Students learn about transportation in Henry

By Jason A. Smith
Times Correspondent

Local students recently peered through the lens of history to learn more about one of Henry County’s more pressing issues, in hopes that they will be able to make a positive difference one day.

Excel Academy teacher Don Dunlap speaks to students about transportation in Henry County while State House Representative Brian Strickland looks on. Photo by Jason A. Smith

Eighth-graders in a Georgia Studies class at the Excel Academy in McDonough got a glimpse of local transportation issues last week, with help from State House Rep. Brian Strickland. They also visited McDonough City Hall and heard about transportation affected Henry County’s decades-long transformation from a primarily agricultural community, to one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation.

The excursion was designed with a focus on the students’ future, says their instructor, Don Dunlap. First, he says, it tied in with the students’ completion of a transportation module, in which they learned about important decisions in county and state government.

Dunlap says he wanted to give the students information about transportation that was not only relevant to their studies, but also helps to prepare them for what lies ahead in their lives.

“These are future leaders, and they’re going to making decisions about transportation that have far-reaching implications,” he says. “If they hear about this stuff now, and they go home and they’re talking to their parents and they’re planning their careers … they’re fixing to go into high school. If they enter a pathway in logistics and supply-chain management, they could have a great future right here in their back yard, but not if they don’t know about it. And, it gives us a little bit of business for the Academy of Advanced Studies at Southern Crescent’s logistics and film-industry programs as well, which are right across the road. If we can tie those things together for those young people when they’re trying to make decisions about where they want to go and what they want to do when they grow up -- if we can keep them here in our community and let them know there are high-paying, high-quality jobs coming for them -- then it seems like that’s a net benefit to the whole community to keep those folks here. If we don’t help our young people learn how to make informed decisions about them being able to have a successful future, then we’re doing them a disservice.”

A centerpiece of the day came when the students listened as McDonough Mayor Billy Copeland told them about a pivotal event in McDonough’s history -- the Camp Creek Train Wreck of June 23, 1900. Copeland called the incident, which claimed the lives of 39 people, “one of the most tragic wrecks” in the state’s history, and talked about the impact the crash had on transportation in Georgia. The students also visited a pair of McDonough restaurants – KirbyG’s Diner & Pub and Seasons Bistro -- which are said to be “haunted” by the spirits of victims from the crash.

Another highlight for the students came from State House Rep. Brian Strickland (R-District 111). He gave the students a history lesson of sorts, calling transportation the No. 1 issue the county has faced since its founding in 1821 – and one that continues to affect residents today.

“Henry County’s not finished developing yet,” says Strickland. “We’re gonna grow. It’s a matter of how we grow.”

Strickland also talked with the students about the prominent role that railroads played locally in the 19th century, and where the main rail lines in Georgia were going in Georgia at that time. He says if not for key developments in Henry County and in Georgia, McDonough “would have fallen off the map.”

“McDonough missed out on a couple different opportunities with railroad lines, which affected our future at that point and affected our economy at that point,” says Strickland. “It actually helped lead to the founding of Atlanta and made Atlanta the city that it is today.”

Strickland says decisions by policy-makers helped shape Henry County as far back as the 1840s, and continues to do so today with the ongoing debate about whether to bring high-speed rail to the area.

“We’re a bedroom community, still, and so most of our citizens still want to get to Atlanta every day and back home every day,” he says. “So we have to make sure we adequately fund projects in Henry County for that reason, which is why we have the new lanes going on (Interstate) 75 right now. In the long run, if we ever want to be more than a bedroom community, we’ve got to look at other forms of transportation for us, and find the right solution whether it’s light rail or high-speed rail or even, one day, MARTA. Those are decisions we have to make in the next 10 or 20 years as a community. History will judge us as to whether or not we looked at other forms of transportation in this county in the next 50 years, and whether or not we continue to invest in our road projects down here.”