The Founder of Adrian

In the last twenty-five years of his life, Thomas Jefferson James was known as a builder of railroads. At the turn of the 20th Century, Captain James, as he was dubbed by all those who admired him, built a small metropolis in the wiregrass fields of East-Central Georgia. James died in Atlanta one hundred years ago on November 28, 1911. This is his story.

Thomas Jefferson James was in the northeast Central Georgia county of Jones on June 20, 1846. His mother, the former Miss Druscilla Lyles, died just before Thomas' fourth birthday. His father, Benjamin Jones, while visiting his elder sons in the Confederate Army fell victim to a fatal case of pneumonia and died on September 11, 1861.

Thomas was sixteen, strong, and eager to join his brothers, Abel and William. He traveled to Caroline County, Virginia, where on the 2nd day of June 1863, Private Thomas James subscribed his name before J.N. Beall on the enlistment roll of Company B, 12th Georgia Regiment, known as the Jones Volunteers. A single month later, Thomas James would witness the greatest carnage in the history of North American warfare. Serving in the brigade of George P. Doles, of Milledgeville, James's regiment attacked from the north into the town of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. Luckily, the regiment was not heavily engaged and casualties during the three-day epic battle were relatively light.

Things wouldn't be so easy at Spotsylvania Court House on the 10th of May 1864. The 12th regiment was overrun by Union forces at the Mule Shoe salient. Nearly all of Company B's soldiers still in action were captured, including James and his brothers Abel and William. They were taken prisoners and imprisoned at Point Lookout Prison in Maryland. The James boys were then transferred to the den of death, Elmira, New York, where Confederate prisoners died at a rate equal to or greater than their Union counterparts in Andersonville, Georgia.

By the end of October the number of prisoners crammed into an inefficacious facility designed for three thousand men had swollen to more than ten thousand prisoners. Decades after his imprisonment, T.J. James told of the horrors of his internment at Elmira. T.J. James recovered from a severe bout of measles. William succumbed to Typhoid pneumonia on October 1, 1864. To pass their time, the James brothers learned how to make gutta percha rings made from silver or pearl with thirteen stars representing the Confederate states. They sold them to the Yankees for a few dollars each. Abel and Thomas along with another prisoner used spoons and case knives to dig a tunnel under the house sixteen feet under the outer wall. Their escape was foiled, probably by a camp snitch.

Some five weeks after General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, Thomas James told his captors that he would sign an oath of allegiance to the United States, because all he wanted was to go home. Finally, a month later in the middle of June and after eleven months in prison, Abel and James began their long trek home.

When Thomas James returned home, he found his homeland decimated, barren, and burned. He returned to farming, going to school when he could. By the age of twenty-five, Thomas James's future began to be apparent. In 1868, James went to work as a common laborer on the Macon and Augusta Railway. He saved his scant salary until the "Panic of '73" tolled railroad construction in the state. James went to work for the contracting firm of J.T. and W.D. Grant on the Chattachoochee River. The firm purchased the 4,060- acre, $100,000-dollar, Old Town Plantation just below Louisville, Georgia in Jefferson County. James bought out the Grants in 1884 with other partners, including U.S. Senator and Civil War Governor of Georgia, Joseph E. Brown.

After the economy rebounded, Thomas James bought out his partners and began the practice of leasing convicts from the State of Georgia. Within fourteen months, James' gang of convicts, reportedly numbering as many as three thousand men, built more than 225 miles of railroads across the state. Capt. James, as he was known then, joined a large saw milling operation under the name of the Southern Lumber Company. When the company faltered, James purchased the assets and transformed the ailing company into a profitable operation.

Capt. T.J. James built his own railroad, the Wadley and Mt. Vernon, which ran from its terminus in Jefferson County, southwesterly through Kite, Adrian and Rockledge. The railroad never made it to Mt. Vernon, but did run another line into Emanuel County and operated at the Wadley Southern Railroad.

James expanded his operations to include timber and farming. He was one of the largest planters in the state and certainly the largest in East Central Georgia. His operated gristmills, sawmills, and cane syrup plants on his farm and timberlands which encompassed 38,000 acres.

Thomas James moved his headquarters to the western corner of Emanuel County in a small community named Adrian. James personally made improvements to the infrastructure of the fledgling town, furnishing the town with water from his well east of town on the Ohoopee River and his electric light plant. He owned James Mercantile Company and the Farmers Bank of Adrian.

Captain James was always looking for ways to improve his railroads. In the early spring of 1899, he traveled to Atlanta to put in a bid for the trains of an insolvent traveling circus company. There he met George V. Gress, who was solely there to acquire the circus animals. James and Gress discussed their wants, entered a joint bid of $4,485.00, and walked off with their respective prizes. James took his train cars back to Adrian. Gress offered the animals to the city of Atlanta. The city council accepted. Gress, a lumber dealer, built a building and cages, which became the Atlanta Zoo.

On June 30, 1881, Mr. James was united in marriage to Miss Alice Cheatham, of Jefferson county and a direct descendant of Gov. David Emmanuel, America's first Jewish born governor. They had six children, Thomas Jefferson, Jr., Alice N., Arthur Emanuel, Frank C., Albert H. and Annie M. James.

James told biographer A.B. Caldwell, that he found relaxation in horseback riding and musical evenings spent at home. James credited his success to his parents and the "habits of industry and frugality" that they taught him, along with private study and contact with business men. To the young he commended, "truthfulness, honesty, careful calculations and thoughtful execution, regular and temperate habits."

James held few political offices, but he did serve on the town council of Adrian. He was so loved and so admired that during the "new county" movement of the early 20th Century, residents of the area nearly succeeded in garnering a new county, James County, with its seat in Adrian, Georgia.

It was in 1909 at the height of his business career when Capt. James' health began to fail. He moved to Atlanta in hopes of better medical care. He died in an Atlanta hospital just before 2:oo o'clock, p.m. on November 28, 1911.

Capt. Thomas J. James left his footprints across East Central Georgia. Along the 680 miles of railroads his crews built grew the small towns which are the roots of our area's long and rich heritage, all of which ended one hundred ago.


Bruce James said…
Scott: Thanks for this article on my great-grandfather. There is some question as to the name of one of his children (who died as a teenager): You have it as "Arthur Emanuel" which makes sense since Mrs. Alice Cheatham James was a direct descendant of Governor David Emanuel; but Arthur's gravesite says "Arthur Lemuel" (actually, "Lemuel" is abbreviated to "Lem."). Since Arthur predeceased both of his parents, you would think that they'd get the spelling right on the headstone.