Today the roadbed of the Western and Atlantic Railroad lays dormant aside the high-speed, modern-day raised roadbed of CSX Lines. But there was a time, little more than a century ago, when the Western and Atlantic was a crown jewel in the state of Georgia's transportation dream. This is its story.
The Western and Atlantic Railroad's birthday may be December_21, 1836 (the date the enabling act was created by the state of Georgia legislature), but the idea of a railroad from the Chattahoochee River to the Tennessee River was originally proposed much earlier. In 1826 Hamilton Fulton, State Engineer and Wilson Lumpkin, a member of the Board of Public Works, set out from Savannah to determine the best routes for a "systematic plan of internal improvements." At the time they left the politicians envisioned a network of canals carrying goods from the Tennessee to the Chattahoochee and on to Savannah.
Lumpkin and Fulton set out on horseback to see if the concept was feasible. Instructions to the men included the general statement "from thence (Milledgevile) to some point on the Tennessee River, near where Chattanooga is now located." Unfortunately, Lumpkin and Fulton were of the opinion that a canal between these two major rivers would be too expensive to build. Shortly after the completion of their trip, however, the railroad antiquated the concept of canals overnight. Now, instead of building canals joining the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, the state of Georgia wanted railroads.
Lumpkin became U. S. Senator and in 1831 Governor of the state of Georgia. His first order of business was to rid northwest Georgia of the last obstacle to its development, the Cherokee Nation, and begin work on a railroad. 1831 brought businessman Mark Anthony Cooper into the picture. Culminating a drive for a railroad in the state of Georgia, Cooper held a meeting in Milledgeville on September_12, 1831, along with his Eatonton neighbor Charles A. Gordon. As a direct result of this effort the state of Georgia granted a charter for a railroad from Augusta to Eatonton, then west to the Chattahoochee.
When Cooper organized a railroad meeting in Putnam County, Georgia on July_26, 1833, little progress had been made on the railroad. This was the first of a string of meetings held to push the idea forward. In December of that year the legislature revoked the original charter of the railroad to the Chattahoochee River and rewrote it to create the Georgia Rail Road. Cooper, though, had not gotten anybody to agree on a railroad from the Chattahoochee to the Tennessee River. That is, until powerful governor George W. Crawford threw his influence into the concept of a state-run road. By 1834, with the financial backing of the state, a line from Pittman's Ferry on the Chattahoochee to Ross's Landing on the Tennessee River was considered feasible.
The Deep South was competing for a route west. Charleston and Savannah centric politicians realized what a boon a such a road would be to their cities. At a railroad meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee on July_4, 1836, both South Carolina and Georgia proposed building railroads at taxpayer expense, connecting the East Coast with Louisville, Nashville and Cincinnati. South Carolinian merchants effectively blocked Georgia from participating in a line. Georgians, led by Augustin Smith Clayton, were not happy. He returned to the state and called for a railroad convention in Macon, which would convene that November.
On August_3, 1836 Governor William Schley, another supporter of the state line appointed Abbott Hall Brisbane to study the route a rail line to Chattanooga might take. Brisbane narrowed the starting point to somewhere between Wynn's Ferry (Hall County) and Campbellton (Campbell County), giving the state roughly 70 miles to select a place to start construction. Brisbane also recommended a number of routes including Pittmans Ferry (Gwinnett County) to Allatoona and Montgomery's Ferry (or Sandtown) to Marietta. The railroad convention in Macon during November, 1836 was dedicated to competing with South Carolina for a rail service to the west. Clayton became a major proponent of the Western and Atlantic (it was called the "state line" at the time).
Another proponent of the Western and Atlantic was newly-elected legislator Alexander Stephens. In his first speech before the Georgia House, Stephens rose and backed the idea although many elder statesmen were against it. It was not an issue where politicians broke on party lines, but one where unusual groups of support formed based on beliefs. Among the noted Georgia politicians supporting the concept of a state financed railroad were W. W. Gordon, Andrew J. Miller, Iverson L. Harris, Edward Hill, Charles Jenkins, and Robert Toombs. On December_21, 1836 the necessary legislation was passed and politicians turned the task of building the line to engineers.
Since the plan called for running the railroad into Tennessee, that state also passed legislation authorizing Georgia to build the railroad. This came two years later on January 24, 1838 and was signed into law 4 days later by then-governor Newton Cannon.
Stephen Harriman Long took the plum assignment of plotting the route and building the Western and Atlantic Railroad on May 12, 1837. Most noted for his exploration of the West, Long was the first man to climb to the top of Pike's Peak. Work on the W&ARR began on July 4, 1837, moving west from Pittmans Ferry (between present-day Norcross and Duluth) towards a stake placed by Brisbane in the vicinity of Medlock Bridge Road. Long quickly realized that the grade would be too much from this point and moved south to take advantage of the wider river plain and generally flatter terrain.
Long selected land near Hardy Ivy's home to be the zero mile post, with Hardy's approval. On September_10, 1837, Brisbane and another man rode from Marietta to Ivy's farm and placed a stake at the intersection of present-day Wall Street and Central Avenue. This was the original 0 mile marker. On October_7, 1837 Brisbane communicated to Governor Schley that an initial roadbed had been prepared and was ready for contractors. Still, some in Milledgeville were unhappy with the selection made by Long. On October 22, at his Marietta, Georgia office, Long began working on a comparison between Pittmans Ferry and Montgomery Ferry, which he considered the only feasible sites. On November 7, Long submitted his report, recommending Montgomery Ferry for economic reasons. In April, 1838, bids were accepted in Marietta for various work to be done on the roadbed, and by October of that year Joel Crawford, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners reported that 50 miles of track was being worked on. The building of the Western and Atlantic Railroad had begun.
