History of the Railroad in Columbus (Part 1 of 3)
Updated: Nov 5, 2021
Welcome back to Historic Columbus' History Spotlights! Today, we are looking into the early history of our railroads in Columbus. Transportation has always played a key role in the success of any city and Columbus is no exception. We will touch on some of the concerns within our community, benefits to the city, early maps of the railroads in our area, and the men who built the rail lines. Sources include: The Columbus, Georgia Centenary by Nancy Telfair, Red Clay, White Water, and Blues by Dr. Virginia Causey, A History of Georgia Railroads by Robert C. Jones, and the Library of Congress.
In December 1836, the Western & Atlantic Railroad was chartered, and in 1837, construction began on the line from what is now Atlanta to Rossville, Georgia (on the Tennessee border). The effect on Savannah, Augusta, Macon, and Columbus was instantaneous, either in arousing active interest and enthusiasm for railroad construction where none had manifested itself before, or in giving renewed impetus and inspiration to enterprises of this nature. A project to connect Columbus with the southern terminus of the State Road, was at once promoted in town. A corporation called the Chattahoochee Railroad and Banking Company was organized in 1837. The City Council, early in 1838, subscribed to two thousand shares of stock in the company, giving a mortgage on the Chattahoochee bridge to secure payment of 25 percent of the subscription. The city also issued $750,000 in bonds, the plan being to lend these bonds to subscribers, who had paid in twenty-five percent of their subscriptions in cash or its equivalent. The scheme certainly seemed promising, but like many another enterprise in the south during that period, and throughout the country, it could not weather the financial storm that depressed the country for nearly ten years following 1837.
Map of Columbus and Girard, 1840s
The city bridge (which was located where the Dillingham Street Bridge is today) was swept away, in what is generally referred to in accounts of our southern rivers as the 'Harrison Freshet.' The Chattahoochee Railroad & Banking Company, in March 1841, returned to the city its bonds and surrendered the mortgage on the bridge. The collapse of this enterprise, so wise in its conception, and so alluring in the bright prospects it presented for the future of Columbus, discouraged all railroad ventures for a while. Arguments were formed on both sides of the issue. On one side – that it would eat up the wagon trade and break down the business of the town – but on the other – if the railroad bypassed Columbus, the city would also become an isolated backwater. The state legislature granted the Muscogee Railroad a charter in December 1845, but construction did not commence until 1851. The Muscogee Railroad began carrying passengers to Upatoi on January 1, 1852, and to Butler on March 15, 1853, leaving a ten-mile stagecoach stretch journey to connect to the railroad to Savannah.
Early image of rail cars in Georgia
On May 20, 1853, the first non-stop train from Savannah arrived in Columbus after a thirteen-hour trip. Local businessmen hosted a dinner with champagne corks falling “like a hailstorm.” The mayor closed the dinner by pouring water from the Atlantic into a container of Chattahoochee River water in “wedlock.” This bottle still exists and was placed in one of Historic Columbus’ house museums, the Walker-Peters-Langdon House (716 Broadway). Following the celebration, Mayor Joseph L. Morton brought the water home, sealed it in this bottle and kept it as his prized possession. He named it “The Wedding of the Waters.” Joseph L. Morton, born in Connecticut on April 18, 1815, migrated to Columbus in the early 1830’s and married Catherine Peters, daughter of Nathaniel and Diana (Dicey) Peters, here in the Walker-Peters-Langdon house probably in 1837 when Catherine was but 16 years of age. Two children were born to this union. Nathaniel Peters Morton, born October 21, 1838, only lived for three months. Charles E. Morton was born on December 31, 1839, but died almost five years later on November 1, 1844. Later, they made their home in a house situated at 801 Broad Street on the northwest Corner of Broad and Eighth Streets (the current parking lot of the Marriott Hotel).
The Walker-Peters-Langdon House, c. 1828, stands on a lot surveyed as part of the original town plan. Colonel Virgil Walker purchased the lot for $105. He sold the house in 1836 to Mrs. Dicey Peters. In 1849, Mrs. Peter’s daughter, Frances, and her husband, Will Langdon, obtained the house. Members of the Langdon family occupied the home for over 100 years.
Joseph Morton took a lively interest in the affairs of Columbus, serving nine terms on the city council, two terms as mayor, two terms as a health officer, assistant fire chief for one year and chief engineer for two years. As a partner in Barringer and Morton, a building supply and contracting firm, he had a part in building a number of prominent buildings in Columbus, including the First Baptist Church. After his untimely death on October 7, 1871, his widow kept “The Wedding of the Waters” as a family treasure. During 1891-1892, she made her home with her nephew and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. William Peters Langdon at 725 First Avenue. While living there she gave "The Wedding of the Waters” to her great nephew William Barker Langdon, then about nine years of age. The bottle was promptly put on the top shelf in the pantry where it remained virtually untouched until the Langdon family sold the house during the 1960’s. About that time, William Barker Langdon gave the “Wedding of the Waters” to his sister’s son, Edwin Langdon Cliburn, who, in October 1989, contributed this historic curiosity to Historic Columbus to be placed in the Walker-Peters-Langdon House.
