Completion of US Highway 17 (1923-1927)

The federal government in 1923 offered to supply three fourths of the funds needed to construct a public highway system in Georgia if the state would supply the rest of the money. The state passed a bill on August 18, 1924, prescribing the rights, duties, and responsibilities of “The Coastal Highway District,” a highway paving district composed of Chatham, Bryan, Liberty, McIntosh, and Glynn counties.


The state agreed to furnish a part of the needed funds, if the counties agreed to supply the rest. During the next election voters in all of the counties approved the measure, which included the issuance of bonds and the expenditure of other funds for the purpose of aiding in the construction of the public highways system.


County commissioners in each of the counties appointed a ten man group to a Board of Commissioners of the Coastal Highway District. Its only goal in the beginning was the paving of the Dixie and South Atlantic Highway from the Savannah River to the Florida state line. That route became U.S. Highway 17.


The route in 1924 was not much different from what it had been when the highway was built during the earliest years of Georgia history. From 1924 to 1927 engineers and construction companies redesigned the route in some instances and completed the paving. Midway Church had to be moved to allow the highway to pass between it and the church cemetery.


Newton J. Norman, chairman of the Board of Select Men and president of the Midway Society, in 1925 arranged for the introduction of a bill in the state legislature for the incorporation of Midway as the Town of Midway. Official reason for his action was to allow a police force to protect the local citizens and such historic sites as Midway Church. The unofficial reason for his action was that a celebration opening U.S. Highway 17 might be held at Midway if it had a mayor and aldermen to officiate at such an occasion.


The bill was approved and Norman became the first mayor of the Town of Midway.


The man most responsible for the paving of the Dixie and South Atlantic Highway was Harvey Granger of Savannah. It was on October 13, 1927, that about 3,000 persons, including top ranking officials and dignitaries, gathered at Midway to honor Granger and officially open U.S. Highway 17.


From noon until two o’clock the speakers lauded the guest of honor and told of the enormous benefits to be derived from a Maine to Florida paved highway. Fred Warde of Brunswick was chairman of the ceremonies and introduced the various speakers. He, himself, was one of the original committee working for Georgia’s part in the great highway link.


Among those making speeches at Midway that day were Mayor Thomas M. Hoynes of Savannah, Newton J. Norman, president of the Midway Society, Frank O. Miller of Jacksonville, Florida, president of the Atlantic Coastal Highway Association, Oliver T. Baron, chairman of the Chatham County commissioners, U.S. Congressman Charles G. Edwards, John N. Holder, chairman of the State Highway Commission, C.B. Jones, chairman of the Liberty County commissioners, and Judge Phillips of Florida, an active worker in the paving of Florida highways.


Granger, according to the Savannah Morning News, responded “modestly” to the many tributes paid him, and accepted a silver loving cup presented by the cities of Savannah and Brunswick, and the Chatham County commissioners.


The Central of Georgia Booster Band played martial airs between the speeches in the morning. It also played “Dixie” and closed the official part of the ceremonies at noon by playing the National Anthem.

During the afternoon part of the celebration, Gay Green, a native of Liberty County residing in North Carolina, suggested that a fountain in memory of Granger be placed at Midway Church. Nothing came of the suggestion.


The crowd dispersed late in the afternoon and U.S. Highway 17 was officially open. But many motorists had been using the highway for some time. The new bridge over the Ogeechee River, however, did not open to traffic until September 1930.


An interesting footnote to this account occurred when Florida bound tourists were forced to detour at Midway because of paving activity. The tourists had to be a hardy breed to even attempt such a detour, because it was over unimproved dirt roads, shaky wooden bridges, and in many cases through unpopulated countryside and dense woods.


The route at times passed through streams and creeks with no bridge, and through swamps so boggy that it took a mule to pull out an automobile stuck in their murky midst.


There were no road maps and few highway markings. Except in rare instances, there were no garages, no gas stations, no restaurants in fact, little more than an occasional farmer who would stop his field work to gaze curiously at the tourists as they clattered by.


If night caught the tourists on the road, and no friendly farmhouse was nearby, they could do nothing more than camp where they were until morning; it would have been foolhardy to continue in the darkness with their dim headlights.


The tourists first reached Hinesville, 12 miles from Midway, where they may have found a courthouse square restaurant selling mullet fish dinners. The smell of frying fish was so strong that local wits started calling the area “Mullet Fish Alley.”


The tourists, perhaps refreshed by a mullet fish dinner and a drink of cool water from the hand pump on the court house grounds, then journeyed on to Glennville. They then turned south, traveled through a sparsely populated countryside, over a dangerous-looking structure known as Lane’s Bridge, and then reached Jesup.


They continued on to Blackshear and when they reached there they had a choice of a longer route through Waycross, or a shorter route to reach Hoboken. If they chose the latter to save time, they soon found themselves in the middle of the Satilla River swamp traveling trails at best, and surrounded by swarms of mosquitoes and black bears.


From Hoboken they journeyed on to Nahunta, Atkinson, Waynesville, Brookman, and finally Brunswick. It was there that they once again traveled the Dixie and South Atlantic Highway to Jacksonville, Florida.


Some of the tourists said that it took them several days to travel the detour, and related stories on reaching Jacksonville that rival those told years later by in trepid travelers of the incomplete Pan American Highway between Brownsville, Texas, and the Republic of Panama.


The first passenger buses to operate on U.S. Highway 17 from Savannah, Georgia, to Jacksonville, Florida, via Brunswick, Georgia, after it opened in October 1927, were owned by Howard E. Coffin. He established the bus service to facilitate the travel of persons to the Cloister Hotel on Sea Island, Georgia, which he owned, and which first opened for business on October 12, 1928.


Within two years the business district of Riceboro had shifted from around the railroad depot to alongside the paved artery. One of the new businesses beside the new highway was the Cathenia Hotel and Trading Post, established by M.G. Baxter, J .A. Baxter, and Agnes Baxter.