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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

From the Circus Train Wreck to the Man o' War: History of the Railroad in Columbus (Part 3 of 3)

Sources include: City of Progress by Margaret L. Whitehead and Barbara Bogart; Seaboard Airline Railroad Freight Depot, Columbus Georgia; Circus Wreck: 100 years ago, a fiery rail crash destroyed a circus and gave Columbus a tiny hero by Richard Hyatt for the Columbus Ledger–Enquirer; Central of Georgia Railway by McQuigg, Galloway, and McIntosh, and A History of Georgia Railroads by Robert C. Jones.


In mid-1894, the nationwide rail depression hit its peak, a quarter of the nation’s railroads were operated by receivers with about $25,000,000 of railroad capital affected. The Georgia Midland and Gulf became one of many victims of this depression and went into bankruptcy in 1894. The company was then operated under receivership until 1896. When it was sold to G. Gunby Jordan, William H. Palmer, R. A. Lancaster, and George Sherman, who reorganized it as the Georgia Midland Railroad under a state charter granted in March 1896. In July 1896, the company was acquired by Southern Railway Co., which had begun operation in July 1895. The Southern Railway Co., with branches throughout the South, was a part of the J.P. Morgan railroad empire. Although the financial control of the Southern was exclusively in Northern hands, Southerners held top management positions. Samuel Spencer of Columbus was the first president of the Southern Railway Co. During his dozen years as president, the line greatly increased in length and gross earnings. At the time of his death in 1906, Spencer was recognized as a leading figure in the development and evolution of the “New South.” Spencer was one of seven killed in a collision of two passenger trains on his own railroad. This new era of railroad building saw the Central of Georgia extending three of its lines. Two large railroad systems, namely the Southern Railway System and the Seaboard Airline, began rolling through Columbus. The city was quickly becoming crisscrossed with railroad tracks and cars carrying goods to the city and leaving with goods manufactured by local industries.

Drawing of the Central RR. & Banking Co. of Georgia Freight Depot, c. 1881. It was located on 12th Street behind the Union Station and demolished in 1987. Above image courtesy of Mrs. Lawrence C. Petri.

In 1902, the Seaboard Airline Railway leased the freight line running down Front Avenue in Columbus from the Columbus Railroad Company. The latter company was primarily involved in operating streetcar lines within the city and in retailing electric power. It had not been very active in the railroad freight business. The industries, cotton warehouses, and other commercial operations along Front Avenue were eager for Seaboard to acquire those tracks, since that railroad would provide competition to the Central of Georgia Railroad, the primary carrier out of Columbus. Seaboard also built its own depot in the 1000 block of Front Avenue in 1902. The small brick depot (48 x 65 feet), built on a hill sloping westward, contained two stories; the upper story was the street level on the eastern side. Its most distinctive feature was a series of arches along its southern and eastern sides on the upper level and the southern and western sides on the basement level. Tracks, supported by a trestle, adjoined the western side of the upper story. The building incorporated many wooden elements. All the archway doors, and the western wall of the upper end, were of wood and the roof was composed of wooden trusses. The second story contained a raised wooden platform accommodating goods unloaded from and destined for the railway cars. The building functioned as a freight depot until 1971. The Seaboard Airline continued to service Front & Bay Avenues out of its main yard east of 6th Avenue.

At the turn of the century, the South had virtually completed its rail network, which boasted marked improvements in service, schedules, and economy of transportation. However, local control at the time was almost totally superseded by Northern financial influence. This was a natural continuation of the trend established during the 1880s and 1890s when so many of the small local lines went into receivership. One of our community’s most noted train wrecks occurred on November 22, 1915. Four days before Thanksgiving, the 1915 season for the Con. T. Kennedy Circus was coming to an end. They were on their way from a stint downtown at the Atlanta Exposition, where it set records for money and attendance, and their next stop was Girard, Alabama, across a newly opened bridge from Columbus. The train and its array of performers were six miles out of town, and the tracks ahead were believed to be clear. A Central of Georgia passenger train headed to Macon had left Columbus and was supposed to wait at Muscogee Junction. Only orders were ignored. The Central of Georgia train barreled onto the main tracks and, near a bend at Bull Creek, it collided head-on with the unsuspecting circus train. They were going 30 to 35 mph when they plowed into one another at 1:26 PM -- 9 minutes before the regular train was supposed to pull out.

