Georgia Air Line Railroad

The Georgia Air-Line Railroad was built in the mid-19 th century to provide better transportation for people and goods between Atlanta and the “northeast Georgia wilderness,” and beyond, and is still in use today. The idea for this railroad took almost 20 years to come to fruition, but when it was completed in the 1870s it did indeed bring the increased economic activity and new and expanded towns in the territory it served that its early proponents had hoped for. And it became a key link in a national railroad transportation network emerging at that time.

Development of Technology that Led to the Railroad

Several advances in technology in the late 1700s/early 1800s came together to enable the rise of a new form of land transportation, the railroad. Key among these advances was the invention of the reciprocating steam engine, which allowed the power of the steam engine to be used to turn a wheel, and the development of mechanized methods to produce steel rails, which led to significantly lower capital costs required to construct a railroad track. These and other inventions and improvements were assembled into a working transportation system in the early 1800s. A major milestone was reached when scheduled railroad service carrying passengers and freight between the cities of Liverpool and Manchester in England was established in 1830.

At that point the use of railroad technology quickly spread, including to the United States, where it was applied to help develop the country’s vast territories in central North America. Lack of efficient transportation connecting this area to east coast markets and ports had been a major factor delaying such development. In the early 1800s the U.S. had minimal roads west of the Appalachian Mountains, and other options, such as canals or plank roads, were expensive to build and maintain, leaving water transportation on existing rivers, such as the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee, as the most cost-effective transportation option available there. Transportation from the Midwest to the east by water was slow, however, and the route it provided between the central continent and major markets was circuitous – outbound goods would go downstream to the Mississippi River and then on to New Orleans. From there transport by ocean was required around the Florida peninsula and on north to reach the east coast of the country.

Early Georgia Railroads

Georgia and South Carolina had major ports on the Atlantic Ocean, Savannah and Charleston, respectively, and the states were interested in the early 1800s (as today) in ensuring transportation links that would allow goods to flow to and from the Midwest to those ports, without requiring the use of the Mississippi River and New Orleans. The invention of cost-effective rail transport offered an opportunity to accomplish this.

A major challenge at that point was to assemble the capital required to build the required railroad network. While private companies of that era were able to build railroads of moderate distances through the relatively flat coastal plains and piedmont areas of Georgia and the Carolinas, building a link across the Appalachian Mountains, to allow rail access to the center of the continent, was a daunting technical and financial challenge, and to accomplish this the resources of the state of Georgia were brought to bear. Legislation was passed in 1836 by the Georgia legislature to initiate the construction of the state-owned Western and Atlantic Railroad, which was specified to run from a point south of the Chattahoochee River (this point turned into present-day Atlanta) to Ross’s Landing on the Tennessee River near the Georgia- Tennessee state line (present day Chattanooga). The W&A took 15 years to complete, and by the late 1850s other railroad links had been added in the adjacent states so that goods and passengers could then travel overland by rail between Memphis in the west and Charleston and Savannah in the east.

The Georgia Air-Line Railroad: Better Transportation for NE Georgia

This focus on rail transportation through northwest Georgia in the first half of the 1800s left much of northeast Georgia with minimal access to transportation. This part of the state, described by some in those days as the “northeast Georgia wilderness,” was lightly populated at that time. For instance, Gwinnett County had 11,257 total residents in the 1850 census and Hall County had 8,713. Roads in the area at that time were primitive, and the nearest railroad connections (Athens, Stone Mountain, Atlanta) were distant and difficult to get to from towns such as Lawrenceville and Gainesville.

Caption: The map shows the railroads extant in Georgia in 1860, presented in the history of Georgia written by Robert Preston Brooks, published in 1913.


To address this transportation deficiency a bill to charter a new railroad was introduced in the Georgia legislature in December 1855 by Representative Calhoun of Gordon County. A newspaper at the time reported that the purpose of the bill was to

incorporate “The Georgia Air Line Railroad Company”. This bill contemplates the construction of a direct line of Railroad from Atlanta, Ga. To Richmond, Va. and for the purpose of starting [this] incorporates a company under the above title to construct the Road from Atlanta, Ga. to Anderson Court House, S. C.

