A Significant Shortline Railroad
Although it was only around for a third of a century, the Wadley & Mt. Vernon was the most important thing to come to the extreme ends of Laurens and Johnson County in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th Century. Only some thirty-six miles in length, this shortline railroad brought about brief, but vital and long lasting, spurts to the towns and communities where its tracks ran. When it was gone, those towns were never the same again. Here is the story of the Wadley & Mt. Vernon Railroad and how it created the towns of Rockledge, Adrian and Kite. And, why its owners never quite saw their long range plans come true.
The Wadley and Mt. Vernon Railroad originated at the Old Town Plantation of Capt. Thomas Jefferson James in Jefferson County, Georgia. James, a master builder of railroads in East Central Georgia, drew a lot of his success in building railroads through the newly authorized use of buying convicts from prisons to do his labor. With a crew of up to three thousand bought and paid for hands, T.J. James took credit for building more than six hundred miles of railroad, a distance sufficient to run tracks from Dublin to Washington, D.C.
Captain James envisioned a railroad that would initially run from Wadley to Mt. Vernon. Wadley was a small commercial center in lower Jefferson County, but was strategically positioned on the great Central of Georgia Railroad. Mt. Vernon, the commercial center of the lower Oconee River Region, was scheduled to be on the Savannah, Americus and Montgomery Railroad. With each of its termini being on the vital major rail lines, James and his investors hoped to capitalize on the new markets this new road would open. In the beginning, James planned extensions northward to Augusta and southward through Valdosta onto the Gulf Coast.
James, a member of the large timber firm Donovan & Perkins, applied to the state to incorporate its logging road into a full-fledged railroad. Although the Wadley and Mt. Vernon had not then been incorporated, three passenger trains per week traveled between Wadley and Kite by March 1889. The state legislature finally approved. And, on June 25, 1889, the Wadley and Mt. Vernon was incorporated with a capital stock of $200,000.00. Within the year, a 13-mile extension was completed to Ricksville on the Old Savannah Road.
The Wadley and Mt. Vernon Railroad ran from Wadley south through Tom, Kite, Ethel, Meeks, and Odomville. The railroad crossed the Big Ohoopee at the Nazarene Campground just a few hundred feet west of the Highway 80 bridge. It ran southwesterly to a junction with the Brewton and Pineora Railroad in the center of Adrian. Capt. James, in moving his home to Adrian, made that once non existent community into a boom town and the headquarters of the railroad.
The railroad was completed through Ricksville, located at the intersection of the Old Savannah Road and current Georgia Highway 15 and just north of Blackville on Georgia Highway 86. The road turned in a more westerly direction through Orianna and onto the vicinity of Rockledge around the turn of the 20th century to become Laurens County's sixth railroad. By that time, James had the company's charter amended to extend the line to Valdosta, the most important rail center in Southwest Georgia. Capt. James extended the road to join with the newly constructed extension of the Macon, Dublin, and Savannah Railroad in 1902. Houses and businesses sprang up. Rockledge boomed. The new railroad gave the citizens of the area a closer route to the Central via Wadley. Engineers laid out an extension of the line to Mt. Vernon.
The company's directors changed their minds and instead of running the railroad down the eastern side of the Oconee River to Mount Vernon, the line was changed to continue in the same direction crossing lower western Laurens, Dodge and bridging the Ocmulgee in Telfair County before heading onto Valdosta. The ambitious 200-mile extension of the railroad hoped to capitalize on the vast forests of virgin timber, still left uncut in the upper Wiregrass regions of the state. In 1903, Congress granted the Wadley and Mt. Vernon's request to build a bridge over the Ocmulgee River. Once in place, plans were accelerated to complete the railroad. Work began on the railroad from Barrow's Bluff on the Ocmulgee to Douglas in 1902, but no work was ever completed beyond the grading to the Oconee River, southwest of Rockledge. Before 1907, the extension to the Oconee was completely abandoned. The cost of bridging both the Oconee and the Ocmulgee rivers was beyond the budget of the railroad, which mainly hauled freight and only a few passengers between small towns.
In the early spring of 1905, the Atlantic and Birmingham Railroad bought the assets of the Wadley & Mt. Vernon Railroad Company and renamed it the Wadley Southern Railroad. The new line also included a second shortline track from Wadley through Swainsboro and Stillmore to Collins, Georgia in Tattnall County. Railroad men speculated that Captain William Raoul of the A & B RR purchased the company to bolster his vast network of railroads in South Georgia. That news preempted a report two days earlier that the Douglas end of the Wadley & Mt. Vernon and two other local railroads had been purchased by J.E. Wadley, J.S. Bailey and G.G. Parker of Waycross. In 1906, the Central of Georgia Railroad purchased the Wadley Southern and moved its headquarters to Savannah.
The Wadley Southern was dealt a near fatal blow in 1915, when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled against it in a dispute with the State of Georgia. From the very beginning, the Wadley and Mt. Vernon was bound to fail. Good times wouldn't and couldn't last. The railroad lived and breathed with the timber industry. After twenty-five years, there were no more trees to cut. Naval stores in the Rockledge and Ricksville areas were then being transported to market or railroad depots by truck. When the towns began to wane, so did the number of persons riding the passenger cars through the dead towns of Odomville, Ricksville, Tom and Ethel.
The road from Adrian to Rockledge was closed first and by the mid twenties the tracks along the Adrian-Wadley end were taken up forever. The Wadley Southern officially went out of business in the early 1960s after closing its remaining lines.
In its day, the Wadley & Mt. Vernon and its successor, the Wadley Southern, were the lifeblood of the towns they served. When it folded, the towns did not die. They are all still there. And, on windless night, if you listen real closely, you just might hear the cry of the old freight engines as they chug through the woods.