EXCLUSIVE: Norfolk Southern Railway donates gigantic railroad archive to history center

Atlanta History Center receives 380 cubic feet of files, and a grant to hire archivists

Atlanta exists because of the railroad. A newly-gifted railroad archive will help tell the story of Atlanta.

In 1836 the state of Georgia decided to build the Western & Atlantic railroad to link Georgia’s ports with the Midwest. A surveyor, seeking a location for the southernmost point of the W&A, found a likely spot in the North Georgia woods, and hammered a spike in the ground.

That mark on a map became a scruffy settlement called Terminus, which turned into Marthasville, and then Atlanta.

Private and publicly-owned rail lines began snaking toward Terminus from four directions, and as the railroad grew, so did the town.

Some 200 of those railroad lines were absorbed into Southern Railway, which became a dominant carrier in the Southeast. It merged with Norfolk and Western Railway in 1980 to become Norfolk Southern.

Next month Norfolk Southern opens its new national headquarters in Atlanta, and to celebrate, the company has donated a massive archive of railway history to the Atlanta History Center.

The Southern Railway archive includes hundreds of thousands of pages of correspondence, minute books, reports, construction plans, and more than 20,000 photographs that together provide a look at the growth of Atlanta and the Southeastern United States.

“The history of Southern Railway is inseparable from the history of this region,” said Jim Squires, chairman and CEO of Norfolk Southern, in a statement. “This treasure trove of material belongs in Atlanta, and there’s no better home than the Atlanta History Center.”

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Along with the materials, Norfolk Southern is providing a $500,000 grant to pay for cataloguing, organizing and digitizing the material. The gift will be announced today at a meeting of the downtown Rotary Club.

“This puts us on the map as a museum with a quintessential railroad collection,” said Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the history center. “It gives us that piece of Atlanta history, and regional history, with such granular detail and so many stories we wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Jackson McQuigg, vice president of properties at the history center and the resident railroad expert, said some of the archive is already at the center and the rest will be delivered by the end of the year.

The documents from Southern will demonstrate how Atlanta became a driving force in the South’s economic boom, said McQuigg. Railroads actively promoted industry along their routes, which generated traffic for their lines while growing commercial development in towns like Atlanta, said McQuigg.

“Southern (Railway) was eager to promote development of agricultural and textile business,” he said. “A lot of jobs can be traced through this collection, which gives real evidence of how the sunbelt developed in part because of the efforts of the Southern Railway.”

Credit: Norfolk Southern Corporation

Credit: Norfolk Southern Corporation

The collection includes an early image of the Ford Assembly Plant in Hapeville, which produced more than 8 million automobiles before it closed in 2006. Parked on the tracks alongside the plant is the Nancy Hanks II, a streamliner between Atlanta and Savannah with deluxe coaches and a grill-lounge car.

Norfolk Southern delivered more than 12,000 carloads of auto parts to the Hapeville plant annually, and each year took away more than 13,000 trilevel carloads of completed vehicles.

Another image from 1955 shows Southern’s operators entering information into punch cards, to be fed into the company’s exotic IBM 650 Magnetic Drum Calculator.

The room-sized computer, located at Southern’s old Spring Street offices, quickly calculated what freight moved, who shipped it, who received it, what route it took, and what tonnages and charges were involved.

McQuigg said the proto-mainframe is an example of Southern’s embrace of technology, while other rail lines were still using telegraph keys to communicate.

Credit: Kenneth G. Rogers

Credit: Kenneth G. Rogers

Among the other memorabilia in the archive is the breakfast menu from the dining car that carried Franklin Delano Roosevelt to his favorite retreat in Warm Springs. On offer were stewed prunes, figs with syrup and cream, scrambled eggs with minced ham, Post Toasties, Grape Nuts, pots of coffee, tea and Postum and, for the very hungry chief executive, a breakfast sirloin steak.

Hale was particularly happy that $50,000 of the $500,000 grant is earmarked to provide paid internships for young people from underrepresented communities.

“That’s music to our ears,” he said.