By Dr. Richard Banz
Executive Director, Southern Museum of Civil War & Locomotive History
On Saturday, May 11, we celebrate National Train Day, a day Amtrak created in 2008, a time to explore the considerable impact the railroad has on our state, region and country.
In Georgia, railroads played crucial role in the state’s history in the roughly three decades preceding the Civil War, during the War and in the nearly 15 decades since. They’re also the reason so many towns exist today.
Places like Cartersville, Kennesaw and Atlanta owe their existence to the iron horse. Atlanta was originally named Terminus because it sat at the end of the Western & Atlantic and other railroads.
On April 12, 1862, a Union spy let a group of soldiers deep behind enemy lines and stole a Confederate locomotive with the plan of destroying the state-owned Western & Atlantic Railroad. The episode, today remembered as the Great Locomotive Chase, was a military failure, but it put to rest any questions about the military importance of railroads. The history of that event, arguably the first momentous military railroad exploit, is chronicled at length at the Southern Museum for Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw.
Following the war, railroads opened the west, building a transcontinental railroad, which reduced the amount of time needed to travel from New York to San Francisco from months to 10 days. Even as the Civil War raged on, President Lincoln knew the importance this route would play to a unified country, so he set in motion the process of building the route.
As new frontiers opened, so too did new communities along the route. With these new communities came new economic opportunities for residents back east.
Meanwhile, as the South lay in ruins following the Civil War, it was the railroad that again helped transform the region. In Marietta, the Glover Machine Works built replacement engine parts for a number of railroads and custom built locomotives for varied companies, bringing with it much needed industrial opportunities and helping break the region’s dependence on agriculture.
Today, railroads continue to not only capture the hearts and imaginations of people everywhere, they shape the country’s economy. According to the Association of American Railroads, the nation’s railroads directly employ more than 160,000 nationwide and move all sorts of freight – from consumer packaged goods to cars to coal.
In Georgia, railroads employ more than 6,700 people – the sixth most of any state – and move more than 190 million tons of freight annually across a network of 4,700 miles of track, the seventh largest rail network in the U.S.
On May 11, in Honor of National Train Day, we’ll be celebrating the deep history of railroads with song, a presentation about the Great Locomotive Chase and the opportunity to see unique railroad artifacts displayed only on this occasion. The romance of the railroad is open for all on this special day.