Published by EH.NET (April 2008)

H. Roger Grant, Rails through the Wiregrass: A History of the Georgia and Florida Railroad. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2006, xvi + 223 pp. $36 (cloth), ISBN 0-87580-365-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Bill Beck, Lakeside Writers’ Group.

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal featured a front-page article on the resurgence of the nation’s rail system. The article reported that the nation’s major railroads are in the midst of an aggressive program of building rail corridors from the West Coast to the Mexican Border and the Great Lakes, and from the Gulf Coast to New England. The program, estimated to cost upwards of $10 billion, is designed to accommodate the tremendous increase in container traffic to and from the nation’s ports.

The rebound of the nation’s freight rail system is little short of amazing, considering that just thirty years ago economists and pundits were predicting the imminent demise of the American railroad. But as history as demonstrated, the account of the nation’s rail system’s death was greatly exaggerated.

So it is refreshing, and somewhat wistful, to read H. Roger Grant’s Rails through the Wiregrass. Grant, professor of history at Clemson University, has made a life’s work out of chronicling the rise and fall of the nation’s railroads, with books on the history of the Chicago & North Western, the Erie Lackawanna, the Wabash, and the Chicago Great Western Railways all to his credit.

Grant’s Rails through the Wiregrass is the workmanlike history of what contemporaries would call a short line, a rail system that ran through the piney woods of Georgia from Augusta on the Savannah River southwest to Madison, just across the state line in Florida’s Panhandle. The Georgia & Florida was one of hundreds of short line railroads that were the result of merger and acquisition activity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and that combined smaller roads into a short line that was often eventually acquired by a larger regional line.

Organized in 1906 as an amalgamation of more than a half-dozen small short lines, including the Valdosta Southern, the Augusta & Florida, and the Sparks Western, the Georgia & Florida served wiregrass sawmill towns such as Sparks, Valdosta and Vidalia. Its perceived need was to tie the region more firmly to markets in Virginia and the Mid Atlantic states, and entrepreneurs saw the potential for vast new markets for Georgia agricultural commodities, such as tobacco, watermelons and onions, in the markets of the North.

Virginian John Skelton Williams had nearly a dozen years in forming and running railroads, including the mighty Seaboard Air Line, when he was ousted as the Seaboard’s chairman in a 1903 proxy fight. Three years later, Williams assembled the Georgia & Florida and became its first president.

Williams and his Richmond and Baltimore investors expected that the wiregrass region of interior Georgia would become an agricultural and natural resources powerhouse. Those expectations never worked out, and the railroad was always undercapitalized with aging rolling stock. Even more debilitating to the Georgia & Florida’s future was the road’s lack of a northern terminus in Augusta for much of its history.

The disruptions caused by World War I dealt the Georgia & Florida a blow from which it never really recovered. The Georgia & Florida went into receivership in 1915, was almost dismembered during the agricultural depression of the early 1920s, was reorganized in 1925, expanded to South Carolina and went back into bankruptcy at the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929, three years after the death of its founder, John Skelton Williams.

The G&F ? what locals called “the Gone & Forgotten” ? operated in receivership for more than three decades. While in bankruptcy, the Georgia & Florida weathered the Depression and the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, prospered during World War II, converted to diesel locomotives and dropped passenger service. Grant tells the fascinating story of the G&F during the period against the backdrop of monumental change in the nation’s rail industry during the middle years of the twentieth century.

Finally, in 1961, the Southern Railway entered talks to acquire the Georgia & Florida as a wholly-owned subsidiary. Southern had to up its offer to outbid the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, and it took more than two years for the federal bankruptcy courts and the ICC to approve the sale. The G&F name disappeared in 1971, and in 1982, when the Southern and the Norfolk & Western merged into the Norfolk Southern, much of the Georgia & Florida rail system was abandoned. A picture on page 186 of a scrub pine tree growing through an abandoned section of G&F main line is eloquent testimony of the fate of America’s early twentieth century transportation legacy.

Grant has written a fascinating corporate history of a forgotten chapter in the South’s economic history. He has mined contemporary sources well, most notably the business pages of the weekly and small daily newspapers of the Georgia wiregrass region that covered the G&F during its heyday. He has also made excellent use of corporate annual reports, minute books, trustee reports and the John Skelton Williams papers.

Rail buffs also will enjoy Rails through the Wiregrass. Grant includes several dozen photographs and maps, all of which will help introduce another generation of readers to the era of steam locomotives. He calls the G&F “a hard luck road,” and notes that Southern roads have not enjoyed the same scrutiny from historians as have Northern roads. Let’s hope that historians use Grant’s history of the Georgia & Florida as a steppingstone to more top-flight historical accounts of Southern railroads.

Bill Beck is an Indianapolis-based independent corporate and institutional historian. His latest book is Pride of the Inland Seas: An Illustrated History of the Port of Duluth-Superior.