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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

The Story of the Building of the Georgia Midland & Gulf and Columbus Southern Railroads (Part 2 / 3)

Please note, the majority of this History Spotlight is transcribed from

one article (title above) in the 1928 Industrial Index. The last two paragraphs

and several images are from Columbus 1828 – 1928 by Nancy Telfair.

Additional images are from the Library of Congress.


Columbus civic spirit never found finer or more heroic expression than when it built the Georgia Midland & Gulf Railroad and the Columbus Southern Railroad, 40 years ago. In all great achievements of the city’s history none surpass these two exploits, both of which were carried through to a successful conclusion in the face of conditions that often seemed hopeless. Columbus’ railroad situation at the time was desperate and the city urgently needed these two lines. There was then no direct railroad line to Atlanta, the railroad to Birmingham had not been completed, and the only city with which Columbus had direct rail connection was Macon. How the situation was materially changed for the better through the sheer enterprise and courage of Columbus citizens, with the assistance of other interested communities and friends at a distance, is told in this article.

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. The people of Columbus, under capable and energetic leadership, and with the aid of outside capital which believed in this territory and its possibilities built the Georgia Midland & Gulf Railroad and the Columbus Southern Railroad. This influenced the almost immediate construction of what was known as the Buena Vista & Ellaville, now the branch of the Central of Georgia Railway from Columbus to Americus. The Georgia Midland & Gulf Railroad was incorporated September 29, 1885, by the Georgia Legislature. The company began construction of its line in 1886, and on December 1, 1887, it was opened through to McDonough, 98 miles. The Columbus & Florida Railway Company was chartered October 13, 1885. Its name was changed to Columbus Southern Railway Company December 27, 1886. The construction of this road began November 22, 1887, and it was completed to Albany, Georgia, 88 miles, on April 12, 1890. It was originally planned to build the Georgia Midland & Gulf Railroad as a short route to Atlanta. The line as surveyed to Atlanta was a little less than 104 miles. It was (also) planned to build the Southern Railroad to Valdosta and then into Florida. Subsequent developments made it necessary to change these plans, and Athens was selected as the terminus to which the Georgia Midland & Gulf Railroad was to be built, the line deflecting from the Atlanta Route in the general direction of Athens. Albany became the terminus of the Columbus Southern Railroad.

It was an epic, indeed, when these groups of enterprising and stout-hearted Columbus citizens undertook and carried into successful completion the construction of these two railroads. Those who took part in these two notable enterprises practically all have passed away, but among the three or four still left is the outstanding personality in these projects which had such a profound effect on the fortunes and destiny of Columbus. Reference is made to G. Gunby Jordan (pictured above) to whom Columbus is indebted more than to any other one person for the building of these two railroads and the other transportation benefit that resulted. Mr. Jordan, who is now in the youthful section of the eighties is not only alive, but very much alive, and is extremely active. He is, as always, at the forefront of civic service, as is making a characteristic contribution to the further advancement of his home community just now, in that he is serving as one of the County Commissioners at a time when Muscogee County is making the greatest forward step in its entire history, paving its roads, and making and planning other substantial public improvement.

Going back to the early beginning of the Georgia Midland & Gulf projects, we find that originally Jos. W. Woolfolk undertook with the engineer, Arthur Pew, to run a railroad line from Columbus to Atlanta, and agitate the necessity for a construction of this road. Mr. Woolfolk’s duties in his warehouse business were so urgent that he could not give the proper time to this important public enterprise and at the request of many citizens, businessmen of Columbus, G. Gunby Jordan undertook the task of constructing a competing railroad line into this city. Mr. Jordan had just voluntarily retired from the Eagle & Phenix Mills early in 1886. One can well imagine the bounding energy at that period of his life, when he was in his early forties, and the enthusiasm and ability with which he undertook this tremendous responsibility. The Georgia Midland & Gulf Railroad was incorporated September 29, 1885, by G. Gunby Jordan, J.W. Woolfolk, M. Edgar Gray of Columbus, and Chas. L. Davis of Meriwether County. This was the complete list of incorporators. All that these four men proposed to do was to build a 104-mile railroad line. Seaton Grantland of Griffin was elected president, and Chas. L. Davis treasurer of the company. The directors of the Georgia Midland & Gulf Railway, numbers of whom were most active in lending their personal and financial assistance to this project were: Geo. P. Swift, Jr., Jno. F. Flournoy, J.W. Woolfolk, E.J. Rankin, Chas. L. Davis, W.J. Kincaid and Seaton Grantland of Griffin, and others. The Georgia Midland Construction Company was organized to do the actual construction. The officers of this company were: G. Gunby Jordan, president, J.E. Grannis (New York), vice president, M.W. Gray, treasurer.

