Monday, September 9, 2013

Two Towns, One Engineer

Two towns, one in Georgia and one in Mississippi, share a common history. Both towns are approximately the same size and both are county seats. Both of the county courthouses were built at the turn of the twentieth century, and both towns owe their existence to the railroad which brought commerce and industry to the area. And both towns, as it turns out, are named for the same man, a railroad engineer. The Mississippi town began when the New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern Railroad was located a short distance east of the original county seat, which was incorporated in 1829 and known for having a “killing every week.” With the coming of the railroad, the “new” town grew rapidly and the old county seat began to wither away. In April 1872, the Mississippi Legislature allowed the county board of supervisors to hold a vote to determine whether the county seat should be moved. Naturally, the fast-growing railroad community won and the original brick courthouse was disassembled and moved (it would later burn). In Georgia, the Macon & Brunswick Railroad Company built the railroad line in from both ends of the termini, from Macon southeast and from Brunswick northwest. The railroad was completed in 1869 and a town sprang up at the place where the two lines met. Previously a small hamlet known as Handtown (named for a local family), the growing community, incorporated in 1877, became the county seat of Jeff Davis County in 1905. A county courthouse was constructed the next year. In both cases, the new county seats were named not for a local politician or prominent citizen but for the railroad engineer who gave the towns life by placing the railroad there. The engineer's name was George Hazlehurst.
Born in 1824, George Hall Hazlehurst (left) was one of sixteen children and the son of Robert Hazlehurst, who was born in Charleston, South Carolina. Educated in Pennsylvania, Hazlehurst's first engineering job was as a surveyor in Florida, but soon found his specialty was in railroads. Among his earliest and more important appointments was as the engineer in charge of selecting the route of the New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern Railroad in Mississippi. Commissioned by the State of Illinois in 1851 (with support from both Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln), the railroad was intended to connect Chicago and New Orleans. Completed just prior to the Civil War, the railroad, as it turned out, was extremely valuable to the Confederates, who used it to transport troops and supplies (and, ironically, thousands of Illinois soldiers fought throughout the war to disrupt the line). Hazlehurst took the job knowing the difficulties which lay ahead, including the very real threat of disease, as his predecessor had died of yellow fever while constructing the railroad. Hazlehurst completed it, though, and earned enough credit to be hired for similar jobs across the South, including the Macon and Augusta and Macon and Brunswick railroads in Georgia, the Montgomery and Eufaula in Alabama, the New Orleans, Shreveport and Alexandria in Louisiana, and the Pensacola and Atlantic in Florida. Along each line, depots like the one pictured above in Milton, Florida, were constructed and towns sprang forth like mushrooms. Thanks to industrious men like George Hazlehurst, the South, before and after the Civil War, was being transformed - for better or for worse - by the new rail network.

In 1858, George Hazlehurst married Irene Wingfield Nisbet. By doing so, he became distantly related by marriage to Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820), the architect of the second United States Capitol in Washington and the "Father of American Architecture." Though Latrobe died before Hazlehurst was born, both wound up working on public waterworks projects. In fact, Latrobe died of yellow fever in 1820 in New Orleans while working on that city's waterworks.  Almost fifty years later (in 1868), Hazlehurst purchased the Chattanooga Water Company (right), which had first been established in 1856 and improved by U.S. Grant's army during their occupation of the city in 1863. After purchasing the Chattanooga Water Company, Hazlehurst constructed a nine-million gallon reservoir and a pumping station to supply water to the local citizens. Remnants of Hazlehurst's Lookout Water Company are still in operation today.

While working in Chattanooga, Hazlehurst lived near his brother-in-law, James Cooper Nisbet, in the vicinity of Rising Fawn, Georgia. Nisbet, like Hazlehurst, was born in Macon, Georgia. Before the Civil War, he and a brother moved to the Chattanooga area to run a large plantation called "Cloverdale." In 1861, he organized a company in the 21st Georgia and served as captain until promotion to colonel of the 66th Georgia Infantry. During the Chattanooga campaign in the fall of 1863, "Cloverdale" was briefly occupied by Union troops. With his regiment stationed in the area, Col. Nisbet (left) went to visit his plantation and narrowly avoided capture while enjoying a lunch of "chicken-fixings and flour-doings" at Hazlehurst's home. Wounded at Antietam, Nisbet was later captured during the Atlanta campaign on July 22, 1864, near Decatur, Georgia, and was sent to prison at Johnson's Island. After the war, he returned home and served in the state legislature and in Georgia's constitutional convention. A devout Presbyterian and an active Confederate Veteran, Col. Nisbet died in 1914 after working for the Acme Kitchen Furniture Company in Chattanooga. He is perhaps best known today for his memoir Four Years on the Firing Line, published in 1914. As for George Hazlehurst's service in the Confederacy, however, the record is a bit murky. Although Hazlehurst is frequently referred to as a "Colonel" and is given credit in some sources with designing the defenses of Vicksburg (in reality it was Maj. Samuel Lockett), there is scant evidence that Hazlehurst served to any great extent in the Confederate army. Hazlehurst is listed a Confederate engineer (with the rank of captain) and likely served in some capacity with the military railroad in Georgia and perhaps elsewhere. However, his rank of "colonel" appears to be a post-war (and perhaps self-made) promotion.

George Hazlehurst was not the only member of his family with a career in engineering. James Nisbet Hazlehurst, born in 1864, studied under former Confederate general Kirby Smith at Sewanee and followed in his father's footsteps as a civil engineer. The younger Hazlehurst established a solid reputation across the South working on railroads and public utilities in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi, where in the late 1890s he designed the water systems for both Grenada and (oddly enough) Hazlehurst. He was also a prolific writer and published a book called Towers and Tanks for Water-Works (right) in 1907 (no doubt a best seller). When the United States entered the First World War, Hazlehurst volunteered his services and was given the rank of Major. Assigned at first to Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood's staff, Hazlehurst was sent overseas in September 1917. As a civil engineer, his duties in the army frequently involved water supply systems, but in the fall of 1918 he was assigned the task of examining damages to buildings in Brussels, Belgium. While on this duty he died of disease on February 9, 1919

George Hazlehurst continued working on railroads and other engineering projects after the Civil War, and in fact was working on the Mississippi Valley railroad when he died in 1883 of malaria. George is buried in Macon's city cemetery alongside his first wife, who died in 1873 and his second wife, Josephine, who died in 1882, along with most of the Hazlehurst family. Hazlehurst had a career filled with construction and engineering projects and in the process had a hand in building the modern South. Most importantly, perhaps, he left behind his name for the people of two Hazlehursts.

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) New Orleans and Great Northern RR:   
(2) Hazlehurst:
(3) Milton depot: 
(4) Chattanooga Water Works: http://www.loc.go
(5) Nisbet: 
(6) Book:
(7) Hazlehurst grave:

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