Image – The Columbus Museum: The Evelyn S. and H. Wayne Patterson Fund, 1915 The photographs were taken by John B. McCollum, a photographer in Columbus, Georgia who had a studio on Broadway, across from the Bradley Theater.

Flames as hot as a furnace moved through the circus train, which was made of metal and wood and loaded with oily tents that fanned the flames. Twenty-four members of the circus died. More than 50 survivors ended up in an overrun City Hospital. When the engines telescoped into one another, they never left the track. Cars on the Central of Georgia train were much sturdier, and there were no fatalities among the passengers. That was not the case on the circus train. Cars at the rear carrying an assortment of wild animals were untouched and free from the flames. In between, nine cars were consumed in less than two hours. Word that an angry circus bear was on the loose lured young hunters from town, but the fate of the animal was never reported. Colorful parrots flew away, but a gaggle of monkeys did not escape. Frightened and frantic, they jumped into trees next to the rail bed. Circus people, knowing they would hamper rescue efforts shot the monkeys out of the trees. The show in Girard did not go on, and circus people were left without places to stay or money for food. Columbus people rallied around them, and a group of Women's Club ladies fed them a Thanksgiving meal on the first floor of the Murrah Building on First Avenue. Thanksgiving morning, Dr. Luther R. Christie, pastor at First Baptist Church from 1909 to 1917, led a funeral cortege down 12th Street before presiding at a service unlike the city had ever seen. Behind him were musicians from Prof. Eslick's band, some playing borrowed instruments. They played a somber version of "Rock of Ages" as they crept down the street to the church. Every pew was filled as Christie preached about God's omnipotence and about the haven He offers in the darkest of hours. The day after the services, what was left of the Con T. Kennedy Show went to Albany, Ga., then to Jacksonville, Fla., where their season officially closed. The close-knit circus community rallied around them and provided equipment and acts for the remaining dates. A circus tent memorial headstone was later erected Riverdale Cemetery commemorating the tragedy.

While the nation was is the throes of World War I, on January 1, 1918, the federal government – under the auspices of the United States Railroad Administration (USRA) – took over the nation’s major railroads. All lines of any size or strategic importance, including the Central of Georgia, were leased by the USRA with the idea of facilitating better coordination between the various railroads in order to support the war effort. While the nationalization experiment produced mixed results, there is no disputing the fact that USRA – controlled lines moved 8,714,582 troops in total before the lines were returned to private operations on February 29, 1920. Many other concerns of different types were also established in this period of remarkable growth which followed World War I. During this period, the railroad lines serving the city were also compelled to contribute their share in the development and to reap the benefits of an increase in freight. The Central of Georgia, the Southern and the Seaboard roads all improved their lines. The Central of Georgia railway constructed a new coal chute, a new roundhouse, enlarged the freight yards, built various other new buildings, and underpasses. The Richardsonian Romanesque Union Depot, originally built in 1901, also received a renovation during this time.

The Columbus Depot/Central of Georgia Railroad Terminal/Sixth Avenue Passenger Station: This structure served for decades as the community passenger train station. When the station was threatened by demolition in 1984, Historic Columbus, with the cooperation of the Southern Railway System and the City of Columbus, initiated a “Save Our Station” fundraising campaign led by Thomas Boyd III, a local banker and a HCF Past President. The station was purchased in 1987 by TSYS for its new corporate headquarters. Today, it is the home of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and the Pope, McGlamry, Kilpatrick, Morrison, & Norwood, P.C. law firm.

