While it wasn't the oldest ferry that remained in operation well into the 20th century, the Gorman-Austell Ferry did operate until 1937 ferrying passengers, vehicles, and supplies across the river where the Highway 166 Bridge is today.
Claiborn Gorman settled in the river's rich bottom land as early as 1829, and his ferry was put into operation manned by his slaves by 1838. Gorman was an Irishman who erected a home three quarters of a mile from the ferry site on which later would become the Austell home. By the time the Civil War began Gorman was one of Campbell County's most profitable planters, owning hundreds of acres on both sides of the Chattahoochee River. If you must, think "Gerald O'Hara" in relation to Gorman.
The Austell name finally came into play after the Civil War. Gorman died of consumption in 1869, and at some point between 1870 and 1873, Alfred Austell Sr. purchased the Gorman property. Austell had his start in business in Campbellton before moving to Atlanta where he became a powerhouse of business, banking, and state politics. Austell continued to live in Atlanta but used the plantation house as a country home and made many improvements to the property.
Upon Austell Sr.'s death the property passed to his youngest son and namesake, Alfred Austell Jr. who was just a little boy at the time of his father's passing and wouldn't take possession of Austell Farms until he graduated from college. In late March of this year I presented a column regarding Austell Jr.'s love for automobiles and his splashy arrival back home in Georgia in 1902 driving his Winton Red Devil all the way from Yale University.
Alfred Jr. wasn't into running a farm, and fortunately, he had Miss Mamie Wier to do that for him. Miss Mamie lived on the plantation and has been described as his house keeper, property manager, consort, and lifelong partner, but as it stands now, I have no absolute proof of any relationship between the two other than a business one. Miss Mamie took over the daily operations of the farm and ferry leaving Alfred Jr. to dabble with his automobiles and other concerns. Miss Mamie oversaw the home's entertainments as well. Rumor has it there were some fine times on the plantation when parties were held. There were large barbecues and all night dances during the Roaring Twenties.
Upon Alfred Jr.'s death in 1922 Miss Mamie became the owner of the plantation and the ferry. A 1937 newspaper article described her as the "guardian angel of the river land along the banks of the Chattahoochee River in South Fulton and Douglas County" at a time when the 1,200-acre farm and ferry were bending to modernism.
Miss Mamie never operated the ferry herself, but supervised its operation having to have competent people as she didn't like risking the lives of her neighbors or stranger -- much less the flat. Through the ferry's long history there were tragedie -- three to four children drowned when they fell in the river and once a pair of mules failed to stop when they walked onto the flat and went to a watery grave.
Over the years the flat had washed away many times during flooding, but once there was a miracle. Rushing flood waters brought trash and dead limbs striking the flat with full force overturning it. Miss Mamie realized she would need to construct a new flat, but in just a little while another wave of dead limbs and trash came through and righted the nearly sunk flat. Problem solved!
The flat washed away and sunk a few miles downstream for the final time in January 1936. Miss Mamie had heard rumors a modern bridge might be built, so she held off rebuilding the flat.
Construction on the new steel and concrete structure began in March 1937 which meant Miss Mamie was the last ferryman for the Gorman/Austell Ferry, but she continued to supervise Austell Farm with an iron hand with many saying she could outwalk and outwork any man on the place.
The bridge was a modern marvel for its time being the only bridge between Newnan and the Austell Ferry, a distance of 75 miles.
Lisa Cooper writes the amazing stories of Douglas County each Sunday. You can find her new book "Every Now and Then: The Amazing Stories of Douglas County" online at Amazon, print and Kindle versions. Locally, her books can be found at the Douglas County Museum of History and Art, The Farmer's Table and Lithia Springs Pharmacy.