The bill was passed into law in March of 1856. The term “Air Line” in the name indicates that the railroad route was (to be) built in a straight line between the points served. The earliest railroads in Georgia and elsewhere had many times been built to go around natural obstacles instead of through them. This approach made the resulting railroad less expensive to build but led to complaints from the traveling public and shippers that the routes were longer than they needed to be, and thus transit was slower than desired. Thus building an “air line” railroad became desirable (and this led many railroads built in that era to incorporate the term “air-line” into their name.)

Multiple meetings were held across northeast Georgia over the following months to stir up interest in the new railroad project. A correspondent of a Milledgeville newspaper visited Lawrenceville in Gwinnett County in mid-1856 and reported:

The Air Line Railroad from Atlanta to Anderson S. C. was the engrossing subject of conversation, and much interest was felt upon the subject. By reference to the map of the United States the proposed Railroad would strike the observer as a very plausible enterprize, and one that should engage the attention of capitalists.

One of the largest of these meetings, held July 8, 1856, was the subject of lengthy coverage in the Atlanta Weekly Examiner. This convention of parties interested in the railroad corporation was held at Madison Springs (Madison County) midway between the proposed endpoints of the line, Atlanta and Anderson Court House, South Carolina. This meeting had participants from multiple counties in Georgia - Fulton, Gwinnett, Jackson, Clarke, Franklin, Madison, Hart, Habersham and Elbert - plus interested citizens from Anderson Court House. The assembled group in attendance chose Atlanta lawyer (and future mayor) James M. Calhoun as President of the meeting and passed resolutions emphasizing the importance of the railroad to the United States of America as a whole and to the local area residents.

While the state had passed the law setting up the railroad corporation, it did not promise any funds to help construct it. The convention authorized the president to appoint a delegation tasked with visiting the counties in the area to solicit residents to buy stock in the corporation. But the railroad was a vision at that point, and to sell stock management needed to convince potential shareholders that it would be started, and once started it would actually be completed, and would generate a return on investment at that point. The board of the corporation met in Atlanta later in July 1856 and resolved:

that the board deem it proper and wise that the building of the Georgia Air- Line Railroad commence as soon as is practicable after seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars of stock shall be subscribed by good and responsible subscribers, and not before; and that no installment on subscription shall be called for until that sum is subscribed, except one per cent, to be used to cover the expense of survey.

In other words, subscribers would commit to buying stock, but would not have to pay fully for the stock until later.

Establishing a feasible route for the railroad was the first step. The topography of northeast Georgia between Atlanta and Anderson Court House was not clearly known at that time, and the railroad needed a good understanding of the route in order to estimate the cost to build the line, with answers to such questions as how many rivers were to be crossed on the way, and were there any mountains that would require extensive grading or tunnels. To gain this information management of the railroad hired Alexander Worrell, described in an article at the time in the Atlanta Intelligencer as “a gentleman of great experience and a high reputation,” to survey the route. Worrell assembled a crew and set to work laying out a path that fall, starting in Atlanta and moving towards the northeast. The crew finished their survey by the end of January, when the Atlanta Republican and Discipline newspaper reported,

The surveying party of the Georgia Air-line railroad, under the charge of Mr. Alexander Worrell, Messrs, J. E. Green and E. L. Calhoun, 1st and 2d assistants, returned to this city, on Saturday the 24th inst. They were in the field seventy- four days. The first line run was via Pinckneyville, Hog Mountain, Jefferson and Madison Springs, to the Savannah river, below the mouth of Lightwood log creek-- distance one hundred and twenty miles. From thence a line was run from a point opposite Andersonville, via Carnesville, to a point on Middle Oconee, called Academy bridge, in Jackson county, sixty miles, where they intersected the first line, making in all, one hundred and eighty miles, measured. It is due to the party, to say that, notwithstanding the severity of the weather, the work has been conducted with energy and dispatch. Mr. Worrell thinks he can have the main features of his report ready, by the time the Convention of stockholders takes place, which will be on the 11th of February.

Efforts to raise the money needed to build the line were moving forward at this time as well. For instance, a Columbus newspaper in November 1856 reported:

We have a letter from a well informed and reliable correspondent, informing us that there are five men, residing near Warsaw Ferry, on the Chattahoochee river – Evan Howell, Hampton Howell, Jackson Graham, Henry Strickland and Isaac Strickland, who will subscribe $45,000, to the stock of the Air Line Railroad, if the Peach Tree Ridge route shall be adopted.

