Georgia’s first railroad tracks were laid in the mid-1830s on routes leading from Athens, Augusta, Macon, and Savannah. Some twenty-five years later, the state not only could claim more rail miles than any other in the Deep South but also had linked its major towns and created a new rail center, Atlanta. The railroads continued to expand until the 1920s, when a long decline began that lasted into the 1990s. Today, the state’s rail system is a strong, 5,000-mile network anchored by two major lines, Norfolk Southern and CSX, and a couple dozen shortlines.

Norfolk Southern Engine
Norfolk Southern Engine

Photograph from Wikimedia

Early Years, 1830s to the Civil War

Charleston, South Carolina, provided the impetus for rail development in Georgia. In 1830 it began building a 136-mile railroad to Hamburg, on the Savannah River opposite Augusta. Savannah businessmen, worried that Charleston would benefit at their expense, responded by organizing the Central Rail Road and Canal Company. The state legislature, meeting in Milledgeville, issued a charter for the company in December 1833. The canal division of the company was soon dropped in favor of the construction of railroads, which were not as limited as canals with regard to where they could be built. Construction began in December 1835. The Central Rail Road of Georgia eventually became the Central of Georgia Railway, a 190-mile line across the Coastal Plain to Macon.

Meanwhile, construction on the Georgia Railroad between Augusta and Athens and on the Monroe Railroad (later the Macon and Western) between Macon and Forsyth, was in progress. The Georgia Railroad Company was chartered to a group of Athens businessmen in 1833 for the purpose of building a railroad from Augusta west into the interior of the state. In 1835 the charter was amended to allow banking operations, and the name was changed to Georgia Railroad and Banking Company. Company headquarters moved from Athens to Augusta in 1840. The Georgia Railroad was completed to Marthasville (later Atlanta) in 1845.

Colquitt Depot
Colquitt Depot

Courtesy of Georgia Archives.

In the northwestern part of the state, an effort was underway to build a “state railroad” to the Tennessee River, a rail link that would open Georgia to the trade of the Tennessee and Ohio valleys. The state-owned Western and Atlantic Railroad (also known as the W&A), established by the state legislature in 1836 and completed in 1851, connected with Chattanooga, Tennessee, and accomplished that goal.

The  W&A’s southern end was at Terminus (later Atlanta), where it joined the Georgia Railroad from Augusta and the Macon and Western from Macon. In 1854 a fourth rail line, the Atlanta and LaGrange Railroad (later the Atlanta and West Point Railroad), entered Atlanta from the southwest, and soon the city became a rail hub for the entire South. When the Civil War (1861-65) broke out, Atlanta became a key military target due to its importance in shipping supplies to the Confederate troops. Union general William T. Sherman’s troops finally seized the city in 1864 after a series of hard-fought battles in the Atlanta campaign along the route of the W&A.

Allatoona Pass
Allatoona Pass

Courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Postwar Expansion and Consolidation

After the war, investors began building new lines and acquiring existing railroads, consolidating them into larger systems. A Connecticut entrepreneur, Henry Bradley Plant, purchased several railroads in the South in the 1880s and 1890s. Although his railroads generally kept their original names, Plant operated them in a unified manner, as a system. In south Georgia the Plant System reached across the state from Savannah to Alabama and Florida. In north Georgia, the East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia (also known as the ETV&G) expanded from Dalton west into Alabama and south to Atlanta, Macon, and Brunswick. Also in north Georgia, the Virginia-based Richmond and Danville system stretched across the southern Piedmont, connecting Richmond, Virginia; Atlanta; and the Mississippi River.

Tifton, Thomasville, and Gulf Railroad
Tifton, Thomasville, and Gulf Railroad

Courtesy of Georgia Archives.

During this period the Central of Georgia expanded and assisted other railroad-building efforts in Georgia through loans and stock purchases. It also acquired a number of existing railroads and created subsidiaries to expand its own lines. By 1929 the Central had created a nearly 2,000-mile network, reaching across much of Georgia into Alabama and Tennessee. At various times it was controlled by several different larger railroads, among them the Southern, which bought the Central in the 1960s.

East and West Railroad Construction
East and West Railroad Construction

Courtesy of Georgia Archives.

