The Gray Brothers

The Gray Brothers

.This story of the Gray brothers and their contribution to railroad history was provided by the great granddaughter of William Gray.  Through the generosity of Mrs. Clarence (Pollie) Singletary of Moncks Corner, SC  we have another link in the history of the great industry that provided the “steel fingers” our forefathers used in building America’s  future.

Two Englishmen and their contribution
to early railroad building in Georgia.


 by Mary Belle Griffin

  SOME of the first railroads in America were built in Georgia, and two Englishmen helped to build them.  Mr. George S. Obear of 627 Ridgecrest Avenue in Atlanta likes to recall with pride the accounts of the achievements of these illustrious ancestors.
    According to Mr. Obear, William Gray, his great grandfather emigrated to America in 1818.  After a short stay in Boston, Mass., he took a boat to South Carolina.  A younger brother, John D. Gray joined him in South Carolina.  William Gray was six feet tall and weighed 300 pounds.  John D. Gray was six feet four inches tall and also weighed 300 pounds.  These brothers had followed the trade of masonry in England.

   In America they found many opportunities to use their training.  While in South Carolina they were employed to reconstruct some of the wharfs at the shipping yards.  There they became aware of the struggle against time that cotton from the fields to the seaports, and thence to the textile mills in England.  To add to the confusion, the English mills paid a premium price for the first shipments of cotton to reach them each season.

   On the upper reaches of the Savannah River at the time, were plantation owners who shipped their cotton down the river to the seaports by slow river boats.  To avail themselves of  the bonus on cotton , they organized  the South Carolina  Canal and Rail Road Company.  They contracted with William and John D. Gray to build a railroad bed.  On Dec. 25, 1830, a six-horse power locomotive, “The Best Friend of Charleston,” pulled a tiny string of cars over the completed first six miles of track.  The locomotive was the first to be built in America, and the train inaugurated the first steam railroad service in America.  The railroad was an immediate success.
    William and John D. Gray came to Georgia to live shortly after finishing their work on the South Carolina Railroad.  They had built up a good reputation as construction engineers, and enjoyed a certain amount of prestige for contributing to the success of that railroad.

Planters and merchants in Georgia were anxious to avail themselves of the advantages of the quicker and better method of transportation the railroad offered.  The slow and tedious wagon trains pulled by mules and oxen they had to depend on to haul wheat and corn, as well as cotton and merchandise were a constant headache.  Interested groups of citizens organized and petitioned the Legislature for consent to construct Railroads in Georgia.
In 1833 the Georgia legislature in session at the Capitol in Milledgeville issued three charters to build railroads in Georgia.  Governor William Lumpkin signed the consents “which would start the steel fingers reaching into the heart of the state.”
William and John D. Gray were among those most interested in these proceedings, however, from past experience they knew it would probably be months or even years before the preliminaries of drafting , surveying and obtaining  of rights of way could be accomplished.  only then would the letting of contracts for the construction of embankments be in order.  Therefore they went about other activities.
John D. Gray traveled to north Georgia and bought 4000 acres of land in what was then “Cherokee Country.”  he owned a great many slaves, so with their help he set to work developing a self-sustaining plantation.  Houses for family and slaves were built, barns for cattle and horses.  He was a lover of fine horses, and to indulge in his delight of them, he built a half-mile race track.  A lot of the furniture was made on the plantations in those days, so he had a furniture shop, a commissary, blacksmith shops, a lime kiln, and the usual smoke houses for curing meats.  A two-story flour and grist mill was built of heavy stone beside a swiftly flowing stream.  The strong masonry of this mill reflected his English heritage delightfully, for it resembled an old English fort with the protective waters of a moat at its base.  The plantation soon became known as Graysville.
William Gray took his family and traveled southward to St. Joe, Florida, a port on St. Josephs Bay, an arm of the Gulf of Mexico.  There he bought a little railroad at the United States Marshall’s sale.  This short-line railroad had been built to transport cotton which has come down the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers to the shallows of the Apalachicola River over to the ships that docked at St. Joe.   The house that the Grays lived in had a cupola  on top.  The family often climbed the stairs to the cupola to watch the ships come into the harbor from the Gulf.  One day Mrs. Gray watched as a strange ship anchored beyond the reef.  She wondered why it did not come into the protection  of the harbor.  Several days later cases of yellow fever broke out in the community.  Then it was learned that a small boat from the strange ship Mrs. Gray had seen had brought the body of a seaman ashore for burial.  He had died of yellow fever.  Some of Mr. Gray’s slaves had helped bury the body.  Near panic followed.
   William Gray and his wife decided to return  to Georgia.  What was to be done with the railroad?  It was too valuable to leave.  Iron was hard to get in those days.  They would just take the railroad back to Georgia with them.  The slaves were put to work dismantling the little steam engine and the string of work cars.  Everything that could be salvaged was loaded on the big travel-

