For many years no paved roads aided traffic in Union County. In 2005 most of the roads are paved, even “country” or “county” roads. At one time, our forebears used the famed Logan Turnpike to transport farm products to markets in Gainesville. The trip to Gainesville took five or more days, two over the Logan Turnpike into Cleveland for the first night and then on into Gainesville the next day.
A day or more at Gainesville was spent in bartering and securing products not grown on the farms in Union County. Two days were spent on the return trip, with wagons loaded heavily with products for country stores and for personal family use. It was not uncommon for wagon trains to form so that neighbors could be together for company and protection on the Logan Turnpike journey. This major throughway was known first as the Union Turnpike. After Major Willis Logan purchased the right to it in 1871 for $3,000, it was named the Logan Turnpike (toll road). From the early 1830’s until 1925, almost 100 years, this road served the people.
Then came the advent of the first paved road across the mountain. A different route was chosen from the Logan Turnpike. An engineer with the Georgia Highway Department, Mr. Warren Rabun Neel, surveyed for the road. He chose as the most likely corridor the old Frogtown Indian Trail. In laying out the road, Mr. Neel had to follow the natural contours of the land. Consequently, many steep grades and sharp curves were in the original plan for the road.
In 1923 work began on the road through Frogtown or Walisiyi Gap. No modern equipment was available then for grading. Citizens were hired as were their teams of mules and horses. Ball wagon dirt movers were used to dig out the roadway. One steam shovel was available, provided by the construction company, C. M. Lyle, who had the contract for building the road. Picks, shovels, wheelbarrows and drag pans pulled by the farmers’ mules were the main tools used to grade the road across Frogtown, in the shadow of towering Blood Mountain. Since the resources for grading were limited, the work moved slowly. Main strength and determination as well as hard manual labor were applied to the task. Besides Mr. Neel, another person from the Georgia Highway Department, Mr. B. C. Milner, supervised the road-building. The falls on the south side of Frogtown Gap bears his name to honor his work.
Some of the men who hired out to work on the road from the Choestoe District was my father, J. Marion Dyer, and his team of mules and a drag pan; Jeptha Souther who fired the boiler for the steam shovel and contracted to erect the guard rails at the curves; Alonzo Allison, Howard Curtis, Tom and Ed Lance, Floyd Berry and Victor Souther were other known workers. John Paul Souther, son of Jeptha, a mere eight years of age at the time the work began, got a job as water boy.
When the road was first opened in the summer of 1925, it was a soil-surfaced road fourteen feet wide. It was named Neel Gap to honor the engineer who had drawn up the plan for the road. In 1926 macadam was applied and paving became a reality for the central nine feet of the roadway. Four feet of crushed stone paved the shoulders, providing passing room on the one-lane road. More improvement came with the years. In 1931 the highway was resurfaced and widened to fourteen feet. Another project in 1950 brought it to its present 20-feet width with some of the sharp curves softened. Now the picturesque mountain roadway has passing lanes and smooth surfacing. It is a boon to tourism and to commuters who live in the mountains and work “below” them in Gainesville or Atlanta.
Fascinated by the work of the steam shovel, John Paul Souther could hardly stay away from the scene of the grading between 1923 and 1925, and when the first macadam surface was laid in 1926. He says, “This was the most exciting thing I had ever seen in my life. That is why I wanted to see the road work.” Now 90 years of age, Mr. Souther still remembers clearly how the road was constructed and how it changed the way of life for farmers in Union County. As he travels up from his Gainesville home to his former Union County birthplace along Highway 129/19, he still sees in his mind’s eye those days of hard work. He recalls how Floyd Berry operated the steam roller with its huge steel rollers that had to be cooled by applying water to the rollers as they smoothed the hot asphalt.
When Jeptha Souther worked to build the railing, or fence, guard rails were not available. Strong locust posts and cyclone fencing twenty-four inches in width were used to make the fence. Local men were glad to be paid for the locust posts they cut and hauled to the sites along the new road. It was a means of making some money when times were hard for mountain farmers.
From a five-day trip to Gainesville by wagon over the Logan Turnpike to the one-day trip by automobile or truck, farmers took their eggs, chickens and mountain cured hams to markets below the hills. Better economy and ease of travel were assets of this first paved road over the mountain.
c2005 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published May 19, 2005 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.