The Fastest Thing in The South

She was the fastest thing in America, or at least in the South - more than twice as fast as her namesake, the fastest horse in the forty-four states.  Able to fly down the tracks at the seeming supersonic speed of seventy-seven miles an hour, the Nancy Hanks I, nothing but a speeding bullet could out run her. In the end, it was speed which brought her fame and speed which killed her.

In the 1880s, competing railroads were engaged in serious and bitter competition. Lower fares, unwavering reliability, prompt service and speed of travel were the goals of good railroads in this state and around the nation.  Although, the Central of Georgia dominated the railroad industry in Georgia during the latter years of the 19th Century, company officials were always out to improve their service to the customer and at the same time, increase the profits to their shareholders.

In 1892, the Central's owners devised a bold plan to put the ultimate in speedy passenger trains on the tracks from Atlanta to Savannah. The Baldwin 4-0-0  locomotive, in its initial trials, boosted the Nancy Hanks to a speed of 78  miles per hour  -  much faster than trains which boosted that they were the fastest in the world by traveling a mile a minute, or sixty miles per hour.  Railroad officials planned to have at least three of the fast trains - one to travel in each direction and a third one to serve as a back up if either of  the main trains ran into trouble.

Despite some thoughts to the contrary, the Nancy Hanks was not named for the mother of Abraham Lincoln - not hardly in the post war South which was still suffering from lingering effects of Reconstruction and northern Republican domination of the Federal government. It was indirectly named for the president's mother, who was the namesake of the country's fastest race horse at the time.

The first test cruise of the Nancy Hanks came on October 9, 1892.  At precisely 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning in Savannah, with the top officials of the railroad onboard, the bullet train left the depot in Savannah.  In the most amazing time of eight hours, the Blue Fast Flyer, pulling two passenger cars, a baggage car and an express car, arrived in Macon at 12:45 for a 20 minute lunch stop, At 3:00 p.m, the Nancy Hanks arrived at the depot in Atlanta.

On a second test run, with a larger contingent of eminent men aboard, the Nancy Hanks, with Engineer J. Flanders at the controls, pulled the throttle full speed ahead attaining a speed of 78 mph and trimming the Atlanta to Savannah,294-mile  run to seven and one half hours.

The Nancy Hanks was no ordinary locomotive. Her elegantly refurbished cars were painted a bright vermillion shade of red, with "Nancy Hanks" with gold letters, painted by W.T. Leopold,  on both sides of her cars. The engine was painted in bright royal blue colors.


The Nancy Hanks' lighting fast speed had deadly consequences.  On a mid-afternoon in February 1893, Mary Short was taking a stroll to the Oakdale Depot.  Thinking the streaking blue and red train was going to slow down as it approached the depot, Mrs. Short  misjudged her speed and was instantly killed as she was walking across the tracks. On May 28 of that year, "Uncle Billy" Graham and his wife were walking along the tracks, holding their umbrellas over their heads during  a gully washer.  With the Nancy Hanks flying through the storm at a mile a minute, the Grahams never knew what hit and instantly killed them.

All went relatively well for the Nancy Hanks. That is until a Tuesday afternoon on March 14, 1893.  As the train was approaching Smarr's Station, some fifteen to twenty track miles from Macon, the flange of one the engine's wheels pulled off the rail.  The engine, which suffered substantial damage, left the track, as well as all of the other cars, except the parlor car which came to a stop half on and half off the tracks.

Surprisingly, no serious injuries were reported.  Engineer John Ramsey suffered an acute bump and cuts on his head, while Fireman Togaith was scalded by escaping steam.  William Cooper, a passenger from New York, was also cut on the head.  The passengers remained relatively calm while  E.A. Waxelbaum broke open a window to allow Cooper to be extricated to safety.

In less than two weeks after the wreck, circumstantial evidence and an apparent  confession by a frequent felon led prosecutors to believe that a dastardly crime had been committed.  As time passed, no indictment was sought and the derailment was finally determined to be an accident.

As the Panic of 1893 brought the economy of the United States and the world into the severest depression since 1873, the Central of Georgia's directors were forced to cut operations.  No longer could the railroad afford the lavish, lighting fast excursions from the capital city to the coast. Although the Nancy Hanks was profitable, she was drawing much needed and  experienced workers and resources  from other lines around the state.

The last ride of the Nancy Hanks came on August 13, 1893.  Actually, the only thing that changed was that the Nancy Hanks would no longer fly through the countryside from the coast to the foothills of the mountains.  It was relegated to ordinary passenger service, stopping at all regularly scheduled stations along her way, forcing her passenger to travel almost 11 hours to reach Savannah from Atlanta.

During the boom of post World War II, the Nancy Hanks II was put on the tracks from Atlanta through Macon to Savannah.  From July 1947 to April 1971, the Nancy Hanks II represented the ultimate luxury in the waning  golden era of passenger railroad traffic in America. On some rare occasions when there were impediments to travel along the Central from Macon to Savannah, her engineers would take the train along the old Macon, Dublin and Savannah route through Dublin.

It was 120 years ago when the fastest thing in the South came to a screeching halt.  It was as they always say, "all good things must come to an end." 


Rhonda said…
That is very interesting. I lost track of the current status of a train from Atlanta to Savannah. I wonder what the need will be with more activity at the port in Savannah? Good job as usual Scott!
Yorkie said…
We used to take the Nancy Hanks to Savannah to go to Hilton Head, in the late 60's. That was such a fun way to travel and such a nice ride. I wish we had more passenger rail service in GA. Not only to the coast, but up into the mountains as well.
Barbara Starr said…
My name is Barbara Starr and I was hoping someone could get me in touch with anyone who may have information regarding the art work displayed in the Nancy Hanks 2. My mom (who is now 86) was in a photo displayed on the wall of one of the cars. She is in a bathing suit with a large fan or hat displayed behind her. I would love to located the picture for my mom. Please let me know if you have any information. She was in a lot of beach photos with other girls taken at Tybee Beach
Thank you so much
Unknown said…