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Airline Belle Train
Expansion of rail-based mass transit is a topic of interest in Northeast Georgia these days, but did you know that it was available once before, over a century ago? An “accommodation train”, named the “Airline Belle”, carried folks from Northeast Georgia into Atlanta in the mornings, and then back out of town in the afternoons, from 1880 to the 1930s, on the tracks of what is now the Norfolk Southern Railway. Towns like Norcross, Duluth, Suwanee, Buford, Gainesville, Lula and Toccoa (and many points in between) had easy access to commuter service into the city in those days. This article looks back on the Belle and some of the people and events associated with it.
The state of Georgia decided in the 1830s to build a railroad (cutting edge technology in those days!) through northwest Georgia, to provide a transportation link connecting central Georgia to the Tennessee River and the water transportation to the Midwest that it provided. Surveyor Stephen Long laid out the route for the railroad, called the Western and Atlantic, and was told to use his expertise to determine a good location for the southern terminus of the road – the state specified “somewhere south of the Chattahoochee River”. Long established what is called the “zero milepost” in the woods of what was then DeKalb County, and laid out a route to near present-day Chattanooga TN. While the state built their railroad through the mountains, private companies built rail lines to that point from Augusta and from Macon to meet up with the south end of the W&A. A town that grew up around the “iron triangle” where the railroads met, called at first Terminus, then Marthasville, and now known as Atlanta.
Additional railroads were constructed in following years to link Atlanta to towns in other directions, including the Piedmont Airline Railway, built after the Civil War. Service on the Piedmont Airline was up and running by 1873 between Atlanta and Charlotte, and the road was later extended further to the north, connecting with Richmond, VA and from there to the northeastern USA. An early ad for the railroad is shown below.
Note: the Piedmont Airline Railroad had many owners, and many names, during its early years, including, in addition, the Richmond and Danville, and the Atlanta Charlotte Airline. It was consolidated in the 1890s (along with many other shorter rail lines in the southeastern USA) into the Southern Railway, and then later into the Norfolk Southern system.
Note that the term “Airline” in the name here is not associated with flying machines – rather, it indicates that the railroad was built in straight line segments, avoiding the twists and turns that slowed (and lengthened) many of the earliest rail lines. Such “airline” routes were faster for the passenger, but also were more expensive to build, since more earth and rock had to be moved along the way during construction.
New towns such as Norcross and Buford quickly sprang up along the A&C Airline route, spurred by the relatively easy movement of goods and people offered by the railroad (compared to the unpaved roads and trails available for travel across the “northeast Georgia wilderness” in those days.) During its early years trains on the A&C would stop in these smaller towns along its route, but the railroad’s first priority was to offer convenient service for the major cities, not the small town citizens. In the early years northeast Georgia folks in towns in Gwinnett and beyond were able to get back and forth to Atlanta on the railroad more quickly than had previously been the case, the schedule was not well-tuned to their needs.
As a result civic leaders in Norcross, 20 miles up the new railroad from Atlanta, began lobbying for additional service. In January, 1880 a news story in the Atlanta Constitution with latest events from the town stated, after describing the arrival of a new principal for the town high school, that
With an accommodation train from Norcross to Atlanta, this would soon become one of the best educational points in the south. Will not the Air-Line officials look into this matter?
Townfolk met with the A&C Railroad Superintendent, Green J. Foreacre, and lobbied for new service that would carry locals into Atlanta in the morning, and bring them home in the evening. Such service would allow folks in the Gwinnett town to make day trips into Atlanta to work, shop or carry out other business, and would allow folks in Atlanta to come out to the resort hotels in Norcross more easily.
Foreacre was at first hesitant to add the service, concerned that ticket sales might not be able to pay for the expenses of the new route. But the citizens of the town agreed to cover any unmet costs for the first year of service, and with this guarantee the new service was started in May of 1880. A story in the newspaper in late April set expectations:
Norcross is to have a boom. The thoughtful managers of the Air-Line road have decided to put on an accommodation train to that point, beginning on the first of May. The train will be known as “The Air-Line Belle” and will leave Atlanta at 5 PM, returning at 8 AM. The effect of this will undoubtedly be to build up the road between Atlanta and Norcross, and to attract to the latter those who desire to escape for a while the roar and racket of the city without incurring the enormous expense of fashionable resorts. The Air-Line Belle will not flirt with the public. She will be a steady goer, and will continue on the route for at least a year.
