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  A view of Mangum’s Crossing with the under construction Georgia Hwy. 20 bridge and a Sugar Hill water tower in the background.  Photo courtesy Maron Buice.
A view of Mangum’s Crossing with the under construction Georgia Hwy. 20 bridge and a Sugar Hill water tower in the background.  Photo courtesy Maron Buice.

Railroads have played an integral role in the history and development of Sugar Hill, but there was some tragedy before modern-day safety measures evolved. Southern Railroad operated the tracks for much of the city’s history. Norfolk Southern Railroad, today’s operator, is a good partner with the city. The line that runs through Suwanee, Sugar Hill, and Buford is one of the busiest and safest routes in the southeastern United States. The trains, in modern times, carry both freight and passengers separately along the tracks. Amtrak takes passengers from New Orleans, L.A. to Washington, DC and back on a very regular basis, and it is fun to watch the trains and imagine you are traveling across our country. Residents of Sugar Hill, however, have not always embraced the presence of trains in our community.

“The bolt that threw 38” is one of the more infamous Sugar Hill area stories and happened very near Mangum’s Crossing, which is now at the sight of the four lane bridge at Georgia Highway 20 and Peachtree Industrial Boulevard. Because Sugar Hill was not incorporated until 1939, the story is a big part of Buford’s past. Twelve-year-old Louis Cooksie was accused of placing a bolt on the tracks and causing the wreck of train #38. In those days, freight and passengers would unsafely travel together. This particular train was carrying troops. Benjamin Dewberry, the train engineer, and his assistant, Mayson Wadkins, were the only individuals that lost their lives in this tragic train wreck that happened on August 23, 1908. The accident inspired a song, making the story well known to those that like history and the railroads.

Another tragic and sometimes less remembered story occurred in late 1970 after five teenage girls were killed by a train in a car after attempting to drive over Mangum’s Crossing. The Gwinnett Daily News reported on this gruesome accident, which occurred on Sunday, November 8, 1970 in the afternoon daylight hours. The five girls, ranging in age from 14 to 17, were traveling in a white 1966 Oldsmobile. Details from the original article by Jim Butler are very specific and describe a horrific scene. Upon impact, the car had been dragged down the tracks for about a third of a mile and nearly cut in half. According to Butler and reported from the police report, “Two of the victims were thrown from the car over 1,200 feet past the point of impact.” The other three girls were trapped in the rear seat.

Linda Holtzclaw, Patricia Holtzclaw, Kathy Holtzclaw, Peggy Sue Daniels, and Kristi Martin were all pronounced dead on arrival. All five girls were from Cumming and were either closely or distantly related. The train was estimated to have been traveling around 55 to 60 miles per hour and the train engineer, Clarence Reeves, saw the Oldsmobile before he hit it. Another car, described only as black in color, had barely made it across the tracks. Buford Police Chief, Red Smith, would say after the accident that the crossing was the worst in Sugar Hill and that a lot of people had been killed at the crossing in the past.

Residents of Sugar Hill and others protested the safety of the crossing, filed a lawsuit, and the Sugar Hill City Council would pass an ordinance in 1972 prohibiting freight trains from going more than 35 miles per hour through the city. At the time of the accident, there was only a warning sign. Unlike today, there were no horns, no flashing lights, and no signal bars to block traffic from crossing. Eventually, under pressure from Sugar Hill and Gwinnett County, the state of Georgia in 1975 agreed to build the four-lane bridge we have in place today and the city dropped its lawsuit. A tragedy had brought the community together; and today, we are safer because of their actions.

~ Brandon Hembree

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