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Sanborn Map Company, Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Elberton, Elbert County, Georgia [index], 1922, Geography and Map Division.

Transporting Literacy, Prosperity, and the American Dream: The Seaboard Air Line Railway at the Turn of the 20th Century

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The Seaboard Air Line Railway (SAL) was a prominent passenger and freight railway in the south in the late 19th and beginning 20th centuries.  Headquartered in Portsmouth, VA, the rail line’s primary backbone connected southern states starting in Virginia and southward to the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida.  Started in 1832 with its earliest predecessor, The Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad (P&R), it completed a line from Portsmouth, VA to the town of Weldon, NC on the Roanoke River by 1837.

A map that shows the route of the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad.
Carter, J.J., Map of the Seaboard & Roanoke Railroad from Portsmouth, Va. to Weldon, N.C. showing its connection with railroad & steamboat routes, 1847, Geography & Map Division.

During the Civil War, much of the railways in the South were destroyed and the Seaboard along with other railroad companies it merged with or acquired rebuilt or expanded during Reconstruction connecting to Atlanta, Georgia by 1892. By 1893 it was reorganized as the Seaboard Air Line Railway System (SAL), reaching Miami, FL by 1927.

A map showing the Seaboard Airline principal connections.
Seaboard Air Line Railroad Company and Rand McNally and Company, Map of the Seaboard Air Line and its principal connections north, south, east & west, 1896, Geography and Map Division.

SAL promotion of both passenger and freight service can be seen on the Map of the Seaboard Air Line and its principal connections north, south, east & west, 1896 map.  SAL even had an Industrial Department which published reviews of different cities with economic opportunities along its routes, such as the Mercantile and Industrial Review of Jacksonville, Florida.  The Industrial Department describes its purpose in this publication as:

“…the development and utilization of the raw material and natural resources and the settlement of desirable people along its line, and to furnish information and assistance to Manufacturers, Investors, Merchants, Workmen and Settlers who may be seeking a locality in which to establish an industry, open a business, make an investment or secure a home.”

A page describing the commerce, industries and finance of Jacksonville, Florida.
Excerpt from Mercantile and Industrial Review of Jacksonville, Florida by the Industrial Department of the Seaboard Air Line Railway, 1905, General Collections.

To put SAL in context of the growth of the greater U.S. rail transportation industry around the turn of the 20th century, Jean Paul Rodrigue in The Geography of Transport Systems asserts a paradigm shift that occurred from canals to rail as a transport mode in terms of annual growth in 1869, peaked in 1891, and experienced another paradigm shift to roads in 1913 with the advent of the automobile.  Adam Burns writes on that U.S. rail industrial growth in terms of miles of railroad starts with 2,808 miles in 1840, peaks in 1916 with 254,037 Miles, and is currently decreased to only 138,477 miles.

Statistics from the Annual report on the statistics of railways in the United States by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) for the year ending in 1911 reveal that the Seaboard Air Line Railway operated 3,046.18 miles of road out of a U.S. total of 242,885.30 miles.   The ICC divided the U.S. into three districts: Eastern, Western, and Southern.  SAL comprised 6.5% of the 47,153.13 miles of rail in the Southern District to which it was assigned along with 143 other railroads and was also classified as a Class I railway (those having gross operating revenues of $1,000,000 or more for the year), which was the highest of 3 classes.  1911 operating revenue for SAL was $21,782,005, which was 5.2% of the Southern District revenue of $421,805,872 (revenue for entire U.S. was $2,789,761,669).

Although SAL was advancing prosperity through this mode of transportation, southern Jim Crow laws (1876 to 1965) hampered progress for many African Americans, including rail travel on SAL through much of its existence.  In her 2021 book Traveling Black: a story of race and resistance, Mia Bay reveals that for African Americans, train travel was separate, but not necessarily equal.  This was evident both on the train with segregated cars and dining areas as well as rail station waiting rooms and bathrooms of inferior quality, and ticket booth windows (the colored window was slow to be served by a single railroad employee, often resulting in last minute purchases or higher prices paid on the train).  Food was also an issue as few Jim Crow waiting rooms had restaurants or snack bars and many dining cars were either off limits to African Americans or offered substandard food.