By July the new route was carrying enough passengers that Foreacre decided to make it a permanent service, and he released the Norcross citizens from their financial obligation. A newspaper article appearing in the Atlanta Constitution on July 9, 1880 under the headline “The Air-Line Belle” lauded the rail line for their public-spirited move:
On the 1st of May the Atlanta and Charlotte Air-Line railway put on an accommodation train to Norcross, called the “Air-Line Belle”. The managers of the road put it on to carry out their well settled policy of developing the country along their line. While the “Belle” has not paid much over its running expenses, the road continues to run it to Norcross. On Saturday evenings it is run to White Sulphur Springs, six miles beyond Gainesville, to allow parties wishing to spend Sunday at the springs to go and return on Monday morning to business. This is a capital arrangement.
The Lawrenceville newspaper also saw this as a positive development, whith the following article:
Another article around the same time reported that while the Belle provided service to the main train station in Atlanta, it also connected with the street car service on Ponce de Leon on its run in the mornings and afternoons, allowing passengers easy access to destinations in that area. (The Ponce de Leon streetcar connection would have been in the vicinity of today’s Ponce City Market development.)
Where did the name “Airline Belle” come from? It is thought that the name of the train was suggested by (or perhaps it was even named for) Green Foreacre’s wife, Delia Nichols Foreacre. She is shown in the figure below.
By early 1882 the starting point for the train had been extended out to Suwanee, and by the first of May of that year it was extended to Gainesville. By 1892 the Belle was starting in Lula, and then later it started the morning in Mt. Airy, GA. Eventually Toccoa became the starting point for the run into Atlanta in the mornings. That gave the Belle 93 miles to cover each day one-way, with 39 stops, in larger places like Gainesville and Buford, and in smaller ones like Raoul and Flowery Branch and Mechanicsville. Not all the stops were made each day – the engineer would keep an eye on the right-of- way ahead as the train chugged along, and if he saw folks waiting at one of the smaller stops he would halt the train and pick them up; if no one was in sight who wanted a ride, he would speed on by. The whole trip from Toccoa was scheduled for three hours, and the Belle was usually on time. The Southern Railway timetable circa 1900 shows the Belle as one of many trains coming and going from Atlanta.
In addition to carrying passengers to Ponce de Leon and downtown Atlanta the train made other stops as needed along the way. One of these in the 1920s was at the newly-reconstituted Oglethorpe University, in the Brookhaven area - students from North Georgia could ride the Belle to school each day and then ride back to their homes in the evening. Oglethorpe had a Bell Club organized by this group of commuting students – the photo below shows members as depicted the Yamacraw (the school yearbook) in 1929.
Railroad accidents were more prevalent in the late 1800s and early 1900s than they are today, and the Airline Belle had its share. A “little collision” near the Air-Line maintenance shops was reported in the Atlanta newspapers at the end of June, 1880, and over the following years more serious accidents occurred. Several times pedestrians were killed on the tracks, perhaps due to their carelessness, or perhaps due to a desire to commit suicide. But the worst accident involving the Belle was a head-on collision on the outskirts of downtown Atlanta in June of 1900. The rather graphic headline of the story appearing in the next day’s Atlanta Constitution read “ENGINEER AND FLAGMAN GROUND TO PULP IN THE HEAD-ON COLLISION ON SOUTHERN”.
At that time there was a single track on the railroad’s trestle over Peachtree Creek and the associated embankment leading to it in Northeast Atlanta, and that section of track was used by both inbound and outbound trains. On the morning of June 14, 1900 the Airline Belle was heading into Atlanta on its morning run, while Southern Railway’s northbound passenger train #12 was heading out for Richmond. Both had to pass over that section of the line.