A holding company, the Richmond and West Point Terminal and Warehouse Company, controlled the Richmond and Danville beginning in 1880 and the ETV&G beginning in 1887. When the holding company collapsed in 1892, the banker J. P. Morgan created Southern Railway out of the financial wreckage. Southern would become one of the dominant railroad systems of twentieth-century Georgia.

Train Passengers
Train Passengers

Courtesy of Georgia Archives.

In 1900 two other major systems, the Atlantic Coast Line (ACL) and the Seaboard Air Line Railway, were established. ACL gained dominance in south Georgia through its purchase of the Plant System in 1902. Seaboard’s predecessors had acquired major lines in the Georgia Piedmont and Coastal Plain; these were supplemented in 1904 by a link from Atlanta to Birmingham, Alabama.

Southern Railroad
Southern Railroad

Courtesy of Georgia Archives.

Connecting to the major systems were such shortlines as the Wrightsville and Tennille and the Tallulah Falls. Many of these were controlled by larger railroads, typically through stock ownership. At the bottom of the railroad hierarchy were the logging lines, scattered across the state from the Appalachian Mountains to the Okefenokee Swamp. Most were abandoned after the forests were cut, but a few became “common carrier” lines, carrying freight of many types, at least for a time.

Decline and Renewal, 1920s to the Present

By the 1920s railroads covered almost all of Georgia, and the period would prove to be the high point of railroad service in the state, although some residents of mountain counties had never seen a train other than the log-haulers.

Bremen Depot
Bremen Depot

Courtesy of Georgia Archives.

Passenger service declined steadily after 1920, except for a brief resurgence during World War II (1941-45). Automobiles were becoming affordable for the average family, and an ever-rising number of new drivers called for improved roads. As the roads improved, rail passenger numbers declined. The low point came in the 1960s and 1970s, as the great terminal stations and union stations in Atlanta, Augusta, and Savannah were demolished. Hundreds of small-town depots were likewise torn down, moved, or converted to other uses.

A declining passenger business, however, was a small part of the railroads’ decline; they continued to lose the much-larger freight business to trucks, and they could not attract the capital investment to maintain thousands of miles of lightly used track. The Staggers Rail Act of 1980 extensively deregulated the railroads and put them on a stronger financial footing, but it led to the abandonment of hundreds of railroad miles, including tracks that had once served as main lines. Some of these have since been purchased by the Georgia Department of Transportation and leased to shortline companies, but others have been lost forever.

Today,  most railroads are financially sound, but there are many fewer than before. In Georgia, most freight traffic is carried by only two: CSX (successor to ACL and Seaboard) and Norfolk Southern (successor to Southern Railway and Central of Georgia). Twenty-three shortlines serve as local feeders to the main lines. Passenger service, which never disappeared entirely, is available on two Amtrak routes. One route, known as the Crescent, runs from New York to Washington, D.C., through north Georgia and Atlanta and on to New Orleans, Louisiana. The other runs from New York to the Georgia coast and on to Florida.

Crescent Route, Amtrak
Crescent Route, Amtrak

Photograph by Loco Steve 

Railroads and the Creation of Towns

A great  many Georgia cities and towns, including Alamo, Baxley, Bremen, College Park, Cornelia, Manchester, Millen, Pembroke, Smyrna, Soperton, Waycross, and Winterville, owe their existence to the railroads. The growth in the number of towns engendered by the railroads was due in part to the steam trains’ need to stop frequently for water (to be converted into steam) and fuel (first wood, later coal). Also, some railroads were built not to connect existing towns but to connect distant points, such as the coast with the Tennessee River, Atlanta with the Mississippi River, or Savannah with the Gulf Coast. Their routes were often laid out with an eye toward economy of construction or a direct route versus a concern over connecting existing towns. Often there were very few towns to connect anyway, such as in south Georgia, when the Atlantic and Gulf Railroad was built from Savannah to Bainbridge.

Waycross Depot
Waycross Depot

Photograph by J. Stephen Conn 

Summerville Depot
Summerville Depot

Photograph by Shelia J. Cothran, City of Summerville

Once the railroads came through an area, towns grew up along them, frequently at points where trains would stop for water and fuel. A depot would be built and businesses would locate nearby to take advantage of the concentration of potential customers. Other businesses would be established to provide such services as lodging, saloons, livery stables, blacksmiths, warehouses, and milling. Eventually a town or city would develop.

Often a city would be incorporated with its boundaries legally defined as a circle with the railroad depot in the center. For instance, the boundaries of Dalton were defined as one mile in every direction from the depot.