(This route (along Peach Tree Ridge) would, if built, bring the railroad through or near the property of these landowners.)

The next convention of stockholders was called for February 11, 1857, by William Ezzard and Jonathan Norcross, both prominent citizens of Atlanta in those days. A newspaper advertisement was placed alerting interested parties of the convention. These officers of the company were elected at the convention:

J Norcross, of Fulton, President
L E Bleckley and E W Holland, of Fulton; John B Jackson, of Jackson Co.;
John Scott Sr. of Madison Co.; Col. Thos. Morris, of Franklin; Maj. Wm. R
Poole, of Hart – Directors
Green B Haygood, of Fulton, Treasurer

The president of the company, Jonathan Norcross, went to work recruiting additional subscribers for Air Line stock, not only in Georgia locations such as Atlanta and Newnan, but also as far afield as Greensboro, North Carolina.

Newspapers around the state carried editorials with their views on the importance of, and potential profitability of, the proposed railroad, and these opinions were varied. For instance, in June 1856 the Clarkesville Georgian (in Habersham County, northeast of Gainesville, in the area expected to be served by the proposed railroad) wrote a florid endorsement, stating their vision for the future:

It will be an unbroken line of railway from Maine to California . . . . The almost fabulous wealth of China, Japan, the Indies, and the rich products of the islands of the Pacific and South seas, will roll along it, in a great golden stream, stimulating and exciting the industry, intelligence and capital of our people.

A February 1857 report in an Augusta newspaper was less enthusiastic regarding the prospects for financial success of the proposed railroad, stating that “its premised profits were utterly illusory.”

The next stockholder convention was held in March 1858 in Gainesville, and a large barbecue was staged there that August to entice investors and reportedly was attended by between 1,500 and 2,000 people. A more detailed survey of the route was performed, and the Atlanta American newspaper reported:

The survey and location have been completed twenty miles beyond Gainesville and topography of the country has been found unexpectedly favorable.

Soon afterwards B. C. Morse, chief engineer of the railroad at that point, was advertising for contracts to begin grading the proposed route. The work would be paid for in Air Line Railroad stock.

But a continuing problem facing the company’s management was that many of the commitments for stock purchases and funds that they had received had significant strings attached, such as that the funds were to be paid in only after all the grading had been done in a certain area of the route (usually the area where the persons providing those particular funds were located), or that the funds would only be available after a certain total subscription amount was raised, etc.

The railroad tried to tap into, without great success in those years, funds from the City of Atlanta, the County of Fulton, and the State of Georgia. The city and state made pledges, but there were contingencies involved, and the money was slow in coming. There was an effort in the state legislature to provide state funds for construction, but the legislature voted it down. Then a bill was passed by the legislature to allow the railroad company to offer banking and other services that might enable them to more easily raise funds, but the governor vetoed that bill.

Jonathan Norcross had been a controversial political player in the city of Atlanta since before the town was officially incorporated in 1847, and had served a term as mayor in the early 1850s. It appears from some of the anti-Air Line statements printed in the local newspapers in the late 1850s that he still had his adversaries in city government and on the city council, and that this perhaps had a role in blocking any prompt passage of city bonds to help fund the railroad. As a result Norcross, a strong advocate for construction of the railroad, decided to resign from the company presidency in the summer of 1859.

Over the next year and a half the board of directors tried to find a direction forward. An effort was made to convince a well-known local engineer, Lemuel P Grant, who was experienced in railroad construction and management, to take the presidency of the railroad. But before making a commitment to do so Grant reviewed the Air Line’s stock subscriptions, and the contingencies on them, and decided that the conditions on the availability and use of the money there were too constraining to assure success of the venture. He agreed to take the job, but only if all the restrictions were removed, and that did not happen. Norcross was brought back as president for a time, and then Joseph Winship, the successful owner of a foundry business in Atlanta, was named president.

But at that point, at the beginning of 1861, the Civil War began, and construction of a new railroad to serve Northeast Georgia was put on the back burner for the next several years.