These same trains ran each day, and standard operating procedure was to hold one or the other of them on a side track, out of the contested area, until the other could clear the single-track area. Which train was held on the side track could vary from day to day, depending on congestion in the system and other factors. But that morning in June there was evidently a failure in some aspect of the Southern Railway dispatching system, and somehow both trains were cleared to run in opposite directions at the same time. They crashed head-on in an area where an embankment and curve in the track gave the engineer on the southbound Belle, Reuben Mayfield, limited visibility of the track ahead. Engineer Davis on the northbound train saw the approaching Belle in time to engage his air brakes and jump to safety, but Mayfield likely only had a few seconds in which he could see what was about to happen, and he did not escape the crash. Both trains were moving at high speed when they collided.
Mayfield, a long-time engineer on the Belle route, was killed in the crash, as was Benjamin Davis, an off-duty Southern Railway flagman who was riding on the Belle as a passenger (he was perhaps up in the locomotive compartment.) A number of passengers on both trains were injured, though none seriously – the death toll was lower than might have been expected given the location of the crash, since the passenger cars of both trains remained on the tracks - they could easily have tumbled down the embankment, in which case the death toll likely would have been much higher.
Mayfield was well-known among both railroad personnel and the passenger base for the Belle, and was highly praised by the newspaper for his brave conduct:
Engineer Mayfield, who had pulled the throttle on the Air-Line Belle since time out of mind, remained at his post and with only a few short seconds between him and eternity, he threw on the air brakes and peering ahead out the engine window, went to his death true to the charge that had been given to his care.
No engineer on any road was better for more favorably known than Rube Mayfield. A veteran railroader, he had held the lives of hundreds of passengers in his hands a thousand times. No piece of machinery ever leaped under the hand of its master as did the old Belle when Mayfield occupied the engineer’s seat and held the throttle. He was a true man, and not a few went out to the scene of the wreck yesterday to view the spot where their friend and companion lost his life at his post of duty.
Engineer Mayfield had been a citizen of Atlanta for a number of years and leaves a wife and three children.
Reuben Mayfield is shown in the photo below.
Other well-known engineers who piloted the Belle during the course of their career included Ben Dewberry and Ike Roberts. Dewberry died in a train crash in 1908 near Buford, GA, when he was in charge of one of the longer-distance trains run by the Southern. The story was tragic – several young boys had conspired to put an iron bar across the railroad tracks just to see if they could cause a train to derail, and Dewberry’s passenger train #38, headed north out of Atlanta, was the next to pass by. The train did indeed derail, with Dewberry and his fireman going to their deaths as a result of their malicious behavior.
Ike Roberts was born in North Carolina and walked 45 miles when he was 19 years of age to get to a construction job building the Atlanta-Charlotte Airline Railroad. He stayed with the railroad and worked his way up to engineer, and for many years lived in Roswell and was in charge of the narrow gauge branch line that ran from Roswell Junction (now known as Chamblee) to Roswell. (Well, it went most of the way to Roswell – the tracks ended at the Chattahoochee River just outside town.)
After the branch line shut down in 1921 Roberts moved to work on the Belle. He died on the job – he had a massive heart attack at the Atlanta Terminal Station on May 16, 1930, as he was preparing to take the Belle out on its afternoon run. At that point he had accumulated 58 years of service with the railroad.
One of the better-known conductors on the Belle was William Willingham. He was aboard the Belle’s morning run in 1901 when a sensational incident occurred on the train. A story appearing in the Augusta Chronicle, dated December 10, 1901, led with the headline:
James Pierce and Thomas Collins, Settling a Family Trouble, Cut Each Other – The First Killed, the Other Fatally Hurt.
The main body of the story (where the author incorrectly named the train as the Southern Belle, rather than the Airline Belle) continued:
Doraville, Ga., Dec. 10 -- In a bloody duel with knives James Pierce, a farmer was cut to death and Thomas Collins, a merchant, of Sheltonville, was probably fatally wounded on the Southern Bell, the accommodation train which is due in Atlanta at 8:30 this morning.
Both parties boarded the train at Duluth, and shortly after it passed Norcross it is said that Pierce, who was in the smoker, went to the first-class coach and walking up to Collins said: "I understand you said you were going to slap my face, and now you have got to do it." With this the two men drew their knives and clinched, slashing each other on the throat and head.