Construction of the railroad began, as stated, in 1886. In the spring – summer of that year, it had been completed to Waverly Hall. July 15, 1887, the company began running trains into Griffin. December 1, 1887, the line was open through to McDonough. The railroad cost $12,500 bonds per mile, and some private subscription. The money was raised partly by subscriptions of individuals and corporations, but mainly by the construction company and through the issuance of bonds. The city of Columbus did not directly take any stock in the company but exchanged 1,000 shares of its holdings of Mobile & Girard Railroad stock (then held at nominal or no value) for Georgia Midland & Gulf stock. The Commons Commissioners, acting for the city of Columbus, turned over to the company about 24 acres for terminals, shops, sidetracks and like purposes.

Details of two railroad areas in Bird's Eye View Map of Columbus, c. 1886 left - 6th Avenue and 7th Street and right - 6th Avenue and 12th Street

This encouraging beginning having been made, a strong committee visited Atlanta and asked, what Columbus naturally insisted upon, some reasonable subscription from Atlanta. That city was then in the throes of a prohibition campaign, and very little interest was taken in this proffered railway. A member of the committee who went to Atlanta, telling of the efforts made to interest this city in the Georgia Midland & Gulf, said: “One day a citizen of Atlanta would subscribe. A few days afterward he would cancel his subscription as he had just heard of a subscription that told him it was to be a “wet” railroad. Then in a few days the “wet” subscriber would cancel as he had just heard a “dry” say he wished the road built.”

Map, c. 1881 from Library of Congress: Map of the Richmond & Danville Railroad system in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, & Texas

“So, it came about,” this gentleman continued, “that Griffin, Concord, Neal, and other points heard of all this, got busy, and sent in a strong delegation with the required (and more) subscriptions. Then, the line was diverted. The cause of this action was that the security holders of the Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line Railway (now the Southern) had leased their line to the Richmond and Danville Railroad Company on an earning sliding scale. They approached Columbus parties and agreed to assist in financing the railroad via Griffin to McDonough and on to Athens. The tonnage of the Lula connection with the Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line would help their earnings. The line to McDonough was then independent – it was the East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia railway. It offered freight competition if the Georgia Midland & Gulf got there. So it was determined and so it went, making unfortunately another of the misfit, but highly useful rail lines into Columbus. It forced the Central of Georgia to build the line to Newnan. At a meeting of the Central board, when the Mobile & Girard stock was turned over to them, the certain construction of the line to Birmingham was promised. It follows that the action of Columbus in constructing the Georgia Midland & Gulf brought in sequence competition, the extension of three Central of Georgia lines, and finally the permanent entrance into this city of both the Southern and Seaboard systems. The Georgia Midland & Gulf was the first railroad on record constructed by the aid of telephones. The right-of-way was cleared, poles were put in place, wires were strung, and a telephone installed in each division engineer’s camp along the line. Each night the chief engineer heard a report from each division.

Map, c. 1882 from Library of Congress: The Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia Air Line; the Shenandoah Valley R.R.; Norfolk & Western R.R.; East Tennessee, Virginia, & Georgia R.R. (its leased lines,) and their connections.

