern Express in 1861, Plant, with President Jefferson Davis' approval, operated the company for two years in the interest of the Confederacy. His unsympathetic views concerning the Southern cause made this position a difficult undertaking for a Connecticut Yankee, implied Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Historian Richard Prince.
Meanwhile, the Brunswick and Florida Railroad, which had been chartered in 1835 but which had not begun construction until 1855, had advanced to Waresboro, former county seat of Ware, at the beginning of the North-South conflict in 1861. It now formed a junction with the Atlantic and Gulf.
"The nearest village, a station about a mile southward on the Atlantic and Gulf line, was designated on early maps as `Yankee Town.' Apparently `Yankee Town' was not considered an appropriate name for the patriots of Georgia, for it was soon changed to Tebeauville (and later Waycross)," continues the railroad author.
Construction immediately stopped in Waresboro because the fall of 1861 found the B&F Railroad controlled by Northerners who refused to operate or finance anything in the South; and, for a short time, it must be assumed, troop movement in this area halted in Waresboro.
Finally, Georgia, with Governor Joe Brown at the helm, seized the B&F on October 7; by December 16, 1861, it carried the name Brunswick and Albany and was employed by the State of Georgia until 1863 when the Confederate Government removed the rails so that they could be used at more essential places for the war effort, or melted into ammunition.
A tragic year was 1863. Plant had recently lost his wife; he was ill, and he wanted to leave the South. Obtaining a Confederate passport, he left the country for Europe for the remainder of the war, except for a brief period in the North at the end of this civil rebellion.
The A&G continued to expand from the Little Satilla River at Screven to the Flint, where steamboats operated to the Chattahoochee and the Gulf. With SA&G's merger with the Atlantic and Gulf, the road had now gained 200 miles of track.
At the end of the war in 1865, Plant returned to the headquarters of the Southern Express Company in Augusta as its president; he, then, acquired the Atlantic and Gulf, which he reorganized as Savannah, Florida and Western in 1879. This line became the original and largest of railways of the Plant System. The SF&W boasted 350 miles to the growing Plant enterprise.
“In 1868 a new company was formed to revive the old Brunswick and Albany, and a well-known carpetbagger, Hannibal I. Kimball, was made president. Kimball, who came south from New England after the war to seek his fortune, built the original famous Kimball House in Atlanta,” writes Prince.
Corrupt Republican administration in Georgia and state funds rebuilt and completed the B&A to Albany in 1871. Here, again, work stopped, and fraud charges were brought against Kimball, who suddenly left Georgia. Bankruptcy followed. However, in 1884, Kimball was cleared when he returned to Atlanta to answer for his conduct.
“When the SF&W built its line to Jacksonville, the junction of five rail lines became Waycross, one of the most important centers in the South,” says Prince. Called the “Waycross Short Line,” this 75-mile stretch was completed in 1881.
Another railway venture came in 1887. “Located at Waltertown, on the Satilla River seven miles from Waycross, was a large steam sawmill. This mill had a piece of road running into Waycross and extending across the river a short distance into the woods. The mill and road were the property of the Waycross Lumber Company, then principally owned and controlled by George Walter of Savannah.
“Hon. J. L. Sweat became attorney for the Waycross Lumber Company in 1887, and it is to him that the credit is due for the building of the Waycross Air Line. Conceiving the idea that there was a splendid opening for a railroad running from Waycross in a northwesterly direction via Douglas and southwesterly to St. Marys finally convinced Capt. Walter that the golden opportunity had arrived.
“Sweat prepared a charter with George Walter, E. H. Crawley, Herbert Murphy, Warren Lott and himself as incorporators,” relates a newspaper report of 1900.
In October, 1887, the Georgia legislature passed an act incorporating Waycross Air Line Railroad Company. Death claimed Capt. Walter shortly after this act’s passage; the charter was left untouched. Almost immediately, Stillwell Miller and Company acquired possession of the Waycross Lumber concern, and Captain Lemuel Johnson was placed in charge of its operation.
The SF&W, by 1888, recorded 570 miles of track; and, in 1889, the Waycross Air Line’s charter had been amended and the first board of directors selected.
A direct route down the west coast of Florida to connect Port Tampa to Waycross became the objective for the SF&W in 1893. Because of the rapid construction and advancement of the Plant System, only 58 miles of track became necessary.
Georgia, realizing the progressive and enterprising work of H.B. Plant, declared October 28, 1895, as “Plant System Day.” Historian Prince asserts that Plant did most to promote the western and central sections of Florida, but surely he must be credited with doing as much for Southeast Georgia.
During this same period, the gentlemen operating the WAL were extending this road beyond Waltertown for the purpose of hauling lumber to their mills and for other operations as well as turpentine stills. The line now extended to Elsie (now Haywood), Bolen, Beach, Sessoms, Granville and Nicholls in Southeast Georgia. Operating a limited freight and passenger service, the Waycross Air Line management continued its operation in this vicinity until a reorganization by the lumber company of its mill road.
The Colony City of Fitzgerald, the 1896 Union-founded town, would be served by the WAL in 1900; Waycross, termed “Magic City of the Wiregrass,” and Douglas, through efforts in 1898 of Messrs. J.S. Bailey and Company (sawmill and timbermen), would all be involved in the expansion even up to and through the Spanish-American War until the WAL became the AB&A, then AB&C, and a part of the ACL.
Actually, after the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, the Plant System was busily engaged in transporting troops and supplies over both rails and water.
By 1899 many other companies were acquired; this action carried the Plant System’s mileage to more than 2,200 with lines reaching from Charleston to Tampa and to Montgomery.
Folkston joined with Jesup in 1901 on the SF&W, but Waycross was bypassed. And on July 1, 1902, the Plant System, bringing nearly 2,000 miles of track, merged with the Atlantic Coast Line, while 1929 found the old express companies, which Plant had operated in those early years, the Railway Express Agency.
So as was written in 1900: “The iron steed of commerce has superseded the slow canal boat and the cumbersome wagon. Steel rails almost girdle the globe, and wherever it extends, civilization and enlightenment spread. The United States is the greatest country on earth, intellectually, financially and commercially. This supremacy is largely due to our railroads. No other country possesses such wonderful facilities for disseminating all the commodities of life.”
Copyright© 2002 Robert L. Hurst
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