Do you remember your first car?
Of course you do!
Who forgets that? It ranks right up there with your first kiss, marriage, and the birth of your children.
I had my first car at 16 -- a 1964 ½ Mustang. We researched the vehicle identification number and discovered it was one of the first Mustangs off the assembly line in April 1964. I didn't really appreciate it then. In my 16-year-old mind Dear Daddy had bought me a nearly 20-year-old car while many of my friends had brand new Camaros and Firebirds. I appreciate what he did now, but alas ... the car is long gone.
What is thought to be the first car to cross the Douglas County line was a custom made Winton "Red Devil" belonging to Alfred Austell Jr., the youngest son of Alfred Austell Sr. -- a merchant at old Campbellton who by 1858 had headed to Atlanta and made a name for himself by founding the Atlanta National Bank, operating one of the largest cotton dealerships in the nation, and parlaying his profits buying up several parcels of prime Atlanta real estate. Another piece of property he obtained was the Gorman plantation along the north side of the Chattahoochee River in Douglas County.
Today, the Gorman-Austell property is on the right side of Fairburn Road/Highway 166 as you cross the river into Fulton County. Gorman operated a ferry there which became the Austell Ferry, and old maps indicate that stretch of road was known as Austell Ferry Road for many years.
Alfred Austell Jr. eventually inherited the river plantation at some point following his father's death in 1881. Young Austell was sent to Pennsylvania Military Institute, and then entered Yale University where he was touted as one of the wealthiest young men at the school. He graduated in 1898 and entered the law school at Yale.
During Austell's school days he was known to spend freely. He had one of the first cars at Yale and created a little bit of a stir when he arrived at his rooms with a valet to see to his needs.
Once Alfred Austell Jr. completed law school, Austell family members expected him to return to Atlanta and assume his position in the family "business" and Atlanta society. He planned to enter his new life in a grand way -- by making the drive in his Winton Red Devil automobile chauffeured by Charles Swanson.
Accounts of the journey were published in many of the East Coast newspapers. It was big news in those days when someone embarked on a 1,200-mile auto journey; however a scandal involving the suicide of a young lady also followed him. It seems he had taken a holiday in Branford, Connecticut with some other Yale friends to celebrate their graduation. Mixed in with the group was Etta Cook, a beautiful, orphan girl of 20, who worked at the Remington Arms Company. She and Austell had been seen together often during the six weeks he spent at the Double Beach House, a hotel in Branford.
There is no doubt from the newspaper accounts that there was a relationship, but many details of the story were erroneously reported in the beginning, then many papers backtracked, and finally contradicted themselves. What I can decipher is Etta was under the impression her life in the factory was over. She would marry her new love -- her Southern millionaire, and the trip home by car would be their honeymoon trip. Austell, on the other hand, knew his time at the beach was coming to an end. He had already planned to leave on Monday, July 28th to assume his role in life -- a life which would not have room for a Yankee factory girl. Later, Austell was reported to have told friends he had no idea the girl was so smitten with him.
Poor Etta upon hearing Austell was leaving without her and no provision had been made for her, returned to her room at the hotel and drank carbolic acid, a lethal poison. It was a horrible death. She was dead an agonizing 30 minutes later.
Austell, of course, was held completely blameless in the tragic affair, but reports state that he was shaken by Etta's suicide. However it didn't stop him from continuing with his plans, but it did delay them by a day or two so he could attend Etta's funeral. More than likely he and Swanson were on the road heading South by Aug. 1, 1902.
There was no attempt to break any records, but considering the condition of the roads at that time, the trip was completed in good time. The car never reached its top speed, but did move at a pretty good clip between New Haven and the nation's capital. It was at that point the roads grew worse.
Austell and Swanson spent a week in Staunton while an induction coil was replaced. The "Red Devil" auto gained considerable attention in Wytheville, Virginia on August 26th during a stop since it was the very first car citizens had seen. Crowds just as large gathered as the "Red Devil" crossed the Tennessee line around September 4th and pulled into Bristol, and by the time they reached Knoxville folks in Atlanta were put on notice to be looking for the "Red Devil" any day.
Austell and Swanson reached Atlanta on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 1902, after being on the road approximately a month and a half. The car was initially stored at a garage on Alabama Street where it was viewed by a constant stream of visitors.
A few days later Alfred Austell and his driver decided to venture over to the river plantation. Some say that when the Winton "Red Devil" crossed the Austell Ferry it was the first time one of those "newfangled machines" ever drove on Douglas County soil.
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 book can be found at the Douglas County Museum of History and Art and the Douglasville Welcome Center located at O'Neal Plaza in the former Douglasville Banking Company building.