Post-Civil War Reorganization of the Air Line Railroad

At the end of the war in 1865 north Georgia started the slow process of recovery from the damage inflicted by the fighting in the area and the resulting loss of wealth. The first objective in transportation was to repair the existing railroads which had been damaged during fighting in the state. But in the years after the end of the war the idea of the new Air Line Railroad was revived and moved forward, though the corporation by that point had new leadership and a new objective.

The New Era newspaper of Atlanta reported that the shareholders of the Air Line met on June 27, 1866 at Atlanta City Hall, with President Joseph Winship in charge. A presentation was made at the meeting by Barzillai Yale Sage regarding a proposal by a number of New York-based capitalists to fund the completion of the railroad. Connecticut-born Sage was a trained engineer who had come to the south in the 1850s and had worked on railroad-related projects there. Most relevant, he had been a member of one of the surveying parties that laid out the route of the Air Line prior to the Civil War.

The idea presented at the meeting was that rather than have the railroad connect Atlanta to Anderson Court House, it should run from Atlanta to Charlotte, with the expectation that by providing transportation through that particular corridor the railroad could become a part of a rail link between the Northeastern United States and New Orleans, the latter then one of the largest cities in the country, and a major trading center.

After a lengthy discussion of the situation a resolution was proposed by S. B. Hoyt, a respected lawyer and judge active in Atlanta, and was adopted unanimously, stating:

Whereas, We are gratified to hear that certain capitalists are contemplating building the Georgia “Air-Line” Railroad, and

Whereas, Many of the old Stockholders are unable to pay up their stock; Therefore,

Resolved, 1 st . That all or any who have heretofore subscribed stock the Ga. “Air-Line” Railroad Company shall have from this time until the Board of Directors shall make their first call for payment of stock, the privilege of electing whether they will pay up and continue as Stockholders or not, and if they elect not to pay up, they shall be considered as having abandoned their stock, and the same shall be forfeited, and that such Stockholders shall be discharged of all liability on account of such stock, when one million dollars ($1,000,000.00) of bona fide stock shall have been subscribed in addition to any now subscribed.

Resolved 2d. That we confer on the President and Directors to be elected at this meeting, full and complete power to make all contracts for construction of said Road, and instruct them to begin such work as soon as practicable, within the next twelve months,

Resolved 3d. that the books of subscription be now opened, and subscriptions for stock be invited when 3,502 shares are subscribed,

Resolved 4th That we now proceed to elect a President and ten Directors for the following year, when the following names were proposed and unanimously elected:

S. B. Clark, New York, President
C. H. Sanborn, “
Henry. Janner, “
J. C. Candie, “
J. L. Pond, “
C. A. Sanborn, “
J. P Read, Anderson, SC
A Austell, Atlanta
S B Hoyt, “
Joseph Winship, “
E. M. Johnson, Gainesville, Ga.

After the meeting one of the local newspapers summarized the new ownership and objectives of the Air Line as follows:

The capital stock has been subscribed for an air line railroad from Atlanta Ga, to Charlotte, North Carolina, via Anderson and Yorktown, South Carolina. It is entirely a New York enterprise, and will shorten the distance between that city and New Orleans nearly twenty-four hours.

However, finances were still an issue for the Air Line, and B Y Sage, in an 1873 interview with an Atlanta newspaper, gave this description of this period:

After the war, in 1866, I called a meeting of the Stockholders, which assembled and effected a new organization. The Directors, after this, in July of 1866, assembled in New York, and authorized me to begin work anew, which I did in September following. Owing to the financial troubles of one of our leading men in the enterprise, the work was again stopped in the winter of 1866, and not resumed till December, 1867, when the company was again reorganized, and Colonel Buford elected President, with myself as Engineer.

The “Colonel Buford” identified by Sage was a prominent railroad executive of the day, Virginian Algernon S Buford. He was already president of the Richmond and Danville RR, which at that time offered rail service from Richmond VA south to Danville VA. Buford, a North Carolina native, was active as a lawyer and entrepreneur and focused his post-Civil War career on assembling a network of railroad companies that could serve the entire southeastern USA. He saw extending the Georgia Air Line Railroad from Atlanta to Charlotte, and having the Richmond and Danville take an ownership interest in the railroad, as major steps in achieving this.

