The Railroads: Economic Boom

Did you know that Georgia’s dirt roads were once so bad a wagon could get mired in five feet of mud and not get pulled out for weeks? It could and did happen according to Michelle Gillespie at Agnes Scott College. In the early 1800s there were no reliable means of transportation. Waterways were the easiest routes and most of Georgia’s larger cities such as Savannah, Augusta, Columbus, and Rome, grew up along rivers. However, while it was easy to travel down the river, it was much more difficult to travel against the current. The invention of the steamboat solved that problem, but rivers did not run everywhere people wanted to go. It took the steam powered locomotive to bring about a transportation revolution. Lesa Campbell, of the Southeastern Railway Museum, describes the 136-mile rail line built in South Carolina in 1833 between Hamburg and Charleston as the longest in the world at that time. As Savannah merchants feared, the line took away the Augusta to Savannah cotton business on the Savannah River. That same year the Georgia legislature chartered two railroads. The early railroads were dependable and affordable, but the public viewed them as dangerous. The loud trains spewed smoke and embers that burned passengers and houses along the tracks. Towns developed along the rail lines with Atlanta becoming the most famous. Michelle Gillespie reports that it was the first important city in Georgia not located on a major river.

Teacher tip: Locate your hometown on a state map. Ignoring the modern roads, pretend it is the mid-1800s and determine the different ways you could travel to the nearest big city. Trace the paths of nearby railroads and rivers to see if they would help you reach your destination.