In November 1970, a time when both Forsyth County and north Gwinnett County were much less populated and more rural than today, tragedy rocked both counties as five Forsyth County High School students were struck by a train on a railroad crossing at what was then known as Magnum’s Crossing on Hwy. 20.
The Nov. 12, 1970 edition of the Forsyth County News featured coverage of the crash, reactions from the school and community and the names and photos of the five who died: sisters Linda, 17, and Patricia, 15, Holtzclaw; their cousin Cathy Holtzclaw, 14; Peggy Daniel, 16; and Kristi Martin, 15.
The coverage noted that then-Gwinnett County Police Chief L.M. Puckett recommended closing the railroad crossing and said the accident was “the worst ever” and the crossing “the most dangerous” in the county.
Locals in both counties soon fought for increased safety measures at the crossing, which had only a stop sign rather than a boom gate blocking drivers.
Today, the railroad is no longer a concern for drivers on the busy highway connecting two of the state’s most populated counties thanks to a bridge just east of the intersection of Hwy. 20 and Peachtree Industrial Boulevard in Sugar Hill.
Nearly five decades after the wreck, the bridge will soon be named for a Maron Buice, a former Gwinnett County Commissioner who served from 1968-1984 and was a driving force behind the project.
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On Monday, Buice, state Sen. Renee Unterman and Gwinnett County commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash held a meeting with members of the media ahead of a ceremony formally naming the bridge in his honor set for Aug. 31 at the city of Sugar Hill’s E Center at 5009 W Broad Street NE, Sugar Hill.
Buice said he had supported a bridge before the wreck but it took the tragedy to get the project rolling and called it the “hardest project I worked on … and I was more proud of it than any of them because I don’t know how many lives it has saved but I know it has saved a lot.
“I tried to get some help, but I couldn’t get a lot of help until that happened, then they were upset because we didn’t have any kind of signal or a bridge,” Buice said. “I wanted a bridge or either a tunnel under [the railroad]. They thought a bridge would be more suitable, but that is State Route 20, as you know, and traffic was heavy.”
Paying for the project took the largest grant Gwinnett County had ever sought at the time, Buice said, who called it “one of the best things that ever happened in Sugar Hill.”
By 1975, the bridge was ready to open and was attended by engineer Tom Moreland, namesake of Spaghetti Junction’s official title “Tom Moreland Interchange,” and longtime state Sen. Steve Reynolds, for whom a busy road is also named.
While the bridge is now used by thousands of motorists each day, Buice said the first drive could have gone a little smoother.
“A friend of mine … had a lot of antique cars and he had a ’30 model Packard two-seater with a cloth top, so I wanted us to ride in that and be the first ones across the bridge,” Buice said. “When we started up the bridge, it got nearly to the top and quit running, and we had a crowd standing over there … so I guess there was 12 or 15 men that pushed us over the bridge.”
Coming downhill, the car began to run again, so the first riders then crossed back to where they came from and Buice told police officers to “open it as quick as you can. I didn’t want to have any more problems.”
The naming of the bridge was done through Senate Resolution 400, which was sponsored by Unterman, who is also a former commissioner and credited Buice and his generation for having the foresight to build roads, water plants and other infrastructure.
“Back in that day, in the 1970s, it was very significant to have that large of infrastructure,” she said. “There was no Spaghetti Junction, there were really no major bridges in Gwinnett County and that was one of the first ones.”
Still a busy thoroughfare between Forsyth and Gwinnett counties, Nash said Hwy. 20 was one of the only ways across the Chattahoochee River and traffic was funneled at that bridge. Having a train only complicated those issues.
“Even if there is not an accident, it makes a huge issue related to traffic, so it certainly was a landmark event,” Nash said.
Nash said the population of Gwinnett County doubled in the 1970s and brought many new demands.
“I think also what it represents is a community that has been rural for the most part recognizing that there are needs in the community, that the community is changing, that what’s been the approach in the past isn’t always going to be able to be sufficient,” she said.
Buice, 93, said there had long been discussions of naming the bridge after him, but joked that he wanted to have it done in his honor rather than in his memory.
“They had talked about years before but I said I didn’t want to do it right then because I was in office and thought it would be too political,” Buice said. “I said, ‘Let’s wait a while,’ but I didn’t think about them waiting this long. I told them, ‘If you’re going to do anything, do it.” I said, “I’ve seen too many roads and bridges named memorial so-and-so … I don’t want to be a memorial, I want to get where I can enjoy it.”