The story of the construction of the Columbus Southern Railroad also reads like a romance. November 22, 1887, just nine days before the completion of the Georgia Midland & Gulf Railroad to McDonough, construction of the Columbus Southern began. This company was chartered October 13, 1885, as the Columbus and Florida Railroad Company, and the line was to extend to Valdosta and on to Florida. December 27, 1886, the name was changed to Columbus Southern Railroad Company. The incorporators of the company were: W.A. Little, G. Gunby Jordan, Geo. P. Swift, Jr., B.T. Hatcher, and Jno. F. Flournoy of Columbus; S.G. McLendon and Arthur P. Wright, Thomasville; Byron B. Bower of Bainbridge, and Ed Lewis of Florida. The officers of the company were T.J. Pearce, president; Nelson Tift of Albany, vice president; and C. B. Grimes, treasurer. The road was built by the Chattahoochee Brick Company which operated as the construction company. The directors of the Columbus Southern were T.J. Pearce, C. B. Grimes, T. E. Blanchard, J.P. Kyle, J.A. Lewis, and S.A. Carter of Columbus; J.W.F. Lowry of Terrell county; Nelson Tift of Albany; and John Stephens of Chattahoochee County.

Mr. Jordan and W.B. Lowe went to New York and made an agreement with James Harle to finance the rails, spikes, and bridges. In the days when the Columbus Southern Railroad was built, Mr. Harle was an active, ambitious cotton speculator. He was a nephew of John H. Inman, who was by odds the leading winner in the cotton market of New York in that period. Shortly after Mr. Harle had cleared up over a million in a cotton corner, he was seen by Mr. Lowe and Mr. Jordan, and agreed to finance the metal end of the Columbus Southern. Mr. Harle went into the matter in good faith, but overlooked the promise, prudently exacted of him by the Columbus committee, to put in trust, beyond the vicissitudes of cotton futures, about $800,000. Before long, Mr. Harle was caught in a crash of the market, and was bankrupt, and so the metal deal with him came to naught. The Columbus Southern had to start all over again, and more modestly. It had been the intention of the incorporators to build to Valdosta and probably to Florida. The Georgia convicts (leased by the company) who were used in building this railroad could be worked as far as the state line. When it became necessary to curtail the project, Albany was chosen as the most available Southern terminus. All of this meant delay and greater cost, but those who were behind this enterprise stuck to their guns and the road was completed within less than 26 months after construction began. Construction of the road began November 22, 1887, and the line was completed to Albany April 12, 1890. In 1888 and 1889 trains operated to Cusseta, Richland, and Dawson. The money for construction of this road was furnished by the construction company, by bonds sold by Simon Borg & Company, and a few subscriptions by private individuals. The city of Columbus did not take any stock in the new railroad or buy any of its bonds.

Map, c. 1896 from Library of Congress: Map of the Seaboard Air Line and its principal connections north, south, east & west.

January 1, 1897, the name of the railroad was changed to the Georgia & Alabama Railway. The Seaboard Air Line Railway took it over July 1, 1900, and the line has since been operated as a part of the Seaboard Air Line System. In the middle 1890s several cases came up before the Federal court for settlement, which were of great importance to business in Columbus. They were concerned with railroads and mills having large interests here. The Georgia Midland, Mobile and Girard, Columbus and Western, Columbus and Rome, and Columbus and Southern railroads, all short lines out of Columbus, were forced by trust companies in New York to be sold under foreclosure proceedings. They were bought, for the most part, by their bondholders, who in turn sold them to large railroad corporations by whom they are continued in operation. At that time, L. F. Garrard represented the interest of the trust companies here for all but the Columbus Southern, for which (W. A.) Little and (J. D.) Little were employed. The railroads then operated as follows: Georgia Midland by the Southern Railway; Columbus Southern by the Seaboard Air Line Railway; Columbus and Western by the Central of Georgia Railway; Columbus and Rome by the Central of Georgia Railway; Mobile and Girard by the Central of Georgia Railway.

Next week, we will explore Columbus' railroad history following the turn of the 20th century, during World War II, and after. 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

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