The multi-state scope of the Air Line at that point required coordinating corporate charters from the three states through which the completed railroad would operate. These charter issues had to be resolved in the state legislatures, and completing this was slowed in Georgia by the focus at that time within state government on creating a new state constitution. Once that task was done Buford worked with Governor Rufus Bulloch to get the required railroad company charter changes, and also a commitment for state aid in constructing the railroad. And, after Buford pledged $100,000 from the R&D toward construction, the City of Atlanta pledged $400,000.

At that point, later in 1868, the corporation was finally in a position to start work on constructing the railroad, and seeing it through. On October 20 of that year the Richmond Dispatch newspaper was looking forward to that city being able to serve new markets, stating:

We published this morning a most gratifying and important announcement with reference to the Georgia and South Carolina Air-Line railroad. The State of Georgia . according to this intelligence, which was altogether correct, had, by act of her legislature, determined to lend for the construction of that road $12,000 per mile for that part of it which lies within her boundary. This is about half the length of the road – say 105 miles. South Carolina and North Carolina, as well as Georgia, have granted the company the privilege of holding lands and other property without limitation. Mr. Buford, the energetic and sagacious President of the Danville road, is made the President of this air-line road. To his efforts may be attributed the success of the enterprise before the Georgia Legislature, and those of the Carolinas.

This road, according to one authority, will shorten the distance between Atlanta, Ga and Charlotte NC 214 miles. This diminution of distance settles the question of competition between the Danville route and all others from the Northern cities to the Gulf.

The completion of this air-line will be a matter of immense benefit to Richmond. With proper exertions of our citizens it will give them the control of the trade down to Alabama. The Danville road is peculiarly a Richmond road. Owing to its situation heretofore – the long prevention of a line of connection between Danville and Greensboro, the break of gauge at the latter place, now that this connection is effected, and the discriminating and hostile policy which has been pursued by the North Carolina roads, in connection with, and probably under the influence of, the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad, it has not achieved for this city that which under more favorable circumstances it would certainly have accomplished. But this air-line road through Georgia and South Carolina will certainly supply the Danville road with a shield seven-fold thicker than the seven- fold shield of Ajax, and enable it to dictate terms and extort from connecting lines equality and reciprocity, such as we have ever been ready to concur in.

Many in Atlanta similarly looked forward to the completion of the Air-Line, with one of the newspapers stating (regarding completion of funding):

It is important this amount should be subscribed at once. The influence which the completion of the Air Line Railroad will exert on the future destinies of Atlanta is almost incalculable. Besides the benefit it will receive as the terminus of another great railroad, the trade of the country to be reached by it, even in its present condition, would be of great value, to say nothing of the improvements which must follow the opening of railroad facilities to it.

Building the First Division of the Railroad

B. Y. Sage, serving as the chief engineer of the enterprise by this point, took the lead in getting the railroad built. His first step in this phase was to advertise in early January 1869 to railroad contractors for bids to construct the first 20 miles of the road, from Atlanta to a point in the woods out in western Gwinnett County. The newspaper clipping below from one of the Atlanta newspapers shows the ad he ran.


The winning bidders were a joint venture involving a well-known Virginia-based railroad construction company, Scott, Bondurant and Adams, and a Georgia entrepreneur and longtime Atlanta resident, John Thrasher, who had contracted some years before to build part of the railroad infrastructure already in place in Atlanta. By the following spring they were hard at work, as reported in a short article in the Greensboro (Ga) Herald:

The first twenty miles of the Georgia Air Line railroad, under contract to Messrs. Scott, Bondurant and Adams, of Virginia who are old and responsible railroad contractors, are being pushed rapidly ahead. These gentlemen are now working one hundred and seventy hands, and the prospect now is that, at an early day, twenty miles of the railroad will be built.

Another step Sage took in getting that first section of the railroad built doubtless motivated sawmill operators across north Georgia, as he advertised in June 1869 to buy 50,000 cross ties.

The route that was used for the actual construction of the railroad was based on work done some years before. Sage, in the 1873 interview in Atlanta, stated that:

In 1860, I located the route from here to Pinckneyville, very nearly as the road now runs. Mt. Harkey was then chief engineer, and I was his assistant, The line as then proposed, was to leave the State Road at Winship’s Foundry, going by the old Collier place, north of Atlanta, crossing Peachtree Creek, east of the bridge, striking the ridge above Buckhead, and following it to Gainesville.

