Gwinnett Rail: A Different Type of ‘Air Line’

by Ruddy Ellis

Visitors to the Southeastern Railway Museum frequently hear the roar of trains along the track between the museum and Buford Highway. Most folks probably know that this is the Norfolk-Southern main line from Atlanta to Richmond, Virginia, and the route of AMTRAK’s “Crescent” from New Orleans to Washington, D.C.

Atlanta came into being as the junction of the Georgia Railroad, the Macon & Western and the Western & Atlantic. Trains were running on these three lines by 1845. If you wanted to get to our nation’s capital at Washington, D.C., you could ride to Savannah or Augusta and take a boat up the coast, or you could take a train to Chattanooga, then up through Tennessee and Virginia.

As Atlanta grew in importance, it was natural that railroad advocates would consider building a railroad along a straight line from Atlanta to Charlotte, North Carolina to Richmond, Virginia. Such a railroad route is known as an “Air Line.” In 1858, a meeting was held in Gainesville, Georgia, of the stockholders of the “Georgia Air Line Railroad.” The President was Jonathan Norcross.* The Civil War delayed any construction of the line.

After the war, the New York & New Orleans Air Line was incorporated in 1866, but construction in northeast Georgia was started in 1869, by the Atlanta & Richmond Air Line. A. S. Buford was the president of this railroad. By September 1869, the first 20 miles of grading was complete. By November 1870, grading was nearly completed to Gainesville. By September 1873, passenger trains ran through to Charlotte.

This railroad ran into bankruptcy and the property was taken over by the Atlanta & Charlotte Air Line in February, 1877. By 1881, the Richmond & Danville Railroad put together a large system throughout the southeast including the Atlanta & Charlotte Air Line. The name was changed to the Southern Railway System in 1894 and remained “The Southern” for many years. Finally, the Southern Railway merged with the Norfolk & Western Railway in 1982 resulting in today’s Norfolk-Southern Railway.

The track near the museum was single tracked until the tremendous World War I traffic forced a double tracking of the entire line from Atlanta to Richmond in 1917. At the same time, curves were straightened and major relocations took place. Mt. Airy was bypassed altogether and a new bridge across the Tugalo River was built a mile or so upstream.

The advent of centralized traffic control allowed Southern to go back to single track along the route to reduce maintenance. However, the track near the museum has remained double track as part of a long siding, often allowing trains to pass each other without stopping. The track is a major route for the heavy freight traffic of the Norfolk-Southern. It sees two AMTRAK Crescent trains each day and, in a few years, it may see commuter trains running from Atlanta to Gainesville.

*Editor’s note: Jonathan Norcross, an Atlanta merchant, was the city’s fourth mayor in 1851.

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