Their Descendants...Their Stories...Their Achievements

Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life

By: Ethelene Dyer Jones

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Pinnacles of the Past: The Railroad went to Blue Ridge, not Blairsville Blue Ridge, Mecca of the Mountains

The railroad, when it came to the mountains, went to Blue Ridge, Georgia and not to Blairsville, to the disappointment of many in the 1880s. Folks from Blairsville had to go to Blue Ridge to the train station, or to Culberson, NC, when the tracks extended on to there, or to Murphy, NC to catch a train or to ship their farm goods.

Blue Ridge, Georgia was incorporated by an Act of the Georgia Legislature on October 24, 1887.

But the history of Blue Ridge, named after the azure peaks, part of the Southern Appalachian Range that surround the town, had a much earlier beginning than that October day in 1887.

Cherokee Indians had a village and stronghold at the site of the future town. They cleared fields for cultivation and grew maize and other crops. One of the five "civilized tribes" of Native Americans, the Cherokee were advanced in agriculture, a written language and governmental practices.

The first post office in Blue Ridge was established before the Indians were forced west on the Trail of Tears. Seventeen years before Fannin County was formed by an Act of the Georgia Legislature and the bill signed by Governor Herschel Johnson on January 21, 1854, William L. Buchanan was appointed first postmaster of the Blue Ridge station on March 30, 1837. It is likely that Mr. Buchanan was also an Indian agent, dealing in land transactions with the Indians as white settlers moved into the area prior to the Indian removal. Tuckahoe Post Office, which later became Tacoah and then Morganton, was established fifteen days before the one at Blue Ridge, on March 15, 1837, with Benjamin Chastain as first postmaster and Indian agent.

The founder and "father" of Blue Ridge was Michael McKinney whose father, James Isaac McKinney, had settled at Chestnut Gap to the west of Blue Ridge in 1853. There the McKinney family established a mill, a store, a stagecoach stop on the old Ducktown to Ellijay Road, and various other enterprises. Because of serious damage to the McKinney store and mill during the Civil War, the McKinneys returned to their former home in Tennessee at Horseshoe Bend in Roane County. Michael McKinney joined the Confederacy and served in the Civil War, earning the rank of Colonel. He was known as Col. Mike McKinney upon his family's return to Chestnut Gap after the war and until his death in 1925.

In 1886, Colonel Michael McKinney sold out his Chestnut Gap holdings to his eldest son, Robert McKinney, and he and his wife, Hepsey Adeline McClure, and their younger children moved to what would become the town of Blue Ridge. There Michael McKinney established the first business, with a general merchandise store, a sawmill with sale of lumber and building materials, and a real estate business. The McKinney residence was the first built in the newly formed town of Blue Ridge.

Land for the town of Blue Ridge had belonged to an early settler, John Green, a farmer who raised corn and other crops on the location where the Fannin County Courthouse now stands. Mr. Green's son, Elisha, donated land to establish the town of Blue Ridge and worked with Mr. McKinney to survery and plat the town.

Michael McKinney was the mover and shaker in getting the railroad to Blue Ridge. McKinney and Georgia state legislator from the county, Mr. Ben Duggar, negotiated with officials of the Marietta and North Georgia Railroad. Engineer C. R. Walton worked to find the best right-of-way for laying the railroad tracks through Pickens, Gilmer and Fannin Counties and on into Murphy, North Carolina. Through convict labor secured by Representative Dugger, the grade for the tracks was finished in 1885. Col. McKinney and Col. R. L. Herbert of Cherokee County, NC, drove the ceremonial spike linking the northward bound track at Ellijay on January 1, 1886 amidst much festivity and celebration. The engine named "Little Mary" roared into Blue Ridge in 1886, pulling the train into the depot. The railroad shops were located at Blue Ridge from 1886 through 1906, providing jobs for repairmen and other railroad workers. The railroad was a boon to population growth and commercial and residential building.

Blue Ridge soon became a tourist attraction. Mineral Springs, with health-giving chaleate water, was touted as a place where health could be restored. Hotels sprang up in the new town along the twin main streets east and west of the railroad tracks. Homes were opened as boarding houses. Blue Ridge quickly became a bustling town. Horses, buggies, carts and farm wagons crowded the streets. Railroad whistles, the sound of cars switching on the tracks, the sights and smells of steam and smoke combined to produce an atmosphere of prosperity and productivity.

A problem arose concerning county government and judicial business. Lawyers, judges and others coming to the county for "court weeks" traveled by train and lodged at Blue Ridge hotels. They had to hire buggies or other conveyances to travel the dirt road to Morganton, the county seat, to conduct court. This seemed a waste of time and was a great inconvenience to them.

A proposal came to move the county seat from Morganton to Blue Ridge. The vote was taken on August 13, 1895. Two-thirds of those voting favored the referendum. However, those who had long cherished having Morganton as the county seat town did not easily give in to the vote. The dispute was settled by the Georgia Legislature and the vote upheld.

A stately brick courthouse with two stories and a clock tower was completed in Blue Ridge in 1901 at a cost of $14,000. That building burned July 3, 1936. The replacement was completed in 1937. The present new court house was entered in January, 2004.

A lengthy article published in 1887 in The Ellijay Courier described the rapid growth of Blue Ridge. stating that people were moving "from Atlanta, Marietta, Michigan and other places." The climate, land, healthy environment and future prospects of prosperity hailed Blue Ridge as the "mecca of the mountains." The writer further stated that "Messrs. McKinney and Walton, who own the real estate, intend to make a town of that place whether fate so decrees or not."

Although the heyday of the railroad subsided when passenger trains ceased to pull into the depot in 1951, and freight transportation ceased in the 1980's, the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway short run between Blue Ridge and McCaysville draws thousands of sightseers each season. Downtown Blue Ridge has undergone massive renovation and could well be renamed the "mecca of the mountains" for antiques and specialty shops.

Citizens in each generation since the town's founding in 1887 to the present have left a legacy of hard work, entrepreneurship, and determination. "Mecca of the Mountains"? The torch of hope and determination is still flaming, ready to be transferred to those, who like Colonel Michael McKinney, are yet to dream of what Blue Ridge can become.

And it's still a pretty good place for folks at Blairsville to travel to, even though the only train operative there now is the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway.

c 2008 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published July 17, 2008 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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