As with the previous steps in getting the Air-Line to fruition, the construction of the first 20 miles of track took longer than had been anticipated, slowed by difficulties encountered in dealing with rock in the vicinity of the crossing at Peachtree Creek north of Atlanta. But by the spring of 1870 the railroad was operational into Gwinnett County, and John Thrasher abandoned his role of railroad builder and took on the role of town founder. He established the new town of Norcross at the end of that first 20 miles of road.

Sage, in the 1873 interview, recalled that

The first train reached Norcross in May 1870. There was then only a little log cabin and a whiskey shop at the place. Now it is a beautiful thriving village of considerable trade.

Thrasher had apparently foreseen this opportunity when he got involved in the railroad construction. In 1869 he had bought a land lot (250 acres) at the end of the 20 miles and when the construction got there the next year he subdivided and auctioned off much of this land. He also built a hotel near the railroad depot that was built there, and petitioned the state legislature for a charter for the town. This was granted in October, 1870, and he named it Norcross, after his good friend Jonathan Norcross, who had been president of the Georgia Air-Line Railroad in the pre-war years.

Commercial activity picked up all along the railroad line in Gwinnett County as railroad was extended to the northeast. Real estate agents Wallace and Fowler of Atlanta held an auction of 78 lots in Duluth GA later that spring, and in 1872 another new town on the railroad, in the north of Gwinnett County, received a charter from the legislature. This one was named Buford, in honor of A S Buford, the then- president of the railroad.

At that point Gainesville, whose residents had been excited by the potential of a railroad connection with the outside world since the line was first proposed in the 1850s, was the next major goal of the construction process.

Extending the Air Line to Gainesville

The people and businesses there were major proponents of building the Air Line, as Hall County did not have easy access to the outside world at that time. The BBQ dinner in 1857 featuring speeches from Jonathan Norcross and others, noted above, was one of many occasions when the residents of the area showed their enthusiasm for the road. The town’s newspaper in the mid-1800s was named the Air-Line Eagle, and a prominent lawyer practicing in Gainesville, E M Johnson, was a member of the board of directors of the railroad for a number of years.

Sage and a surveying crew passed through the town in early June of 1870 and the town gave them and associated railroad dignitaries a banquet. Speeches by railroad President Buford and Vice-President Alfred Austell promised great things if the county would invest in the railroad, as a recent county grand jury had recommended.

And by the spring of 1871 the Air-Line construction to the town was complete, with the first through train from Atlanta arriving in Gainesville on Friday May 26, 1871. The town held a great celebration associated with the new service (labeled a “jollification” by one of the newspapers in Atlanta), and a large contingent of visitors came up the tracks on that train from the state capitol to see the celebration. Many of the visitors that day were members of the Knights Templar, a Christian group within the Masonic Order – the state chapter of the group were having their annual meeting in Atlanta that week, and on that Friday eight carloads of the Knights and others rode that first train on an excursion trip to the festivities at the Hall County seat of government.

An Atlanta newspaper whose correspondent went on the trip described the celebration as follows:

At near twelve we arrived at Gainesville, and found an immense gathering lining the road awaiting the train. There must have been four thousand in the gathering. Many saw an engine for the first time in their lives. The feeling of delight that the railroad had at last come to open up their beautiful country to the world was intense and general. It was a great turnout.

The correspondent reported that the Knights staged a parade in the town, there were speeches by the Mayor and others, and a basket lunch was provided to the visitors.

Completion of the Air Line Between Atlanta and Charlotte

By 1871 construction work was being done at various points on the line, and the push to complete the track north of Gainesville continued. There were numerous reports of progress in the newspapers of the day. For instance, it was reported in September 1872 that track had been laid from Spartanburg SC for seven miles in both the east and west directions.

Economic development came with the railroad. One of the many examples of this was the establishment of the new town of Toccoa. That city’s website tells that:

The village that was to evolve into Toccoa was laid out in 1873 around an area formerly known as "Dry Pond." It was named for a pool there that was dry nearly year-round and owes its beginning to the railroad and a group of three far-thinking speculators.