When he learned of the trouble Conductor Willingham, who is courageous and a great favorite with the patrons of the road, called on D. K. Johnston, of Norcross; Elmer Barrett and Robert Moon, of Flowery Branch, and John Smith, of Gainesville, who followed him into the coach where the men were fighting. When Conductor Willingham and D. K. Johnston, who were the first to reach the men, arrived they found them between the seats, almost completely exhausted by the loss of blood, with Collins holding both knives in his hand while Pierce was holding him by the throat.
The article goes on the explain that Mr. Pierce was married to the widow of Mr. Collins’ brother, and that she had harbored ill feelings against Collins after she had received what she considered to be an unfair distribution from the estate of her former husband after his death. Evidently her new husband took up her cause, and that precipitated the fight.
The people in the towns and settlements along the route of the Belle considered it an institution, and the crew knew their customers well. A story in the Atlanta Journal reported that
Practically every resident of north Georgia who rode the train knew the engineer, fireman, flagman and conductor personally. And the conductor knew most of his passengers by name. “There has been many a day when I knew every passenger in the two coaches by name” stated Conductor H. T. Cox.
But by the 1930s ridership on the Belle was in decline, likely due to the availability of inexpensive automobiles and the improvements underway in those days in the road system in North Georgia. As a result Southern Railway phased out the Belle as a separate service in July, 1931. It’s stops were made by other scheduled passenger trains, as the article in the Atlanta Journal explained:
Southern Railroad trains 135 and 136, running between Atlanta and Washington, Sunday took over the Belle’s schedule. They will make all the stops the Belle made. They will bring commuters to Atlanta at 7:50 a.m., and they will take them back home at 5:20 p.m., just as the Belle always did. But it won’t be the same.
The newspaper clipping below from July 1931 showing the locomotive and crew from the last run of the Belle.
Many riders of that era had fond memories of trips on the Belle. Annie Mae Dean Lay, who was a long- time resident of Norcross and whose father worked for the railroad, recalled in her journal a trip into Atlanta on the Belle circa 1920:
One Christmas papa asked Grace [Annie Mae’s older sister] who was about 16 at the time if she thought she could take us on the train to Atlanta (20 miles away) to do our Christmas shopping. She said she could so papa got us a pass to ride the train free. He also gave her his meal ticket at the terminal station so we could get something to eat while down there. [A view of Atlanta’s Terminal Station from the early 1900s is shown below.]
The Belle (train) left Norcross at 8AM or thereabouts Eastern time and arrived in Atlanta at 8 AM central time which Atlanta used. I don’t know why the difference in time in such a short distance. As soon as we got to Atlanta we went right into the station restaurant and got our lunch. I remember I had a tomatoe [sic] sandwich (I dearly loved tomatoe sandwiches) and a piece of pineapple pie which I had never had before. I don’t know how we made out all day until the train left at 5 PM. I remember milling around in Woolworths and Kresge on Whitehall Street and walking back up Mitchell Street in the afternoon and how cold it was.
Another time Marshall [Annie Mae’s older brother] met us at the train when he was going to Tech and Mildred, Margaret and I shopped again in the dime stores with Marshall following us around. We looked at our presents a dozen times while riding the train home. We had eaten at a drug store or café at 5 Points and had eaten vegetable soup and I remember Marshall had ordered oysters on the half shell and I could not see how he could eat them. I had never seen anyone do that before.
The photo below, from the early 1900s, shows Whitehall Street, the destination of Annie Mae’s shopping trip. (This would have been quite a contrast to her home in Norcross, where there were only few buildings that reached two stories!)
The Airline Belle is long gone now, but with the growth in population in the metro Atlanta area and the increased interest in mass transit, perhaps a similar service will reappear at some point, and carry on the Belle’s tradition of service.
This article was written by Gene Ramsay and refreshed in March 2023. Many thanks to Judy Lay Peacock for providing materials for this article, and to the archives of the Gwinnett Historical Society, Atlanta Historical Society and the Gwinnett Public Library System for photographs and newspaper articles.