However, the most notable piece of construction work done by the Central of Georgia was the construction of the Thirteenth Street viaduct in 1925 which is the longest in Georgia, being 1,888 feet in length and 50 feet wide. It extends from Fifth to Tenth Avenues, along Thirteenth Street. It was built at a cost of nearly half a million dollars, a part of which amount was borne by the city and by the Southern Railroad whose lines are partly affected by it. The Eleventh Street underpass and the First Avenue underpass between Sixteenth and Seventeenth Streets were also completed during that period of the city's growth. The development of the railroads was the key to opening up areas throughout the nation, which heretofore lacked efficient and economic transportation links. However, the advent of the automobile and truck lines, and the later development and sophistication of air travel, the railroads, not unlike the steamboats and stagecoaches, began to outlive their usefulness as a passenger conveyance. The railroads also suffered from a decrease in freight operations. Between 1920 and 1957, rail passenger traffic dropped from 1.27 billion to 413 million.

The Man o' War, named after the famous racehorse, was the first all Georgia streamliner and placed in service in 1947 by the Central of Georgia Railway between Columbus and Atlanta on a schedule of two round trips daily. The passenger train consisted of just four Budd-built cars: two coaches, a baggage-coach, and a tavern-observation car, for a total of 152 revenue seats and 56 non-revenue seats, all pulled by a General Motors E-7 locomotive. Many Columbusites will remember trips on the Man o' War. Its passengers included executives on business trips, women on shopping excursions, families on vacations, and school children on outings. In compliance with Jim Crow laws, the Central of Georgia segregated the coaches with African Americans confined to the baggage-coach of the Man o’ War. Blacks weren’t even allowed to patronize the diner-lounges. Most railroads did not appreciate the extra costs these laws imposed on them, but the Central of Georgia initially refused to desegregate even after Congress passed laws against such segregation, saying federal laws didn’t apply to its passenger trains because they didn’t cross state lines. The Union Depot in Columbus was also segregated at the time with separate waiting rooms for passengers. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, passenger train traffic in Columbus reflected the national trend: fewer and fewer “daily runs” into the city were made, until the great passenger trains began disappearing one by one. Ironically, as fewer runs were made, the public was forced to depend even more on the other means of transportation, which had superseded the passenger trains, this adding further to the railroads’ growing financial headaches. Although many, including the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, fought to prevent it, “The Man o' War,” which had reigned for years as the city’s best known passenger train, was forced to reduce its daily trips to Atlanta, and to discontinue its lounge car in an effort to recoup losses. In 1963, the Central of Georgia was bought by the Southern Railway and today it is a part of the Norfolk Southern.

Finally, economics dealt the train its death blow. It was discontinued around 1969. “The Seminole,” another passenger train which passed through Columbus daily en route to Jacksonville, Florida was discontinued in July 1968. Rail passenger service to and from Columbus ended on April 31, 1971 when “The City of Miami” en route to Chicago rumbled through town for the last time taking with it a piece of American history. As a newspaper writer put it, the demise of the great passenger trains “ was like a sad ending to a once happy romance for passenger trains had served the city for 119 years, often thriving.” Although passenger trains no longer chug through Columbus, freight service still remains. The city is still crisscrossed with railroad tracks.

In 1971, the federal government established Amtrak as a quasi-public corporation to handle rail passenger service in an attempt to relieve the private railroads' ever increasing passenger train losses. Of the twenty six railroads still offering intercity passenger routes in 1971, twenty of them turned them over to Amtrak. Others, such as the Southern Railway, followed suit later in the decade. Amtrak serves more than 500 destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces, operating more than 300 trains daily over 21,400 miles of track. Amtrak owns approximately 623 miles of this track and operates an additional 132 miles of track. Some track sections allow trains to run as fast as 150 mph. In fiscal year 2018, Amtrak served 31.7 million passengers and had $3.4 billion in revenue, while employing more than 20,000 people.

Next week, it's time to celebrate Thanksgiving! In December, we will explore some history and postcard images of our neighbor Warm Springs. Thank you all for your love of our history, our places, and our people. You make preservation happen. If you are not a member, we hope you will join us! Elizabeth B. Walden Executive Director

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