The three investors -- Dr. O.M. Doyle of Oconee County, S.C., B.Y. Sage of Atlanta and Thomas Alexander of Atlanta -- anticipated the construction of a new railroad through Dry Pond. They purchased 1,765 acres, had it surveyed into lots, publicized a May 27, 1873, lot sale and brought potential buyers to the village on excursion trains.

The City of Toccoa was officially chartered in 1874 and the names of downtown streets reflect the visionary trio; Sage, Doyle, and Alexander streets still crisscross downtown Toccoa today.

The name “Toccoa” is taken from the Cherokee language, meaning “beautiful.”

By mid May of 1873 through trains were running from Charlotte to Greenville SC, and there was a remaining gap of 45 miles that had to be completed to connect

Charlotte to Atlanta. The bridge over the Tugaloo River was the last major challenge in this section, and that was completed in August 1873, with President Buford driving the “last spike” to finish the railroad a few days before the end of the month.

The Legacy of the Air Line

The completed Air Line operated under several different names over the next twenty years, including the Richmond and Danville Railroad; the Atlanta and Richmond Air- Line; and the Piedmont Air-Line System. It had its ups and downs financially in its early years. There were lawsuits back and forth between the railroad, its lenders and the construction companies over payments in the 1870s, and on at least one occasion the Fulton County sheriff showed up at the Atlanta depot and impounded a locomotive and passenger cars to ensure payment of past due notes.

In the 1890s noted financier J P Morgan and others acquired and reorganized many of the competing railroads in the South, including the Air Line, forming the Southern Railway, which stretched from Northern Virginia to the Mississippi River and beyond. Many years later, in 1982, Southern merged with the Norfolk and Western Railroad, to form Norfolk Southern, which is still running trains (typically 30 or more per day) over the route from Atlanta to Charlotte developed over 150 years ago.

Multiple railroad contractors were involved in grading and laying track on the line north of Gainesville. One of them was Grant, Alexander and Co., owned by father and son John. T. Grant and William D. Grant, Thomas Alexander and Richard Peters. This company built a number of railroads in the Georgia in the post-Civil War era. Railroad construction in those days was a manual labor-driven process, and one of the sources for labor used by Grant, Alexander and Co. was the leasing of convicts from the state of Georgia. (Other Georgia companies requiring manual labor on a large scale, such as those in the mining industry and brick manufacturing, also used convict labor.) The Georgia state legislature investigated the treatment of convicts by Grant, Alexander and Co. in 1870, with Thomas Alexander and others testifying at length regarding the company’s contract for convict labor with the state of Georgia, and its use of and treatment of the convicts. Convict leasing was legal under the United States Constitution in the years following the Civil War, but became quite controversial due to the difficult working conditions and harsh treatment sometimes given to the convicts. The state legislature passed legislation ending the leasing of convict labor by the state in Georgia in the early 1900s.

Algernon Buford and Barzillai Sage finished this joint project in 1873, and they and the Air-Line Railroad parted ways over financial issues soon afterwards. The railroad went into bankruptcy receivership in the spring of 1875, and as that was about to happen the employees of the Air Line met with their superintendent to present Sage with a handsome gold watch, to thank him for his efforts as the line’s engineer, and then in addition superintendent, in its formative years. But a month later Sage lay dead at 42 years of age, having suffered a fatal heart attack in the middle of the night at his home in the West End section of Atlanta. His remains were buried in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, and were joined there by those of his wife, Miranda Roys Sage, when she died almost a half century later.

Colonel Buford on the other hand lived a much longer life, passing at the age of 85 in 1911. After his time focused on the Atlanta to Charlotte rail line he continued his efforts to expand the Richmond and Danville railroad system, until retiring from the railroad’s management in 1887. In a lengthy obituary printed in the Richmond Times Dispatch at the time of his death the paper noted that his perseverance in successfully completing the construction of the Atlanta and Charlotte Air-Line Railroad at a time when few resources were available was perhaps his greatest achievement.

This article was written by Gene Ramsay and was refreshed in March 2023. Much of the information presented here came from newspaper articles in the mid-1800s, as noted in the text. Websites such as and others that allow access to these older articles were very helpful.