Norcross was founded in 1870, alongside a new railroad that was then being built from Atlanta to South Carolina and beyond, and the town thrived in its early years, due in large part to the convenience of transportation afforded by the rail line. However, by 1992 transportation in Gwinnett had changed – locally folks moved by automobile, and long-distance passenger travel was mostly the domain of the airplane at that point. The railroad tracks in those days were still active but were mainly used to haul bulk freight and heavy items between major shipping hubs. And small depots like the one in Norcross were no longer needed by the railroad.
Many of these structures have been torn down, and indeed, the one in Norcross had come very close to such a fate around 1970. It was saved from demolition at that point, and after a stint as an office for Norcross Mayor Lillian Webb (who had worked to save the building) it had become the home of the Norcross Depot Bar-B-Que & Grill – see the ad below. But, for a few hours one day in the fall of 1992, the Norcross depot returned to its old functionality, after a fashion, when a special passenger train passed through, and a VIP passenger stopped to say hello.
The presidential race in the fall of 1992 in the USA was a heated affair, with Democrat Bill Clinton working to unseat the incumbent Republican, George H W Bush, who was running for reelection. An added complication that year was the presence in the race of a third major candidate, independent Ross Perot, whose success in business and unorthodox approach to running for president appealed to many voters.
In plotting out how and where to spend the final days of the campaign to appeal to voters President Bush and his staff decided to take a “Southern Whistle Stop Train Tour” up the Norfolk Southern railway line from Atlanta through Northeast Georgia and on into South and North Carolina. The trip started in Atlanta on the morning of Tuesday October 20 and made stops in Norcross, Gainesville and Cornelia in Peach State before stopping in Spartanburg, South Carolina for the night. (The campaign train then made more stops up the rail line the following day.)
The Bush campaign had toured the Midwest by train earlier that fall, and they used the same equipment for the most part for the October trip. David Beasley, a staff writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution in those days, wrote an extensive article about the rolling stock used and preparation for the train trip. The President traveled that day in a 15 car train, accompanied by his entourage, the press corps, the Secret Service detail accompanying him, and assorted White House and railroad personnel. The President’s car was the last on the train as it headed north and had its own name - the “Baltimore”. Built in 1924 and owned by CSX Transportation, the luxuriously furnished Baltimore was 85 feet long and 9.5 feet wide and was outfitted with a brass bed among other features. In its early days It had been used to provide transportation for railroad executives and to entertain railroad clients, but by the 1990s it had not been used heavily for some years. Prior to the 1992 Presidential trips bulletproof glass had been installed, and likely other security-related work had been done at the request of the Secret Service (but they were mum on any details.)
In addition to the main train there were two other trains traveling up the Norfolk Southern line through North Georgia that day, one in front of the President’s train and the other behind the main train, both providing security for the main train. Between official stops in towns such as Norcross and Gainesville the trains were in a hurry, reaching speeds approaching 50 mph. But personnel on the lead train would keep an eye out for people who were gathered along the tracks to see the President go by, and when this was identified word would be sent back to the Presidential train and its speed would be lowered substantially so the President could be seen waving to those who came out to greet him.
The choice of a stop in Norcross was due at least in part to the persuasive sales skills of local businessman Carl Johnson. Several weeks before the big day Johnson noticed a group of neatly dressed strangers looking around in town one day, and he struck up a conversation with one of them to see what was going on. He learned that they were an advance team that was scouting potential locations for stops the President’s campaign train might make. Johnson’s glowing description of Norcross and its history that day convinced them that the town would be a good place for President Bush to visit, and on October 20 it actually happened.
While plans for the whistle stop tour had been underway by early October, the schedule for the events of the day was not released to the public until a few days beforehand. The stops for the day were listed in the newspapers as shown in the figure below.
Flyers were distributed in the Norcross area advertising the event.
The major streets in the vicinity of the Norcross depot were blocked off by early on the day of the 20th, with gates installed to provide security, and shuttle busses provided transportation to the center of town from satellite parking areas. Spectators could enter the heart of downtown starting at 9:00 AM, though the President was not expected until around noon. (And many arrived early, in hopes of getting a spot with a good view.)
Locations near the speaker’s podium were reserved for invited guests and local dignitaries. Georgia Republican US House of Representatives member Newt Gingrich was there, as was congressional candidate John Linder. Lillian Webb, a Republican from Norcross who served a number of terms as Mayor of Norcross and also terms on the Gwinnett County Commission, was introduced to the crowd as well. Selected school students were up front, including elected student officials from area schools and also Ms. Linda Pulliam’s 4 th grade class from nearby Cedar Hill Elementary School, (They had brought a notebook of their letters for the President with questions and opinions regarding major issues of the day.) Bands from Norcross, Duluth and Berkmar High Schools were also there.
The mood of the crowd, and the entertainment provided to them while they awaited for the President’s arrival, were described in the excerpt below from an Associated Press news story written that day:
The crowd, made up of GOP faithful and students from a nearby high school, cheered and waved flags and Bush-Quayle signs. Before he arrived, they were warmed up by a high school band, a country music group and an Elvis impersonator.
The President arrived just after noon, as advertised, and the formal program got underway with local singer Angelee Garner delivering the National Anthem. Bush made a brief speech to the crowd, having been introduced by Congressman Gingrich.
There was an Atlanta Braves flavor to the President’s appearance that day. Fervor in the area for the Braves was high at that point – this political rally occurred just a few days after the local team had earned a berth in that year’s World Series. (1992 was the year when the Bravos beat the Pittsburgh Pirates on the last play of the final game of the National League Championship series, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Sid Bream and Francisco Cabrera were the team’s great heroes that night.)
President Bush played into this by wearing a Braves jacket on the podium and telling the crowd that they should have faith in his victory in the election like they had believed in the Braves winning in baseball. He emphasized that the fight for the presidency was not over until the people voted on Election Day, two weeks ahead at that point.
(The opinion polls at that time showed that the incumbent running behind challenger Clinton. And, as much as Bush might have hoped for a turn of sentiment in the electorate his way when he spoke thatday, he failed to win – as, indeed, was the Braves’ fate that year in the Series.)
Elliott Brack, writing for the Gwinnett Extra section of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, noted that the President and his popular wife Barbara spent only a brief time in Norcross – they arrived at 12:08 pm, the President spent 21 minutes addressing the crowd (which was estimated to be between 5,000 and 7,000 people). This was followed by a 14 minute delay as Bush waited inside the Baltimore while the press corps got back on the train for the next leg of the day’s journey, and at that point the President reemerged to wave goodbye to the crowd and the train pulled out to the north, headed to its next stop, in Gainesville. Brack noted that by later in the afternoon all the streets in Norcross were open to normal traffic, and the excitement of the presidential visit was quickly fading away.
There has been tremendous growth in Gwinnett County in the 30 years since that day, but if you look around you can still find a few residents who were present when the President came to town. Some of those have photos and souvenirs, such as posters and signs. And a few, including Darryl Johnson of Norcross, are able to proudly display an “I Was There” T shirt custom-printed in 1992 in honor of the occasion, as is shown in the photo below.
Thanks to many persons for their help in creating this article and in providing photographs and related materials. Among these are Danny Lay, Faye McFarland, Elliott Brack, Joan Garner, Darrell Johnson, Teresa Cantrell, Carl and Sherry Johnson and Miriam Machida.
Barbara Bush at the train depot in Norcross.
Newt Gingrich and John Linder at the train depot in Norcross.