ing  wagons.  A hurriedly assembled wagon train left the fever-ridden port of  St. Joe and headed for the healthier red clay hills of Georgia.
    The trail they took led them through territory where Indians still roamed. Mrs. Gray was terrified during this part of the journey for fear that Indians would overtake them.  Nothing of the sort happened and the complete wagon train of family, slaves, household goods and the little railroad arrived at Macon, Georgia safely.  A home on Orange Street was bought and the family settled there.  (Today the site of that house is occupied by the Mount DeSales Convent.)
   Mr. Gray found that during his sojourn in Florida hard times had slowed down the building of railroads.  However, he soon joined forces with those building the Monroe Railroad from Macron to Forsyth.  The iron rails he dug out of the sand  in Florida he put down again in the red clay of Georgia.  The little steam engine was reassembled and put on the track along the miniature flat-cars.  So the little railroad from St. Joe, Florida was incorporated into the Monroe Railroad at Macon, Georgia.
  In 1836 the Georgia Legislature decided to finance a state-owned railroad.  It was to be built between the eastern bank of the Chattahoochee to a point on the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers through Cincinnati.  In 1837 Governor William Schley ordered a tunnel to be built through Chetoogeta Mountain so that the state owned Western and Atlantic Rail Road could pass through.  This tunnel was stone constructed.  William and John D. Gray were among those masons who incorporated their skills in the construction  of this tunnel.  It was 1477 feet long.  The first train passed through on May 6, 1850.
   In 1847  charter was issued to build the Atlanta & LaGrange Rail Road.  John D. Gray worked on this railroad.
   In 1848 three construction companies were awarded contracts for grading, bridging, ditching and throwing up an embankment for the Western & Atlantic, which the state was building from the Tennessee River southward to the Chetoogeta Ridge.  The John D. Gray Company was one of those to receive a contract.  This railroad would go through his north Georgia plantation.
   During the years the steel fingers of the railroads were reaching into the heart of Georgia, the little settlement of Terminus was also growing.  It evolved into Marthasville, then into Atlanta.
   On October 10, 1849 a very happy event took place at the home of the William Gray’s on Orange Street in Macon.  Harriett Gray was married to George Obear.  The young  couple had been invited to spend their honeymoon at Graysville.  They boarded a train at Macon which ran over the old Macron Rail Road on which the rails from the Florida railroad had been used, and all of which was now incorporated into the Macon & Western Rail Road into Atlanta.  In Atlanta the honeymooners got aboard a train of the new state owned Western & Atlantic Rail Road.  It took them to the base of Chetoogeta Mountain where the tracks ended.  At  the mountain a tumult of  activities was in progress.  Excavations for the tunnel were being made on both sides of the mountain simultaneously.  George Johnson, a slave belonging to William Gray, was at the mountain working.  He guided the couple over the mountain and showed them the little work engine that had been brought up the tracks from Atlanta and had to be pulled over the mountain by slaves and mules.
    No trains had run on the tracks north of the mountain, so John D. Gray had sent two of his slaves with a handcar  to escort his niece and her bridegroom to his home.  Long poles were used to propel the handcar over the 17 miles of track to Graysville.
    The railroad stations for these early railroads were built in the same sturdy manner as the railroads themselves.  A marker at the Ringgold station testifies to this fact.  It reads –

Western & Atlantic

This is the only depot between Atlanta & Chattanooga that has been in continuous use since May 8, 1850, when the first train ran over this end of the line.  Previous to the coming  of the W&A to “Cherokee Georgia,” the nearest market was Augusta three weeks away by ox-wagon.  In the early 1850′ Ringgold was a bigger market than Chattanooga and large quantities of wheat were shipped from this depot.  Built in 1849 of local sandstone with walls 14 inches thick.  the building was badly damaged by Sherman’s guns during the battle of Ringgold November 27, 1863.  it was, as may be seen, repaired with limestone blocks.


   Along with the accounts of the achievements of his illustrious ancestors, Mr. Obear likes to tell about the old Negro man who looked in pity at a retaining wall  that had fallen down.  It was at the Broad Street crossing of the railroad tracks in Atlanta shortly after the Civil War.  “Had old man Billie Gray built that wall it never would have fallen down,” the old Negro said.

Reprinted from  Georgia Magazine

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George S. Obear, at the time of his marriage to Harriett Gray.

Harriett Gray Obear, daughter of William Gray, as a bride.
The Chetoogeta Mountain Tunnel has a cast iron tablet a few score feet from the west entrance that reads:
Chetoogeta Mountain Tunnel
Built by the State of Georgia
July 1848 – May 1850
Length 1477 Feet
George W. Towns, Governor
Benjamin C. Morse
Princ. Ass’t Engr.
William Mitchell, Chief Engineer
B. E. Wells, Asst. Engr.
John D. Gray & Co., Contractor
According to James Houstown Johnson’s book, Western and Atlantic Rail Road of the State of Georgia
“when the headings of the tunnel were driven through, so that the tunnel presented a clear opening from end to end, there followed a celebration.  A parade was organized and marched through from east to west.  A list of notables present had among them Mr. John D. Gray, Chief Contractor, and Mr. William Gray, Chief Mason.”
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Mrs. Clarence  Singletary (n. Pollie Lacour) was photographed along with her family on
August 10, 1929
when the
Best Friend of Charleston
was dedicated in Atlanta Georgia.

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© 2003 CCNRHS