Norcross is a railroad town sprung up at the last depot stop of the Airline Belle. Its history weaves itself around trains and tracks like kudzu on a telephone pole.
Although the rumble and the whistle add a certain eclectic ambiance, a barreling iron horse carries along with the box car and flatbeds a certain level of danger. One hundred years ago folks made their way across the tracks on foot, horseback, wagon or automobile along dirt paths that the rails cut through without the safety of cross bucks and flashing signal lights.
Local lore recalls that men who lived in homes near the tracks took turns keeping neighbors safe by standing along the rails feeling for the vibration of an oncoming steamer with swinging candle lit lanterns to warn off children, livestock or drunkards.
None the less, even with modern technology, train wrecks happen right in our little downtown district, seemingly at an average of one every decade.
In the early days of Norcross most of the mishaps were not severe, usually limited to a drunken blunder or the result of livestock who, in those days, freely roaming the streets. But the industrial age of the 1900s brought more motorized vehicles, more trains, more switches and more catastrophic wrecks.
To the best of anyone’s recollection, one of the earliest was sometime around 1937 or ’38 when the switch at the curve, just north of the downtown district, quite possibly did not engage correctly leading two engines to be on a head-on path, colliding on that stretch of rails that once sat between Thrasher Park and what was then Railroad Street, now Wingo Street.
Norcross-born Shirley Letson grew up in the house that is now the Welcome Center on Lawrenceville Street, her backyard was just steps from the tracks, so she recalls playing there a lot, perhaps too much.
“We played train tag along the two rails daring to see which one of us would stay on the tracks the longest. We jumped off and out of the way as an engine approached,” Letson remembers, “We also played in the open culvert drain that stretched under the tracks, too.”
Shirley and her friends got in big trouble with the sheriff though after the engineers complained about the dangerous horseplay.
“Daddy sent me out for a hickory switch and whipped me good for it,” Shirley says with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, "But we went right back to playing there.”
The children were splashing around in the puddles of the culvert on the day of a big wreck.
“I heard the loudest crashing sound of metal, a sound I won’t ever forget,” Shirley says, “The ground shook so hard and when we ran out we saw two engines on their sides along the rails just smoking and we were sure we’d caused the wreck by not mindin’ our parents.”
The incident spilled a white powder all along both side of the tracks, a substance mined from the north Georgia mountains that, when mixed with water, made porcelain pottery. Shirley and her friends made little bowls in their hands from the substance and, as she recalls, “a little spit.”
Carl Garner was in the first grade in the spring of 1942 and remembers, “If you lived close enough to school to walk home for lunch you could and you didn’t have to go back. I walked home one day and saw a big wreck that happened on the crossing of Holcomb Bridge and Thrasher.”
It was a double engine passenger heading south into Atlanta that came up on Irving Baily’s truck, loaded down with rocks and stuck at the crossing.
“The lead engine smashed right over top of that truck,” Garner says, still seeing it clearly after all these years. “A lot of us kids were watching it try to get cleared I can picture the people stuck inside some of cars in my mind, that’s something that sticks with you.”
Garner watched all day while men cleared the tracks with horses and tractors and remembers teasing the older children who had to return to school saying, “I don’t have to go back.”
Garner has memories of several more incidents like the one when an engine barreled around the curve, jumped the tracks, and nearly careened into 7 Jones Street building. More than one train has hit a truck stopped on top of the Autry Street crossing. And Garner knows of a big crash back in the 1960s that hapened up south of Norcross, closer to Doraville out in front of the Humphries Concrete Block Company.
Perhaps the most tragic incident was the time when two people were killed when their car was struck while they tried to cross at Rakestraw and Wingo Streets, one of many crossing closed in an effort to improve safety.
Warnings and precautions should be heeded today as it was just a few years ago that a truck driver ignored posted warnings and got his rig stuck on the high crossing of Holcomb Bridge. Modern emergency and police radios could not stop an oncoming train in time and it smashed that car carrier trailer to pieces.