The first railroads were laid in the 1830’s in Georgia and by the time of the Civil War, rail transport had changed how goods were shipped throughout the South. However, it was in the post-war period that railroads really took off as part of the Reconstruction of the South and the effort to bring a more industrial economic base to what had long been an agricultural economy. Georgia and Florida deserve special note in how railroads evolved in Southern history, because these states were very much frontiers.
Georgia’s vast expanses of land were not simply rural but even rustic, with few decent roads for horses or wagons and serious distances between towns. Florida was even worse: communities had sprung up along old Spanish trails linking the northern and central portions of the state while most of the southern portion went unexplored due to a lack of access. In time, it was railroad barons such as Henry Flagler and Henry Plant who made Florida a viable state to be settled by larger numbers of people. Without the railroad, Palm Beach, Tampa, Miami, the Florida Keys, and much of the state now known as prime real estate and core cities would not have been possible at all. But even to have a rail system in Florida, one first had to be well-developed in Georgia, and that was a major priority in the post-War years in order to connect the leading cities of the state.
Florida and Georgia are both large states, and in Georgia the centers of industry and shipping—Atlanta, Augusta, Macon, Columbus, Savannah, and Valdosta—all were far from one another. To this day, a drive to Atlanta from Savannah on the Interstate still takes a good four hours in most traffic, which gives some idea of the difficulty found in travel prior to the advent of the automobile and good roads. Savannah was a leading port, so it required means of getting goods in and out. Valdosta, on the other hand, was a perfect example of a key agricultural city which had produce to ship out—it was also a crucial city in the naval stores industry that helped define the Wiregrass Region of southern Georgia and northern Florida from the 1880’s to the 1940’s. Turpentine, known as “naval stores” due to its use in building ships of the sea, was made from pine resin, and rail transport was essential to getting this product out from its origins, which were almost always inland areas away from ports to the shipbuilding facilities, where large amounts of turpentine was needed.
Prior to the advent of the diesel locomotive, steam locomotives required a good deal of attention to keep them running over the long distances trains often had to cover. Their boilers took careful tending to start up and they needed water for these boilers and oil to lubricate their engines even when en route. So small towns sprung up along the path of the rail lines not simply to take advantage of the benefit of the rail in shipping goods in and out, but to actually provide the trains with the services they required on a daily basis. While we may today think of steam locomotives as something from very long ago, it was not until the 1940’s that diesel really replaced steam as the nation’s favored form of powering locomotives, so during the golden age of rail between the 1880’s and 1930’s, steam was at its apex.
Towns such as Waycross, Georgia, and Waldo, Florida, developed mostly due to the railroad, and Valdosta became the city it is today because of the railroad’s planned path. The previous county seat had been Troupville but the Gulf and Atlantic Railroad was to run four miles to the west, so basically the entire population moved to Valdosta to take advantage of the railroad. Some of these towns enabled by the railroad thrived—Valdosta is now not only the county seat of Lowndes County but a regional center, and Waycross is the county seat of Ware County. However, others such as Waldo and Booker (both in Florida) and Boston, Georgia, saw their populations and importance greatly fade as the railroad over time became less essential to trade. Some, like Fargo, Georgia, and Cross City, Florida, were always remote, and the rail really opened them and their regions up for trade, but their size never grew past that of small country towns.
Visiting a railroad town like Waldo, you can tell at once that it was a railroad town—the signs are everywhere if you know what to look for. Even if they have fallen to the wayside now, railroad towns once had ample money, and while most were not very large, they showcased their comparative wealth in contrast to other towns in the region not blessed with the railroad.
There is usually a Main Street, Call Street, and/or Railroad Street which served as the main center of commercial activity. The “Railroad Street” logically runs alongside the rail-line itself and would usually features the freight depot and warehouse buildings. These commercial buildings are made of fine brick and feature novel trends in the architecture of their time. Merchants made tidy profits because the goods they brought in off the trains were not only sold to people living in the town itself but to many more customers coming from all over the area—rural folks who needed grocery and farm goods. A local bank or two would be established, and professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and accountants would settle in these towns. Homes, like commercial structures, also surpassed their country cousins in affluence and splendor in many cases, and fine Victorian houses stand in many such railroad towns.
The aforementioned “Call Street” found in some Florida towns is interesting itself: Though some will claim it was the site of the local telephone exchange (hence a street you went to in order to place a telephone call), the truth appears to be that these streets were named after Florida’s territorial governor Richard K. Call. Telephone exchanges however were indeed a feature of railroad towns: the telegraph and telephone came into these towns as they were the regional centers for communications.
Mail also often came by train and was then taken further out to the post offices of smaller communities. Between the end of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth having a post office was the primary marker of a town’s having become really established, and at a time when few people in rural areas had automobiles, the ability to walk down the road to your local post office instead of taking a journey of miles was a game-changer. Goods such as seeds for planting and even baby chicks could be mail-ordered, and those goods came in via train. With this emphasis on transport and communication, railroad towns often were the first in their regions to establish a local newspaper as well, and many such as Blackshear Times of Blackshear, Georgia, have continued on to this day.
While some of these towns prosper today—Valdosta is a perfect example, secure in its status as the regional center, county seat, and home of a major university—many (like Waldo) have fallen to the wayside, especially as interstate highways bypassed them and their road routes as well as rail routes became less important. Yet these towns showcase some of the best of everyday Southern cultural history as well as key aspects of economic history. Without understanding the railroad, its importance to the South post-Civil War, and how it spurred other types of economic development, we cannot really understand the South’s broad history.
Lucky for us, these towns are all around Florida and Georgia, as well as in other Southern states, and they’re not hard to visit, offering a wellspring of history in the form of their layout and architecture. And in many of them—like Greenville, Florida, and Thomasville, Georgia, for example—people are attempting to take historic properties and restore them with new business ventures from inns to shops to restaurants in mind, demonstrating that the legacy of railroads presents towns that can be as charming as they are authentic and rich in history.