by Lesa Campbell
The story of Atlanta’s first fifty years would be labeled “far fetched” by Southerners. From open frontier to commercial center to smoldering rubble to unparalleled resurgence: the plot outline sounds like a trailer for a 1930s B movie.
In 1826, when a survey was undertaken to determine whether a canal or railroad could be constructed to link the interior of Georgia with the Tennessee River, Lawrenceville and Decatur were little more than frontier outposts. A rail route connecting the coast through upland Georgia to Ross’ Landing (near present-day Chattanooga) would provide greater access to developing northern markets.
Georgia chartered three railroads in 1833: Central Railroad & Canal Co. (later Central of Georgia) to build northwest from Savannah, Georgia Railroad Co. to build westward from Augusta, and Monroe Railroad (later Macon & Western) to build northward from Macon.
The start of what would become the Western & Atlantic came late in 1836 when a Macon railroad convention recommended implementation of the 1826 survey results. The exact site of the terminus was selected during the summer of 1840 by engineers of W&A, Georgia Railroad, and Macon & Western. Construction of the state-financed W&A began in 1838, but by December, 1842, only the first 22 miles–to Marietta–were complete.
Meanwhile, in 1843, a new name was selected for the fledgling town known as Terminus: Marthasville, for the daughter of ex- governor Wilson Lumpkin, one of the 1826 surveyors.
In 1845, the Georgia railroad provided the first “train” to arrive in town–an engine from Decatur. The next day a passenger train made the 12-hour journey from Augusta. Georgia Railroad’s Chief Engineer J.E. Thomson is credited with suggesting that the city be called “Atlanta,” the feminine form of Atlantic; the name became official during 1845. The Macon & Western reached Atlanta in 1846. Construction began on the Atlanta & LaGrange (later the Atlanta & West Point) in 1849 and was completed in 1854.
By the time Atlanta was incorporated in 1847, the population had increased to 2,500, and the commercial establishments included two hotels, more than 50 stores, and a newspaper. The rail influence was strong: city limits were defined as a circle within a one-mile radius of the State Depot.
Mile posts were placed in 1850, and the city limits were redefined as a 1.5 mile circle from mile post zero. In 1854, the State Depot was replaced by a brick structure called “the car shed.”
Construction of a 1447-foot tunnel through Chetoogeta Mountain near Dalton opened an efficient route northward into Tennessee, and the W&A stood complete in 1851, sealing Atlanta’s fate 13 years into the future.
By 1860 the city’s population had increased to 7,700. From the outset of the Civil War Atlanta was transformed into an arsenal; the W&A forges, under state control, began to manufacture gun barrels.
The strategic importance of the W&A first came to public attention early in 1862, when Federal soldier J.J. Andrews and 22 others raided deep into Confederate territory to wreck the rail. The raiders boarded The General just north of Marietta; its conductor, engineer, and the shop foreman gave chase in a handcar, a succession of engines, and on foot before commandeering the Texas to complete the pursuit. The General ran out of wood and water north of Ringgold; the raiders fled on foot. Andrews and seven of the captured raiders were eventually hanged.
By fall, 1863, Atlanta was ringed by 10 miles of entrenchments. Previous Federal operations in the West had used rivers for supply and communication; the emphasis now shifted to rail. Sherman himself wrote of the W&A: “The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 would have been impossible without this road, that all of our battles were fought for its possession…”
Confederate forces withdrew within the entrenchments in July; heavy Federal shelling abruptly stopped August 26 when Sherman moved against the two railroads still open: the A&WP and the Macon & Western.
The Confederate army began evacuation of the city September 1, in the process destroying seven locomotives and 81 cars of ammunition near Oakland Cemetery. When Mayor James Calhoun officially surrendered the city September 2, Atlanta became headquarters for the Federal army. In November, all the railroad buildings, rolling stock, foundries, rolling mills, and arsenals were destroyed. Just before the start of the March to the Sea, within sight of Stone Mountain, rails of the Georgia Railroad were torn up, heated, and twisted into the infamous “Sherman’s neckties.”
Atlanta’s rapid recovery is the stuff of legends: the first train ran back into Atlanta over the joint A&WP and Macon & Western line from East Point a full month before Lee’s surrender. The local newspaper predicted: “Soon the other railroads will form their connection with our city and then, from her ashes, Phoenix-like, Atlanta will rise to resume her former importance in Georgia and the South…” The A&WP was in service two days later; Georgia Railroad and Macon & Western within 50 days; W&A within three months. A fifth railroad, to Charlotte, was under construction by 1869; by 1870 the population boomed to 21,000 and the city limits expanded to a three-mile circle around mile post zero. Commerce flourished with the return of the railroads as it had when they first arrived. Atlanta stood again resurgent.