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The Railroads and the New Georgia

Atlanta was originally called Terminus because it was the end of the line for the Western & Atlantic railroad. Ultimately, railroads made Georgia an economic success and a Civil War target. John Gilbert takes students on a tour of the Big Shanty Museum [now renamed The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History] and reveals that the Civil War was known as the railroad war because battles were fought up and down the rail lines. Tracks and bridges were constantly being destroyed and rebuilt to move troops and supplies for one side or the other. Dr. Gene Hatfield, a historian, recounts how after the Civil War steamboats were still in service, but it became the era of the railroad. All efforts went into repairing the tracks with most of the work done by African American men known as Gandy Dancers. “Gandy” because the equipment they used was supplied by the Gandy Manufacturing Company and “dancers” because of the rhythmic singing and movements they used to move heavy track. Folklorist Maggie Holtzberg, likens it to counting “1-2-3-lift” before several people attempt to move a heavy object. John Gilbert describes the remarkable feat of changing the track gauge (width) everywhere in Georgia in one 48-hour period to standardize it with that of northern railroads. According to Lesa Campbell of the Southern Railway Museum, the number of passenger trains stopping in Atlanta today is a mere trickle compared to their heyday in 1914 when 152 trains stopped every day. Today powerful diesel locomotives pull long freight trains and travelers have turned to cars and airplanes to reach their destinations.

Teacher tip: With a marker, trace rail lines on a Georgia highway map to more easily see the number of rail lines in use today. Discuss the importance of railroads as part of Georgia’s transportation system and the effect the railroad has on the economy.