As a corporate entity, the Central of Georgia Railway “lived” for nearly 150 years. It connected much of its home state, parts of Alabama, and reached Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Pieces of the railroad survive as part of Norfolk Southern. Its corporate name also remains, although only on paper.
Built to help export King Cotton
Since its founding in 1732, Savannah’s commercial activity was focused at its port. Cotton was shipped down the Savannah River from Augusta to be exported overseas. However, when the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company (SCC&RR) was chartered, it got the attention of Savannah’s business leaders. In October 1833 the South Carolina railroad completed a 136-mile line to Hamburg, South Carolina, which was located directly across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia. At that time, it was then the longest railroad in the United States and began taking trade from Savannah and shifted it to Charleston, Savannah’s rival port.
Realizing the SCC&RR could diminish the importance of the Port of Savannah, the town’s business and political leaders worked to charter the Central Rail Road & Canal Company (CRR&CC). It was chartered on December 20, 1833.
The CRR&CC was designed to connect Savannah with Macon, a city located roughly in the center of the state. Surveys were made in 1834; construction began in December 1835. The railroad’s name was modified in 1836 to the Central Rail Road & Banking Company of Georgia (CRR&BC). This name change was done because the railroad was having difficulty raising money and the name change provided banking powers. Another delay was the financial Panic of 1837.
Nonetheless, 26 miles of track were in service within a year. By spring 1839, 76 miles of track were laid, and by late 1843 the railroad line reached downtown Macon via a bridge over the Ocmulgee River. The 191-mile railroad was finished and at that time, it was the longest continuous railroad line under a single management in the world.
The Central’s first full year of operation was 1840. Revenues were generated by freight (70%), passengers (27%) and mail (3%). The railroad’s route served many large plantations and farms; most of the freight was cotton and other agricultural products. In 1841 rail operations were severely impacted by a succession of floods that destroyed sections of track and bridges. Concurrently, outbreaks of fevers struck railroad workers making repairs, which slowed the necessary repairs. By 1842 the railroad repairs were made and it was running normally. Between that year and 1861 (start of the Civil War) the majority of the railroad’s revenue was earned transporting freight (68-86% of total revenue). Passenger revenue during the same period ranged from 11%-23% and mail ranged from 2%-9% of revenue. Importantly, the railroad was profitable during that time period.
A former mayor of Savannah, William Washington Gordon was the first president of the Central of Georgia Railroad. He oversaw the building of the rail lines to Macon and the initial construction of a railroad shop complex and passenger station at Savannah.
When Gordon died in 1842, Richard R. Cuyler was named company president. In 1851, Cuyler oversaw the construction of larger facilities in Savannah for the maintenance, repair and construction of locomotives and railcars.
As its profits grew the railroad expanded across Georgia. Much of that growth came from the acquisition of smaller railways.
In 1855 the Central of Georgia purchased two railroads – the Milledgeville & Gordon Railroad (M&G) and the Eatonton Branch Railroad (EBRR). The M&G operated 17 miles of rail, connecting with the Central at Gordon and Milledgeville. The latter was leased first; it was acquired in 1897. It maintained a 22-mile route that linked with the M&G at Milledgeville and then ran northward to Eatonton.
In 1862 the Central of Georgia leased the August & Savannah Rail Road, which operated from Augusta along a 53-mile line to an interchange with the Central at Millen.
Civil War brings hardships
The Civil War was a difficult period for the Central of Georgia. As the war began, the railroad controlled 229 miles of track, had 59 locomotives and 729 railcars. It owned the South’s second-largest amount of rolling stock. This changed significantly; the Confederacy ordered railroads in its territory to transfer rolling stock to the railroads carrying military traffic. The Central of Georgia’s Savannah shops were also shifted to the production of gun carriages and other military equipment. Locomotive maintenance was shifted to Macon until the war’s end.
Between 1861 and 1863 the Central of Georgia continued to be profitable. However, passenger service became more important than freight. In 1862 and 1863 passenger service revenues were greater than freight revenues. This was due in part to the difficulty of exporting cotton via Savannah because of the Union’s blockade.
During the war the railroad could not repair its tracks, which were being worn out due to heavy train traffic. Some of the Central’s locomotives and railcars were being used by other railroads across the South. During Sherman’s March to the Sea Union troops destroyed track, bridges and other railroad facilities. The Central lost 140 miles of track, 14 locomotives and 97 railcars. Because Sherman did not burn Savannah as he had Atlanta, the railroad’s Savannah Shops complex was spared.
By the end of the war, the Central of Georgia was in poor condition. William Wadley became company president in January 1866, a post he would hold until 1882. His legacy was the rebuilding of the railroad.
By June 1866 rail service was restored from Savannah to Macon. By 1867 the Central was profitable again; most of the revenue was generated by transporting freight. The railroad’s headquarters continued to be in Savannah throughout its expansion across Georgia.
Post-war expansion included the replacement of all destroyed rail connections, as well as 1,500 miles of new track.
Purchases and leases bring expansion
The railroad made its first postwar acquisition on December 1, 1869. It leased the routes of the South Western Railroad. A 258-mile system, the South Western Railroad was composed of several smaller railroads. It connected with the Central in Macon, ran southwest to Albany and westward to Columbus. In Smithville (along the rail line to Albany), tracks reached Eufaula at the Alabama border. The railroad connected there with the Montgomery & Eufaula Railroad (M&E), which completed its line in 1870. However, the M&E failed in the late 1870s and its assets were acquired by the Central on May 1, 1879. It renamed the acquisition the Montgomery & Eufaula Railway.
In 1870, the railroad purchased the 273-acre Vale Royal Plantation, which was on the Savannah River. The Central built docks and warehouse facilities on the property, which was used until the railroad sold the acreage to the State of Georgia in 1958.
The Mobile & Girard Railroad was also acquired in 1870. It was founded in 1845 and eventually built a route from Columbus, Georgia, across the Chattahoochee River at Girard, Alabama. The goal of the Mobile & Girard Railroad had been to link Columbus with Mobile Bay. That was never accomplished; however, in 1899 (under the Central of Georgia name), tracks were extended from Searight to Andalusia, Alabama, constituting the branch’s furthest reach.
In 1872 the company diversified through the acquisition of the Savannah Steamship Line and the formation of the Ocean Steamship Company of Savannah, a wholly owned subsidiary.
In that same year, the Central acquired the Macon & Western Railroad (M&W), as well as its subsidiary, the Savannah, Griffin & North Alabama Railroad. While the Central of Georgia and the M&W both operated rail lines in Macon, the M&W was the first; it began operating a 26-mile line to Forsyth on December 10, 1838.
The M&W had extended its line to the northwest in 1846. It laid rails to Terminus, where it interchanged with the Georgia Railroad & Banking Company (which later was part of the West Point Route) and Western & Atlantic Railroad (later the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis).
Terminus was renamed Marthasville in 1843 and then renamed Atlanta in 1847.
As expansion continued through the 1870s and into the 1880s the Central Rail Road & Banking Company of Georgia was growing into a major southern railway system.
Part 2 of this article will run tomorrow on FreightWaves.com.
The following sources were used to develop this article, and the writer is thankful for the research and information provided by them. If you are interested to learn more, these are excellent sources:
- American-Rails.com: Central of Georgia Railway: Map, Roster, History, Logo
- CHSGeorgia.org: A Brief History of the Central of Georgia Railroad by John A. Caramia, Jr.
- Hawkinsrails.net: Central of Georgia Railroad
- Central of Georgia Railway Historical Society