In several cases county seats were moved to be on the railroad. In Lowndes County the seat was moved from Troupville to Valdosta, a new town on the Atlantic and Gulf. In Fannin County the seat was moved from Morganton to Blue Ridge, a new town on the Marietta and North Georgia Railroad. In Bartow County the seat moved from Cassville to Cartersville, and in Jones County the seat moved from Clinton to Gray. In other cases the county seat remained off the railroad while a larger town developed on the rail line, as was the case in Crawford County, where the new railroad town of Roberta grew to surpass the seat, Knoxville, in size.

Blue Ridge Scenic Railway
Blue Ridge Scenic Railway

Image from Thomas Hawk

Today, railroads are a major part of Georgia’s freight infrastructure. The port of Savannahthe fourth busiest container port in the country in 2015and the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport both depend on Georgia’s interstates and railroads to ship goods into the interior of the country. By 2014 CSX, one of the two largest rail operators in the state, had handled more than 1.9 million carloads of freight in Georgia and was operating nearly 27,000 miles of track.

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Train Passengers

Train Passengers

Passengers pose for a photograph, circa 1901, at Gallemore, a community in Twiggs County located between Macon and Danville. Railroad construction played a key role in the settlement patterns of Twiggs County in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, #
bib050.

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Central of Georgia Railway Overpass

Central of Georgia Railway Overpass

The Central of Georgia Railway overpass in Savannah crosses the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal, shown around 1888. The bridge still exists in Savannah today.

Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society, Georgia Historical Society Collection of Photographs, 1870-1960, #1361PH-28-11-5395.

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Norfolk Southern Engine

Norfolk Southern Engine

A Norfolk Southern engine is pictured in 2007. Norfolk Southern and CSX are the only major railroad lines still operating in Georgia.

Photograph from Wikimedia

Colquitt Depot

Colquitt Depot

A Central of Georgia Railway train stops at the depot in Colquitt, the seat of Miller County, around 1890. The only incorporated town in the county, Colquitt was named in honor of preacher and politician Walter Terry Colquitt.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, #
mil001.

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Allatoona Pass

Allatoona Pass

Gaining control of the railroads leading into and out of Atlanta was key to Union victory during the Civil War. On June 3, 1864, Union general William T. Sherman overcame the Confederates at Allatoona Pass. The Allatoona train depot appears in the center of this 1864 photograph, taken by George N. Barnard.

Courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Tifton, Thomasville, and Gulf Railroad

Tifton, Thomasville, and Gulf Railroad

Bystanders greet the arrival of the first train on the Tifton, Thomasville, and Gulf Railroad in Thomasville, on July 20, 1900.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, #
tho186a.

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East and West Railroad Construction

East and West Railroad Construction

The East and West Railroad, built between Cartersville and Cedartown around 1900, is one of several railroads that came to Polk County in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, #
plk073-84.

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Southern Railroad

Southern Railroad

A portion of the Southern Railroad known as the North Broad Curve, photographed in 1908, winds through Stephens County near Toccoa. Economic growth in Toccoa, which was dubbed the "Furniture, Thread, and Steel City," was spurred by its close proximity to the railroad running between Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, #
stp044.

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Bremen Depot

Bremen Depot

The depot at Bremen in Haralson County, pictured circa 1925, was built for the Southern Railway. Norfolk Southern, which bought Southern, still uses the lines for its freight trains.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, #
hrl019.

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Atlanta Terminal Station

Atlanta Terminal Station

The Atlanta terminal station. Railroads expanded in Atlanta during the 1840s, making the city a commerce and transportation hub.

Courtesy of Boston Public Library, Tichnor Brothers Postcard Collection.

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Crescent Route, Amtrak

Crescent Route, Amtrak

Amtrak's Crescent train is shown pulling into the Brookwood Station in Atlanta in 2000. The Crescent route runs from New York City to New Orleans, Louisiana. Passenger service is available in Georgia through two Amtrak routes.

Photograph by Loco Steve 

Summerville Depot

Summerville Depot

The Chattanooga, Rome, and Columbus Railroad reached Chattooga County in 1889, with lines to Summerville, Lyerly, and Trion. The original depot was built the same year. In 1901 the CR&C merged with the Central of Georgia. The depot, pictured in 2004, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.

