Originally created 11/05/06

A community lost



Just off Jimmie Dyess Parkway at Fort Gordon's Gate 1 on the Columbia and Richmond County line are the remains of Belair.

It once was a thriving town and farming community, but all that's left are a ramshackle house and Bel Air Baptist Church.

The town was like many of its time: a sleepy hamlet that made the most of its strengths to draw in business and industry, including the Georgia Railroad and Georgia Vitrified Brick and Clay Co., makers of bricks and pipes, and offered a respite to those looking for a serene setting away from city life.

Time and progress eventually took their toll on the area, however, and the Great Depression's effect on the railroads was the death knell that signaled the end of Belair, leaving it to be mostly reclaimed by the wilderness that surrounds it.

Auspicious beginnings

Belair evolved in the early 1800s and quickly grew large enough for its own post office in 1834, according to records from the U.S. Post Office Research Department in Washington, D.C. Part of that growth also included the laying of the first nine-mile segment of the Georgia Railroad from Augusta, which was completed in 1837 under the supervision of J. Edgar Thomas, who later became the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

W. Forrest Beckum, of Thomson, an expert on the Georgia Railroad who died in 1994, said Belair had its own depot, making it one of the original stops on the old rail line. That stop became an important water and wood point for train engines on their way to the railroad's destination point, Terminus (Marthasville), which became Atlanta. The area got an additional boost from the railroad system as the place where Georgia Railroad held its annual picnics with water drawn from Butler Creek.

At the time of the railroad's construction, Belair's most prominent resident was George Walker Crawford, a Princeton-educated lawyer who became Georgia's only Whig governor in 1843, was a U.S. representative and was secretary of war for President Zachary Taylor until Taylor's death in 1850. Crawford died in 1872 and is buried in a simply marked grave in Summerville Cemetery.

A bitter end

With time, Belair's fortunes waxed and waned, as did the nation's.

The post office closed in 1854 but reopened a year later; a new depot was built in 1860, only to close for good in 1931, according to The History of the Georgia Railroad, by Robert H. Hanson.

The Great Depression's stranglehold on the nation's finances also had an impact on Belair, and the town lost its passenger train service, the post office and the depot - all within 10 years.

The area's railroad saw a brief resurgence of use in the 1940s with the opening of the Army's Camp Gordon, but eventually, the town and its rails faded from view and into history.

The town itself was all but forgotten, but the name lives on in Bel Air Elementary and Belair Road.

FADING OUT: BELAIR TIMELINE

1830: Belair established

Jan. 15, 1834: Belair post office established

1837: Construction of railroad depot completed

Jan. 31, 1854: Mail service discontinued

Jan. 24, 1855: Mail service reinstated

1860: New train depot built

1870s: Episcopal church mission, The Church of the Holy Nativity, flourishes

1902: Georgia Vitrified Brick and Clay Co. established near Harlem, which uses clays around Belair for bricks and sewer pipes

1906: The shooting of Civil War veteran W.A. Batchelor at the Belair depot brings unwelcome notoriety to the area

June 7, 1916: U.S. post office changes the spelling of the town to Bel Air

1930: Elimination of the local passenger train

1931: Georgia Railroad depot closes

Jan. 30, 1932: Bel Air post office closes its doors for good and delivery moves to Augusta

1939: Depot demolished

1941-42: Camp Gordon opens

1950s: Bel Air Baptist Church is organized; still exists today

October 1998: Opening of Jimmie Dyess Parkway, which connects to Fort Gordon's Gate 1