A Child of the Railroad
Railroads have had a major role in the establishment of towns in Telfair County and the surrounding area. In 1870, the Macon to Brunswick Railroad established Station #11,which evolved into the town of McRae. In 1889 the Americus, Preston, and Lumpkin Railroad changed its name to the Savannah, Americus & Montgomery Railway, or the SAM Railroad. With the name change and the merger of railways, the owner of the SAM Railroad planned to open a route between Savannah and Montgomery, Alabama. The planned route would cross the Southern Railroad at the present site of Helena on the way to Lyons, GA. The intriguing question then arises; when did Helena come into existence, and why was it established so close to McRae ,which was the county seat?
The Americus Investment Company asked the city fathers to invest $10,000.00 in order to complete the project through McRae. The East Tennessee Valley and Georgia Railroad (later the Norfolk Southern Railroad) already ran through McRae on a line from Macon to Savannah. Since there was no other town in the area, and since there was already a railroad running through McRae, the authorities in McRae saw no need for another railroad. The proposed track would run along what is now Third Avenue. Officials of the Americus Investment Company refused to build in a location that did not invest in the construction.
The company responded to the McRae rejection by hiring Perry C. Clegg to survey the area northwest of McRae. After Clegg made the survey, 2025 acres were purchased by Clegg and the Americus Investment Company. With the land purchases, the East Tennessee rail line ran through this area and formed an important rail junction with the existing rail head. With this junction, it was only a matter of time before a town would develop. Indeed, Helena was a child of the railroad. Helena was “born” by virtue of charter from the State of Georgia on December 27, 1890. The charter includes all the territory included in 9 land lots, each consisting of 202½ acres, for a total of 1,822.5 acres.
The first ice plant in the area was in Helena, and it shipped ice to neighboring towns. The first Coca Cola plant was located in Helena to serve nearby towns and the local population. The McRae Helena Telephone Company, owned by W. D. Horton, began in Helena and served the surrounding area. S. J. Meadows had a multiplex business in which he sold men’s and women’s clothing. He also sold buggies, wagons, and harnesses, as well as mules and horses. Meadows also owned a cotton ginnery and warehouse, where he bought and sold cotton and other farm products. He also sold farms and other real estate.
There were two hotels in Helena; the SAM and the Turner House. The latter was owned by Dr. O. W. Turner, who had his medical office on one side of the hotel. The office had entrances from inside the hotel and from the outside. Rates for both hotels were $2.00 a day.
Other businesses soon sprang up in the newly built town of Helena and included a general merchandising store owned by J. D. Smith and the Helena Drug Store that sold pure drugs, stationery, and garden seeds, as well as boasted an up-to-date soda and water fountain. Of course, all towns had to have a bank. The Security Bank with capital stock of $25,000.00 was reported to have been housed in what later became the Helena Fire Department.
Robert McCrary & Co. was an early grocery, hardware, and house furnishings business in the new town. Mrs. H. B. Dopson’s business provided the latest in creations in millinery [ladies hats], while J. C. Thornburg provided farmers with the latest in stump pullers, feed mills, concrete mixers, and road machines. Robert Tompkins sold ladies and men’s clothing, shoes, hats, dry goods and notions. Harris & Co. furnished the local population with groceries, fruits and vegetables, men’s furnishings, hay, grain, and feed. Helena had a dentist, Dr. D. H. Wooten, and a barber, Mr. Louis Mattox. There were a wholesale hardware store and a mill that produced doors, windows, columns, moldings, and building trims.
As one can readily observe, Helena was, in its very early history, a thriving community. The many and varied entrepreneurs provided almost everything needed to build and support a local economy. All this was directly attributable to the railroad.