Although the Savannah (Georgia) Union Station was one of the most beautifully constructed train stations (1902-1962) at the time, incorporating  Spanish Renaissance and Elizabethan styles and connecting the Seaboard, Atlantic and Southern Railroads, it contained Jim Crow mandated colored waiting rooms and bathrooms.

A photo of Union Station in Savannah, Georgia.
Detroit Publishing Co., Union Station, Savannah, Ga. c.1906, Prints and Photographs Division.

Despite Jim Crow, SAL transportation provided literary benefits to the populace of the south, including African Americans.  Besides the numerous people and typical freight it transported such as agricultural and mineral products, it also transported books and magazines as a participant in the Seaboard Air Line Railway Free Traveling Library System, which was started by Georgia educator, activist, and librarian Sarah Harper Heard in 1898.  Heard, who was married to the grandson (Eugene B. Heard) of a former governor of Georgia, lived on the 2,000-acre Rose Hill Plantation in Elbert County near the town of Elberton, Georgia, through which passed the SAL.

An advocate of establishing libraries, Heard started one at Rose Hill and eventually persuaded the vice president of the SAL, Everitte St. John to transport books to every railroad stop for free.  An additional grant of $1,000 from Andrew Carnegie, donations and business agreements from New York City publishers and book editors, as well as librarian volunteers in six states kicked off the program.  According to Mary Edna Anders, in her PhD dissertation The Development of Public Library Service in the Southeastern States, 1895-1950,” as late as 1895 there were still no public libraries in nine southeastern states.  Books were being circulated from Rose Hill to 35 community libraries and 150 school libraries after 12 years of the program and by 1912, the System contained over 18,000 books and 38,000 magazines.

The index to the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps of Elberton, Georgia.
Sanborn Map Company, Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Elberton, Elbert County, Georgia [index], 1922, Geography and Map Division.
In the index sheet of the Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Elberton, Georgia above, you can see the SAL running in a northwest/southeast direction through the town from which Heard’s literary materials were circulated.  A close examination of the footprint for sheet 20 reveals it to be a “colored settlement.”  Sheet 20 below depicts the colored settlement, which included The Elberton Colored High School center sheet in pink and most likely a recipient of traveling library as it was closest to the distribution hub.

A Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Sheet number 20 for Elberton, Georgia.
Sanborn Map Company, Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Elberton, Elbert County, Georgia [sheet 20], 1922, Geography and Map Division.
Circulation of materials to African American readers can be found in the March 14th, 1910 issue of The Atlanta Constitution’s article titled “Seaboard’s Free Traveling Library.”  Regarding statistics of the program, the article reads:

“Approximately 50,000 school children in the rural south had the benefit of this system for traveling libraries in 1909.  Fifty-six rural communities were supplied with the community libraries; 16,800 magazines were furnished the reading tables of the library stations and rural schools, and 4,500 magazines were sent to negro settlements.”

The traveling library circulated materials and spread literacy via SAL railroads until 1955, a span of 57 years. According to Clement Richardson’s 1919 National Cyclopedia of the Colored Race, African American literacy rates for the country during much of this period (1866 to 1916) increased from 10% to 75%, colleges and normal schools from 15 to 500 and students in public schools from 100,000 to 1,736,000.  Progressive prosperity could also be found in accumulated wealth rising from $200,000,000 to $1,000,000,000 and businesses conducted from 2,100 to 45,000.SAL merged with rival Atlantic Coast Railway in 1967 to form the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad (SCL).   In 1971 SCL turned over all its passenger operations to the newly formed Amtrak.  It merged with several more railroads and ultimately became CSX Transportation in 1986 and is currently a subsidiary of Fortune 500 company CSX Corporation, which seemingly took the advice of its former SAL Industrial Department of 1905, and headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida.  As of 2022, CSX was ranked third largest railway company in the world based on market value, which is approximately $75 billion.


  1. How is it related to the E & O Canal Museum? Freight service history?

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