This errant map shows the Western and Atlantic Railroad extending to Covington, Georgia
The original specifications called for roadbed graded for 2 tracks, but "...furnished with one track only."
From the east, the Georgia Railroad service between Augusta and Greensboro started in 1839. Late that year, (Nov. 17) the Western and Atlantic route had been prepared for timbers to be laid from Terminus to the Etowah and beyond. By this date, however, there was already grumbling coming from some in Milledgeville about how much time it was taking Long to build the railroad. The Cherokee were now gone, having been forced west on The Trail of Tears and politicians became anxious to complete the task of connecting the Chattahoochee and Tennessee Rivers. Less that a year later Chief Engineer Long, now a major in the U. S. Topographic Corp, quit.
In 1840 Lemuel Grant, chief engineer with the Georgia Railroad was tasked with connecting his railroad to the Western and Atlantic. Samuel Mitchell donated a small piece of land later known as State Square bounded by Decatur, Pryor and Alabama Streets and Central Avenue to the W & A. This would become the new Terminus of both railroads.
Less than 20 miles of track, including the bridge at Bolton over the Chattahoochee had actually been laid, although a significant amount of land had been graded. Even the depot at Marietta, site of Long's office, did not have track. Graded for railroad track, the bare earth was used for three years as a racetrack. Over the next year little was done on any aspect of the Western and Atlantic. Then, on December_4, 1841, the state suspended all work north of the Etowah. The suspension didn't really matter since nobody was working on the railroad anyway. With the suspension the state also dissolved the Board of Commissioners.
On January_1, 1842, former U. S. Senator and Georgia governor Wilson Lumpkin, now retired from public service, reluctantly took over as disbursing agent for the railroad. He began pushing to resume work and found Charles Fenton Mercer Garnett, whom he put into Stephen Long's old position of Chief Engineer. Garnett's first act was to establish his office in Whitehall, near the southern terminus of the railroad. One of Garnett's later acts was to propose the name Marthasville in honor of Lumpkin's daughter, Martha Atalanta Lumpkin.
As rail lines from the east (Georgia Railroad) and south (Monroe Railroad, later the Macon and Western, and the Central of Georgia) approached in 1842 interest in the location of the terminus grew. Suddenly, it seemed as if everybody wanted a piece of the economic pie. Proposals were being made to reroute the southern terminus of the Western and Atlantic Railroad as far south as Henry County, but Lumpkin accepted a donation of the northeast corner of land lot 77 (roughly 5 acres) from Samuel Mitchell as the final location of the terminus. This corresponds to the present-day downtown area between Pryor Street and Central Avenue north of Alabama Street, where the old Union Station stood. It was a wise move by Mitchell. The land around his donation rapidly increased in value. The original terminus became a roundhouse, which was consumed by fire in 1906.
By the end of 1842 work on the Western and Atlantic Railroad began in a big way. The state contracted enough iron to lay 33 miles of track. Lumpkin wanted to have a run completed between Atlanta and Marietta before 1843 and he got his wish. Transporting the locomotive Florida over the Old Covington Road, it arrived in Marthasville in time to be ready on December_25, 1842 to make the maiden voyage on the track. Unsure of the modern technology the passengers insisted that Engineer W. F. Adair stop the train at Boltonville, let them off and permit them to walk across the trestle rather than ride. An 8 year-old girl named Rebecca Latimer (later Rebecca Latimer Felton, first woman to serve in the U. S. Senate) disembarked and walked across the trestle with her father.
Northwest Georgia was still struggling economically, and this had a serious impact on the railroad. Recovery from the Panic of 1837 had been excruciatingly slow. Returning from the Seminole Wars, Mark Anthony Cooper ran for governor in 1843. After losing, he purchased an iron furnace at Etowah. On December_22, 1843, days after the purchase, the legislature approved work to begin north of the Etowah River. Coopers Furnace, which still stands today, benefited tremendously from the railroad, both purchasing his iron and giving him a means by which to reach other customers. The town of Etowah, built around the furnace, flourished but was never profitable.
As the road worked its way north other small towns began to flourish as well, becoming centers of commerce and hubs for distribution. Not wanting to be passed by, Rome, Georgia, built a short line railroad to Kingston, where a complicated railyard connected it to the Western and Atlantic Railroad. When the Adairsville depot was built a half mile south of the town center, the city fathers decided to move the city south to the depot. It was a very smart move.
Discovery of copper in McCays (now Copper Hill) in 1847 created a demand for a rail line. Cross Keys was then a small community of homes near the railroad, the closest point to Copper Hill that a rail line would run. The W&ARR pushed ahead and completed the route to the community that year. Shortly after building a depot, Cross Keys changed its name to Dalton, Georgia and defined the city limits as one mile from the city center -- the Dalton Depot.
Work also began in Chattanooga, heading south. Having spanned the Etowah River and completed the pass through the Allatoona Mountains, Garnett was faced with one final challenge, Chetoogeta Mountain, but it would not be his to achieve. Once again political pressure forced a chief engineer to quit and Garnett was replaced by William L. Mitchell in 1848. It was his task to create the greatest engineering feat of the line.
From 1848 until 1850 when the train reached Chetoogeta Mountain people would disembark the train, climb with their luggage over the mountain, then board a different train to continue to Chattanooga. On May 9, 1850, the tunnel was completed under Mitchell and for the first time travel by rail to the west was available. The completed railroad proved to be an economic miracle, creating commercial centers up and down the 138 miles of roadbed paid for by the state of Georgia.
After completion of the Western and Atlantic Railroad the state of Georgia put it up for sale. The price, one million dollars, was significantly less than the cost of the railroad. It would remain on sale for seven years. The state had no takers.