Photograph by Shelia J. Cothran, City of Summerville

Waycross Depot

Waycross Depot

Local leaders named the city of Waycross after the many roads crossing here in 1874. The area was once known as Old Nine, or Number Nine, after the railroad station number.

Photograph by J. Stephen Conn 

Sparks Depot

Sparks Depot

Five men and a dog, pictured circa 1907, stand on the platform of the train depot in Sparks, an incorporated city in Cook County. The town was established as a train stop at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, #
cok004.

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Blue Ridge Scenic Railway

Blue Ridge Scenic Railway

The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway transports tourists on excursion trips between Blue Ridge, the seat of Fannin County, and McCaysville. The train operates each year from April through December.

Image from Thomas Hawk

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Seaboard Air Line Railway

Seaboard Air Line Railway

A Seaboard Air Line Railway train pulls into the depot at Claxton, circa 1915. Claxton, the seat of Evans County, was founded when the first railroad came through the area in the 1890s.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, #
eva010.

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Winterville Depot

Winterville Depot

The Winterville railroad depot, built in Clarke County in the late nineteenth century, was first known as "Six-mile Station" to indicate its distance from Athens. Later known as Winter's Station, the depot today houses Winterville's visitors center.

Richland Depot

Richland Depot

A rail line was first constructed in Stewart County in 1885, and the town of Richland grew up around the depot. Rails once connecting Americus to Montgomery, Alabama, and Columbus to Tallahassee, Florida, cross at Richland.

Courtesy of Matthew M. Moye

Winder Depot

Winder Depot

The old train depot in Winder currently houses the city's chamber of commerce. The arrival in 1883 of the railroad spurred economic growth in Winder, which was renamed in appreciation of John H. Winder, the general manager of Seaboard Air Line Railway.

Image from Chris Pruitt

Blackshear Depot

Blackshear Depot

The Blackshear railroad depot in Pierce County, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, houses the chamber of commerce as well as the county's Heritage Museum and genealogical library. The depot was built in 1902.

Courtesy of John Walker Guss and Pierce County Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc.

Canton Depot

Canton Depot

Passengers await a train at the U&N Depot in Canton around 1910. The arrival of the first railroad in 1879 brought tourists to the town, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, during the summer months.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, #
crk026.

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Macon Depot

Macon Depot

In 1992 Congress passed a transportation bill that provided enhancement funding for historic and natural resources associated with transportation routes and facilities, such as Macon's railroad depot.

Wrightsville Depot

Wrightsville Depot

The Wrightsville railroad depot, located in the seat of Johnson County, was built in 1900 by the Wrightsville and Tennille Railroad. Pictured circa 1915, the depot was restored duringthe 1990s and today houses the Wrightsville–Johnson County Chamber of Commerce and the Johnson County Development Authority.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, #
jhn110.

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Forest Park Depot

Forest Park Depot

This depot at Forest Park, shown circa 1900, was one of the stops along the railroad to Jonesboro, in Clayton County.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, #clt056-84.

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Warner Robins Depot

Warner Robins Depot

The Warner Robins railroad depot was created during World War II and became a critical site for the war effort. The town of Warner Robins grew up around the depot.

Image from Jud McCranie, Wikimedia Commons

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Millen Depot

Millen Depot

The train depot in Millen, in Jenkins County, was destroyed by Union forces during the Civil War and later rebuilt. Today the depot houses the "Olde Freight Depot Museum."

Courtesy of Theron Cates, Millen

Riverdale Depot

Riverdale Depot

The Riverdale depot of the Southern Express Company railroad system was dismantled in 1939. Pictured, left to right: Henry McElroy; A. O. Bowles, railway agent and station master; and M. Vassa McConnell, postmaster. Leon Hancock on roof.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, # clt027-84.

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Glennville Depot

Glennville Depot

A Register and Glennville train, pictured in 1906, stops at the depot in Glennville, today the largest city in Tattnall County. The R&G Railroad was renamed the East Georgia Railway in 1914.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, #
tat017.

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Juliette Depot

Juliette Depot

The railroad depot in Juliette, in Monroe County, is pictured circa 1900.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, #
mnr183.

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Atlantic Coast Line Depot

Atlantic Coast Line Depot

People gather outside the Atlantic Coast Line Depot in Cairo, the seat of Grady County, circa 1916. With the arrival of the railroads in the county, area residents were able to market their agricultural products, including timber.

Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia, #
gra040.

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