The Mobile and Girard Railroad company was chartered in 1846 as the Girard Railroad Company and the survey for the roadbed commenced four years later. The city of Columbus subscribed $150,000 and issued bonds to pay this subscription. Another like amount was subscribed in 1853 on condition that it be used exclusively between Columbus and Union Springs. This railroad was completed to Guerryton, Alabama, 38 miles away, in 1857. Although the work on the bridge across the Chattahoochee was begun in 1860, it was not completed until after the Civil War. Montgomery built a spur line from Opelika to Columbus in 1855. Contemptuously called “the elbow” by Columbusites, it remained for many years the only route to Atlanta. This was the third railroad into Columbus. For the accommodation of passengers, the Muscogee station was erected on the East Commons between Randolph (12th Street) and Bryan (13th Street) Streets. The present Union Station/Sixth Avenue Passenger Station is on this site.
Map, c. 1861 from Library of Congress: shows railroad lines emanating south and east of Atlanta going toward Macon and Columbus, Ga., with a notation "125 miles from Atlanta to Andersonville [Prison]."
Despite fears that the railroad would cause Columbus to lose trade, the city benefited, with cotton receipts more than doubling between 1852 and 1859. More reliable than the Chattahoochee’s unpredictable water levels, the railroad helped Columbus’ exports. As businessmen Paris Tillinghast wrote in 1853, “the river here is navigable, but boats doing very little. Most of the cotton goes off to Savannah direct by the railroad.” However, the railroad did put merchants at a disadvantage by having to increase the cost of importing groceries, clothing, and furniture. Of the several railroad wrecks in the early history of that industry in Columbus, that at Randall's Creek in 1858 was the worst. It occurred the last day of the year about sixteen miles east of the city. Heavy rains had undermined the trestle and several cars fell into the swollen stream. Of the forty passengers some twelve or fourteen were killed. The survivors caught to trees or limbs until they could be rescued. The famous racehorse, Moidore, owned by a Mr. Pryor, was lost in this wreck.
Map, c. 1861 from Library of Congress: shows the southern border of South Carolina, northern border of Georgia, and eastern borders of Alabama and Tennessee, with railroads, towns, forts, prisons, landforms, and waterways.
Construction of the railroad prior to the Civil War was done by enslaved labor. In 1830, more than 35 percent of Columbus’ population was Black. In 1860, 40 percent of white families owned slaves, most with six or fewer. Slaves built everything in Columbus – private residences, commercial structures, factories, streets, dams, and railroads. Many were employed by the industry as skilled workers who competed with free white artisans. Many masters hired out their slaves, sometimes allowing them to keep a portion of their earnings. But slaves who hired their time often tried to escape. Black workers on riverboats spread information helpful to others enslaved, much as railroad porters did later. Following the Civil War, convict labor was used for construction. In December 1866, the Georgia General Assembly approved “farming out” convicts to the highest bidder. Many soon realized that they could use petty criminal statutes to control former slaves, creating a large pool of leasable convicts. Companies leasing prisoners used rolling penitentiaries, cages about the size of half a boxcar, that followed construction and railroad camps. Each cage held about 24 prisoners. Using convict labor to supplement city services is still a practice Columbus uses today.
Muscogee County convict road crew, CSU Archives.
By the early 1870s, Columbus boasted six cotton mills, eight iron foundries, an agricultural implements factory, a cotton gin manufacturer, a brewery, three carriage manufacturers, 24 boot and shoemakers, and four furniture workers. The city also embraced the postwar railroad craze, with five routes proposed. But the 1873 national financial panic led to a six-year depression, reversing much of Columbus’ previous economic diversification. Construction at the local end of three railroads never began, and the other two went into receivership, leaving Macon the only significant city to which Columbus had a direct connection, a crippling weakness. Many small businesses closed or left. The textile industry boomed, however, expanding 339 percent from 1870 to 1880. The Eagle & Phenix added a huge third mill in 1878 and for a time ranked as the largest textile factory in the South. Following the 1873 panic, a five-year period centering in 1887 - 1888 constituted the greatest railroad building era in the history of Columbus. Within these years, three more railroads leading out of Columbus were constructed. The effect on the transportation situation in Columbus was far greater than the facilities provided by these three lines, for they stimulated the extension of other railroads, brought about reduction in freight rates, improved passenger service, and in several other ways were of substantial benefit to this city.
Next week, we will explore more of the late 1800s and early 1900s in railroad history - including the Georgia Midland & Gulf and the Columbus Southern Railroads. I'm looking forward to learning about it all and I hope you are too! 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