Charles Franklin “Frank” Marshall was a well-known conductor on the Southern Railway system in the early 1900s, and had a residence in the Norcross area for much of his life. His picture is shown below, and this article tells his story.
Frank was born in Forsyth, Georgia in 1857, the son of John M. and Amada W. Marshall. John Marshall was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher, active in the pulpit for over 40 years, and also worked as a tailor. Frank had a brother Walter and a sister Hattie; a family memoir theorizes that John may have been a strict father, since Frank and Walter both left home as teenagers.
Frank became a railroad section hand in the Buford area when he was 20. His employer was the Atlanta and Charlotte Airline Railroad, a predecessor to today’s Norfolk Southern. In those days the railroads stationed crews of section hands at various points along the line to perform the physically-demanding maintenance required to keep the tracks, roadbed, and right-of-way of the line in good operating condition in their area.
This work was done by hand in those days, with section hands aligning and leveling the track (needed due to the shift over time on the stone ballast under them, caused by the weight and force applied by the passing trains), and replacing damaged crossties and rails. Tools of the section hand’s trade included the sledge hammer and a specially manufactured 5-foot long "lining" bar, which was used like a crowbar to shift the position of tracks. This type of bar became known as a "gandy" and the section hands were sometimes referred to as “gandy dancers” due to their motions in using this tool.
Frank moved from watching the trains go by to riding on them when he was promoted to brakeman in 1879, and after a few years later he became a conductor, working first on freight trains and then later on passenger trains.
In the early 20 th century railroads were the main mode of long-distance travel in the United States, with scheduled trains crisscrossing the nation, much as the airlines (and Amtrak, after a fashion) do today. During the period around World War I Frank Marshall was the conductor on the Birmingham Special, a scheduled Southern Railway train that ran from Birmingham AL to Washington DC (via Atlanta), with service onward to New York City being offered by The Pennsylvania Railroad.
Several years later Frank shifted to a new, top-of-the-line, train, the Crescent Limited, created in 1925. Beginning on April 27 of that year it ran from New York City to New Orleans, via Washington DC, Atlanta and Mobile. The trip from New York to Atlanta took 22 hours. The Crescent Limited was made completely of Pullman sleeper cars, the most luxurious of accommodations available for rail travel. One of the amenities offered to passengers was telephone service directly from their cars during the time the train made its regularly-scheduled stop in Atlanta’s Terminal Station – phone lines were connected to the individual cars.
The photo below shows the Crescent Limited passing through Easley, SC during Frank Marshall’s era.
Marshall family memoirs recount that Frank survived two head-on collisions during his time working for the railroads. One was at Currahee Mountain near Toccoa, Georgia, and may have been the wreck reported in the local newspapers at the end of March 1903. That incident occurred when a Southern Railway passenger train out of Atlanta crashed into debris on the tracks from a landslide that had occurred since the previous train had passed through. The engineer, fireman and a “tramp” hitching a ride were killed in that accident.
Another work incident involving Frank Marshall occurred in North Georgia in 1890. A newspaper article reports that in Lula, Georgia.
Just before dark, on Wednesday afternoon, two men … attacked a citizen of Lula, beat and choked him almost insensible, and robbed him.
The shouts of the wounded man attracted assistance, and the robbers were chased. One of them was captured. The other was more fortunate, and succeeded in boarding No. 51, the Air- Line train, near Bolton. The conductor, Mr. Frank Marshall, received a telegram at Cornelia, telling him that the highwayman was on his train.
The conductor looked through his train and finally found his man. He was satisfied from the description, and just before reaching Toccoa, quietly arrested him. The man was badly cowed, and made no resistance. At Toccoa the conductor turned over his prisoner to the town marshal.
In those days one of a conductor’s duties was to ensure that the train remained on schedule. The photo below shows Marshall conferring with Southern Railway engineer David J. Fant in Greenville SC prior to departure for Atlanta, to ensure that their watches were set with the same time. This photo appeared in the Southern News Bulletin, an internal Southern Railway publication, in January 1929. Note the distinctive gold-leaf crescent logo on the locomotive’s cylinder jacket.
Frank Marshall married three times. His first wife was Martha Bennett, the daughter of the proprietress of a boarding house where he lived early in his railroad career. Frank was 25 when they married in 1881, and “Little Mattie”, as she was called by the family, was 17.
Frank and Mattie, shown in the photo below, lived in Atlanta, and had a daughter Edna, born in March 1883. But their time together was short - Mattie died of illness in September of that year. She is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta along with other members of the Bennett family.
Frank next married Adah Langston, in 1885, a marriage that lasted 17 years. In 1901 they bought a home at 410 North Peachtree Street in Norcross, and she died there in September 1902. A prominent monument, reading “In Memory of My Precious Wife”, marks her resting place in the Marshall family plot in the Norcross City Cemetery.
Frank Marshall’s third marriage, the next year, was to Mabel Jones, who was from Duluth. He was 46 at that point and she was 23. They had several children together and remained married until his death in 1936. They sold the property in Norcross and built a new home in 1916 on farmland outside town that he had purchased earlier. An article that appeared in February of that year in the Gwinnett News Herald, written by their Norcross reporter, describes the construction of the residence:
Captain Frank Marshall is building a modern dwelling on his farm two miles down the Peachtree Road. It will be equipped with water works from a spring, some hundred yards away, and will be heated by a furnace. This will be one of the most up to date and most convenient residences in this section of the county.
The location was convenient for his work too – he could walk out of his front door to the railroad tracks 50 yards away and flag a ride to work in Atlanta! (Buford Highway, currently separating the house from the train tracks, had not been constructed at the time he lived there.
Captain Marshall, as he was known, left us in 1936, after working for the Southern system for 58 years. He was the oldest active conductor on the line at the time of his death. He was buried in Norcross with his second and third wives and other members of his family.
The house he built in the early 1900s still stands today, at the corner of Lake Drive and Buford Highway, now converted to commercial use. But if you walk around to the back of the property, the two-story house, with its lawn shaded by mature pecan trees, seems little changed from the way it likely would have appeared 100 years ago.
Thanks to a number of Gwinnett residents who provided information for this article, including Bud Norman, Billy Weathers, Carl Garner Jr. and Jimmy Garner. Much of the biographical data came from helpful posts by derived on Ancestry.com. The website trainweb.com, and the websites maintained by the Whippany Railway Museum and the Smithsonian Institution, were also useful.