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GUEST COLUMN: A train runs through it

Mike Ragland

Mike Ragland, Cave Spring city councilman

The South didn’t have near as many railroads before the war as did the North. After the war was over and the South was devastated, the entrepreneurs from both areas recognized the importance of the iron beast, and the country went railroad crazy. They even started building one to connect the west coast to the rest of the country.

In 1848 the Selma, Rome and Dalton was chartered as the Alabama and Tennessee River railroad, and was originally planned as a Selma to Gadsden connection.

At the time of the war it reached as far as Blue Mountain (near what would become Anniston). By 1867 the company’s directors decided to abandon the Gadsden plans and extend the line one hundred miles to Rome, and then Dalton, where it would connect with the Western and Atlantic railroad. Once it reached Rome, the connection to the W&A was possible by switching railroads.

The extension was completed in 1870, but did not insure the financial stability of the company, and it entered into receivership in 1874. It was reorganized as the Georgia Southern Railroad. In 1881, the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia bought the Georgia Southern and absorbed it into its operations, giving it a line from Dalton to Selma. This railroad, along with the Richmond and Danville, were merged to form the new Southern Railway. On June 1, 1982, the Southern and Norfolk & Western Railways announced an agreement to merge into a combined system encompassing 17,000 miles of track and today’s Norfolk Southern was born.

Southern operated the line as a secondary main until the mid 1970’s when the section from Piedmont, Alabama, to Atlanta Junction just south of Rome was abandoned. Towns, or stops on this section include Ladiga, Spring Garden, Pleasant Gap, Rock Run, Bluffton, and Tecumseh Alabama. The towns in Georgia were listed as Etna, Prior Station, Oremont, Cave Spring and Cunningham.

In the 1980s, Norfolk Southern abandoned the line from Fort McClellan to Piedmont. (Thanks Selena for the info and help).

The rail bed between Rome and Blue Mountain was completed before the war, but no rails were placed on it. It was a good road, however, for troops to travel between theatres of operation. They deemed it a short hike between railroads and it was used quite frequently.

After the Mexican War, Moses Stroup built a furnace at Round Mountain, Alabama. Using an existing forge he made hollow ware, and all types of ironware. He also made iron pigs, which were hauled to the Coosa River by wagon and then shipped to Rome where the Noble foundry was turning it into Confederate Ordnance a few years later. It is said the first cannon the Nobles made for the south was from Round Mountain Iron.

The Nobles, using all the iron they could get from the Round Mountain furnace, also built the furnace at Cornwall and was hauling as much iron as they could get to their foundry.

The Round Mountain furnace was attacked, as was Cornwall, and partially destroyed by Union Soldiers under the command of Maj. Gen. Frank Blair in 1864.

It was restarted in the early 1870s after the war, and after the railroad ran through the area. The iron in the area made it a profitable package for the railroad and the furnace owners. Several furnaces were notable in the immediate arena besides the one at Round Mountain. There was the Rock Run Furnace, the Etna Furnace, and the one that interests me is the Tecumseh furnace. And no, it wasn’t named for the Indian.

The Tecumseh Iron Company was organized in 1873 by Willard Warner, who was a brevet brigadier general in the Union Army and served on the staff of William Tecumseh Sherman. He named the furnace in his honor.

It was located on the Selma, Rome and Dalton Railroad and first began operations on Feb. 19, 1874. At the time of its construction it was considered one of the finest iron furnaces in the south. The furnace had an output of 25 tons of iron per day at its peak.

The company received mail at the nearby community of Tecumseh, which had its own post office from 1873 to 1935. It operated constantly till 1886, and then part time to October 1890. In 1909, the Birmingham Coal and Iron Co. purchased the entire property. The Woodward Iron Co. bought the Birmingham Coal and Iron Co. on Aug. 4, 1912, and had the furnace dismantled for scrap.

One of the rumors I’ve always tried to document but haven’t been able, was that the mad arsonist himself visited Rome, on the way to visit some of his holdings in the iron fields of Alabama. Legend has it that he shook hands with citizens of Rome, and many confederate veterans while in Rome. Something tells me this is true, but also hard for me to accept. If it is, they were better Christians than I would have been.

The community of Rock Run was at one time larger than Centre, making it the largest town in Cherokee County, Alabama. It was booming. The railroad itself was hauling all kinds of agriculture products to Rome or Selma. In the 1880s, Rome was building one foundry after another, as was Anniston, where the Noble family had relocated. The furnaces were running day and night.

My railroad expert (Selena Tilley) tells me that spurs and switch tracks were evident in Rock Run and the other furnace towns. The town of Bluffton (another story entirely) had a first rate hotel. And several boarding houses flourished for the workers.

Tecumseh was not the only town with a post office. Rock Run also had one located in the old commissary that was active until the mid 1950s. The old commissary building is still standing, but needs a lot of work.

A lot of the foundations of the various furnaces can still be located, and pictures exist of many in the Cherokee County Museum.

When you speak to folks that had ancestors, or grew up in this area themselves, they speak highly of the lifestyle that was enjoyed at the time, much like the Mill Village where I was raised. It was hard work, but was a good life. Wages were decent for the south at that time.

I like researching the long gone areas where the history is so rich. One place in Cherokee County that I’ve been unable to do much with was the cotton mill on Hurricane Creek that closed in the 1920s. If you have anything at all, please call me.

Now just as we think the Rock Run era was about to end, they discovered Bauxite.

Mike Ragland is a Cave Spring city councilman and a retired Rome police major. His most recent book is “Living with Lucy.” Readers may contact him at mrag@bellsouth.net or mikeragland.com.