While he doesn’t have the name recognition of other famed railroad builders, John James Thrasher played a role in bringing the first railroad to Dade City, thus helping to develop the future county seat of Pasco County.
Little is known about his life before he reached the age of 21.
He was born on Feb. 14, 1818, as the second oldest in a family of 14 children.
He would go on to be credited for his efforts to rebuild Atlanta after the American Civil War, and would become a prominent citizen of Georgia.
During a family reunion earlier this summer at the Pioneer Florida Museum and Village in Dade City, David Sumner described Thrasher as “a railroad builder, entrepreneur, merchant and politician.”
Sumner is the great-great grandson of Thrasher, and a 1964 graduate of Pasco High School.
Thrasher — known as “Cousin John” to his many friends and family — was hired in 1839 to do work on the terminus of the Western and Atlantic Railroad in an area near present-day downtown Atlanta.
The Georgia General Assembly had authorized the railroad construction project as a northward link to Chattanooga and the Midwest.
In early 1861, Thrasher was Fulton County’s state representative when Georgia joined the Confederate States of America.
Major battles against Union armies would take place at Chickamauga in 1863, and Kennesaw Mountain in 1864.
When Union troops under the command of William Tecumseh Sherman drew near during the Atlanta campaign, much of the population had fled the city, including Thrasher, his wife, and four sons and three daughters.
This rapid exodus reduced Atlanta’s population from around 22,000 to less than 3,000.
On Sept. 2, 1864, James M. Calhoun, the 16th Mayor of Atlanta, surrendered to Sherman, writing, “Sir: The fortune of war has placed Atlanta in your hands.”
Union soldiers occupied Atlanta for the next two months and burned most of it to the ground on Nov. 15, 1864.
In an article published by The Pasco News in 1999, Sumner described Thrasher at 46 years of age with no possessions left in a city that was “a burned waste of destruction.”
The elegant Thrasher home on Ashby Street had been the headquarters of Confederate Gen. John B. Hood. The Atlanta Constitution reported that Union troops did not destroy it, but they carried off the marble mantels, melted the outside ornamental ironwork and converted the library into a blacksmith’s shop.
After the war, Thrasher was one of 12 charter members of the Atlanta Street Railway Company — formed to operate the city’s first streetcars in 1866 according to the Atlanta History Center.
As Atlanta’s first merchant on Marietta Street, a state historical marker currently designates the site as “Thrasherville—Where Atlanta Began,” Sumner says.
He explains that Thrasher “physically and economically laid the foundations for modern-day Atlanta.”
According to the Thrasher Family papers at Emory University and the University of Georgia, Thrasher helped to build a school and supervised the construction of the new Fulton County Jail in 1865.
“The building is neither gorgeous nor picturesque,” reported the Atlanta Intelligencer, “but it is substantial, and it will answer its purpose.”
Within four years, Georgia became the last Confederate state restored to the Union.
It was during this period that Thrasher moved north of Atlanta along the Richmond and Danville Railroad, and founded a town he named after a good friend, Jonathan Norcross, who was the fourth mayor of Atlanta.
In the 1880s, Thrasher and his wife followed two of their sons to Dade City.
The elder Thrasher planted orange trees, while one son, David, became county judge in 1887, the third superintendent of schools in 1896, and was elected mayor of Dade City on Feb. 6, 1905.
Spending the rest of his life in Dade City, the elder Thrasher gave speeches and was instrumental in bringing the first railroad to town.
In 1885, the Florida Southern Railroad (later a part of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad) was built 40 feet from the present-day Dade City Cemetery, heading toward Lakeland.
This would transform the town’s economic growth.
The existing Atlantic Coast Line Depot along the U.S 98 Bypass is one of four historic depots that have served the local area.
In October 1887—23 years after Sherman set fire to Atlanta—President Grover Cleveland addressed a crowd of approximately 50,000 people attending the Piedmont Exposition.
As a showcase for the city’s reconstruction since the Civil War, The Atlanta Constitution reported that “Cousin John J. Thrasher” was at the exposition “as one of the best known and most popular men who ever lived in Atlanta.”
He died in Dade City on Nov. 14, 1899, when he was 81. In part, his obituary read: “…and now his death carries away next to the last of the three famous pioneers who were here before any of the people making this their home had ever heard of the place.”
Adding to the family legacy is Robert Woodruff, a great-grandson of Caroline Thrasher, who herself was a first cousin of (John J.) Thrasher.
Woodruff was an influential head of the Coca-Cola Company for nearly 60 years and a famous Atlanta philanthropist.
“I have spent the last 20 years researching the life of John Thrasher,” Sumner recalled during the family reunion in Dade City. “More than his accomplishments, I am touched by his character—his love, generosity, and kindness toward others. That’s why everyone called him ‘Cousin John.’”
Demand to Evacuate Atlanta
“Now you must go, and take with you the old and feeble, feed and nurse them, and build for them, in more quiet places, proper habitations to shield them against the weather until the mad passions of men cool down, and allow the Union and peace once more to settle over your old homes in Atlanta.” — William T. Sherman
Source: “Memoirs of General William T. Sherman” (Second Edition; New York. D. Appleton and Company, 1904).
Doug Sanders has a penchant for unearthing interesting stories about local history. His sleuthing skills have been developed through his experiences in newspaper and government work. If you have an idea for a future history column, contact Doug at .
Published June 29, 2016