Railroad Men of Norcross
Many men of Norcross worked building and maintaining the tracks or serving onboard the Airline Belle, the Southern Crescent or the Richmond-Danville lines.
Any discussion on the history of Norcross must begin, “Norcross is a railroad town.” As with so many towns in the South, Norcross was begun as part of post-Civil War reconstruction. Earnest work on the Richmond-Danville line began in 1868 from the terminus which was then located in an area now known as Little Five Points.
When the 20 miles of track was lain northward and Jonathan Thrasher purchased the 140 odd acres surrounding its end, a town was born. But work on the rails was not instantaneous or completed easily. The long stretch of rails, now running all the way to Washington, D.C., took the felling of much timber land for use as ties, the pounding down of many iron spikes and the strong backs of hundreds of laboring men. The railroad brought with it increased commerce, many jobs and a new mode of modern transportation for both rich and poor.
Railroad crews were known as gangs--and many men from Norcross raised families while working in section gangs. Rob Adams was the foreman of a local section gang who maintained our section of the two rails that once ran north and south while raising two daughters, Nonnie and Ruby Neil, along with his wife in a section house that once sat on Rakestraw Street. A crossing was located there as well.
The men in the crew were a mixture of black and white, using big hammers to drive down the spikes while singing out loudly. The songs helped the men develop a rhythm to their pounding. It helped both the man swinging down the hammer and ensured the safety of the man bravely holding the spike in place.
During the Great Depression, many hobos ran the rails and some are remembered to have jumped off here in Norcross. A farm town, residents sustained themselves pretty well. These bums were mostly good men, just down on their luck, as so many were in the 1920s. Nora Ewing lived along Railroad Street, now named Wingo, and some of the down-trodden would knock on the section houses humbly asking her for a morsel. Some would exchange her offerings of a biscuit for work. Nora’s daughter, Irene Crapo, once recalled her mother would sometimes give them work, but always gave them food. The sad souls were always polite, thanking her for her generosity.
Another Norcross man, Homer Jones, was a conductor on the Southern Railway. A humorous occasion was remembered in the book "Norcross" By Martha Miller Adams and Irene Ewing Crapo.
Along with another fellow from Norcross, Horace Johnson, Homer Jones was in charge of a long freighter and the two men took turns "walking the train," looking to enforce the railroad’s strict policy prohibiting free hobo riders. On one occasion, Homer took off on such a walk car-to-car looking for freeloaders. When Homer returned Horace asked if he’d found anyone aboard.
“There was one fellow,” Jones replied, according to the book, “But, when we got to talkin’ I found out we were kin so I didn’t have the heart to throw him off. Be a good friend, Horace, and do it for me.”
According to the book, Johnson agreed and set out to find the tramp who brandished a pistol and told Horace he intended to ride all the way to Atlanta. And, he said, furthermore, not the flag man, the conductor or anyone was going to put him off.
Back at the caboose Homer asked Horace, “Did you get him off?”
“No, I found out he was kin to me, too.”
Editor's note: Stay tuned for the next column, in two week, which will feature stories of train wrecks, including images.