Before Albany was founded, travel through the area was either by steamboat or by traveling the “Old Federal Road.” The Old Federal Road was made sometime before 1805 and was in use during the Creek Indian wars. The Cherokee gave free access to settlers to use the road through their territories.
The road crossed through Cherokee land from Tennessee through Macon (then Fort Hawkins) and on down to what later became Albany then into northern Florida. Another branch of the road started at Athens and went all the way to Mobile, Alabama. Andrew Jackson and his troops used this road to pass through the area to reach Florida in an attempt to quell the Seminole uprising. There are historical markers all through Georgia indicating the route of the Old Federal Road.
After Albany was founded by Nelson Tift in 1836, most travel was still by riverboat or using the old road. Travel was difficult for passengers and the ability to ship freight in and out of Albany was done by boat. The old steamboats came up from the south, often from Apalachicola, Florida; Albany was about as far north as they could travel by the Flint as the water could be quite shallow at times. The Albany Herald once published an account of the steamboat, “Viola.” The Viola was one of the largest of the steamboats that came to Albany. In about 1844, just a few minutes into a trip down the Flint from Albany to Apalachicola, the ship carrying 1,000 bales of cotton, hit a submerged rock and was lost. The area in the river was later called “Viola Bend.”
According to the book “History and Reminiscences of Dougherty County” (published by the DAR) Albany got its first passenger stage coach line by 1841. At first the stages only ran three times a week between Macon and Bainbridge. Originally the stages ran on the east side of the Flint River following the route of Old Federal Road. Later after the stages started coming daily, they had moved over to the west side of the river.
Albany was still part of Baker County in 1847. A representative of Baker County managed to obtain a charter to start Albany’s first railroad, the Savannah and Albany Railroad Company. This charter authorized the construction of a railroad starting at the coast in Savannah and running all the way to Albany. It was several years before construction of the new railway would begin.
Railroads had become a necessity to more easily transport goods and to take passengers northward as well as east and west of Albany. This railroad would also traverse across the Chattahoochee River and have smaller branches out to other communities along the way. It was not until August of 1853 that a company was organized to make a direct route from Savannah to Albany and outward to Alabama. Railroads were essential to the early logging business in Albany. The new railroad eventually killed steamboat and stagecoach travel in the area.
The first train to ever come to Albany was on November 5, 1857 when the Southwestern Railroad was expanded from Americus to Albany. Albany eventually had seven rail lines coming into town. The old train depot was also built in 1857 by Nelson Tift. A newer depot was built about 1912. Both structures still stand today.
By 1870 the Brunswick and Albany Railroad was completed. The railroad ran all the way to Eufaula, Alabama. Later by 1895 the Albany and Northern Railway was established followed by the Georgia Northern Railway in 1905. Albany would become a major railroad hub for both freight and passenger service for many decades. The last passenger train service to run in Albany was in 1971.
Betty Rehberg is the historian for the Albany Journal and maintains a group on Facebook called Vintage Albany Georgia.