Unseen Underground Walking Tour

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Four years ago?  Roughly, I saw the following description of “Things to Do” in Atlanta.

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That’s pretty strong press.  But, the key sentence is “tours happen intermittently throughout the year.”  Nary a mention was breathed by the captioned website whenever I remembered to check.  That is, until this Spring, when I found out a tour had been scheduled and that I was welcome to join...  join the waiting list, that is, as it was already full.

Fast forward half a year, add the power of Facebook, and an uncapped invitation, the tour finally arrived today.  Limiting his “intermittent” tours to 24, with 100 or more inquiries each year, the math was not adding up.  As he put it, “I nurture demand very carefully,” this being his sixth year on a strictly volunteer effort on his part.

Where does one meet for such a thing?  Adjacent to Underground Atlanta, of course, under a viaduct.

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And from there, we began a two hour walking tour through the byways, across railroad tracks, alongside or above where tracks used to run, winding ultimately to the World Congress Center and back.  The irony is that none of the tour was underground, though much of it was not at street level.

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Jeff Morrison is a local architect who, due to his interest in urban planning, railroads, and an adventurous spirit, explored downtown Atlanta during his lunch break in search of what remained of its railroad beginnings.  He added that his first tour was more like a joke when taking some coworkers, but people have been asking for the tour ever since.

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The history of Atlanta begins with the arrival of the railroads.  Paraphrasing Jeff’s comments, the State of Georgia decided roughly 4 years after the invention of the steam locomotive to bring railroads into central Georgia.  The route began in Chattanooga, crossed through the mountains and over the Chattahoochee River, ending at Mile Post 0, a marker that remains positioned within the building below, a location chosen for no other reason than it was a suitable place located centrally in the State.  There was no town when this marker was first located.  The State understood that other railways would naturally seek to join the ending of their line, and guessed correctly.  This was around 1847.

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Without taking too much from his tour, I’ll comment on a few facets.

City name:  A main rail area required significant labor to construct, and the camp formed by John Thrasher, later a Georgia Statesman, soon became known as Thrasherville.  But this did not last.  It later became known as Marthasville, Martha being the daughter of Georgia’s governor.  It was known as Terminus by the railroad companies.  But no one is certain where the name Atlanta originated.  The main point is that the terminus brought not only the activity of switchyards to the area, but the ability of people to live away from waterways and participate in commerce.

Atlanta’s nightmarish street patterns: Land lots were given to settlers for free by the State, in 200 acre blocks.  However, no one knew where their lot would be located.  Each property owner could determine how roads, etc., would be fashioned on their property.  So, at the terminus, ultimately to become downtown Atlanta, it’s obvious that the local owners did not stress coordinating their ideas.

9 - Atlanta Street Grid 1853
A wider area map further exemplifies this.
10B - Vincent Map 1853

Peachtree Street:  It’s a joke amongst locals and visitors when trying to find the “right” road named Peachtree. 

There was an Indian trading post town located where Peachtree Creek entered the Chattahoochee known as Standing Peachtree.  Later, the military would occupy the location as Peachtree Fort, which would be connected with Fort Daniel, about 40 miles away, by a trail known as Peachtree Road.

Convoluted Topography:  The railroads took the more desirable flat areas, and as the town emerged around them, a problem began to emerge about how locals would cross the tracks.  Answer:  Bridges and viaducts.  Much of the tour involved a discussion of what is and what was, things built below and even things that existed above.  Today, it all looks like poor planning, but it’s actually a very remarkable testament to man’s ability to shape his environment to suit his purposes.  The following picture serves as a nice summary.

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Cars below, trains in the middle, and International Boulevard surface street at the top.  Much goes on “under ground,” but that is from street levels which are frequently built up throughout the downtown area.

Passenger Trains:  There used to be around 200 passenger trains arriving in Atlanta daily, now reduced to two.  Passenger trains were never particularly profitable, but carrying the mail added significant revenue to make them worthwhile.  Post offices were often located adjacent to train stations, and the mail was sorted during the trip on a mail car.  As highways developed and trucks took over...

Jeff offers a variety of historical photos to review during the tour.  Aside from comparisons, Jeff also commented upon how few of the historic railroad icons remain today.

The home of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper, 1947.

19 - Atlanta Constitution Bldg 1947

It was only occupied for a couple years before they merged with the Atlanta Journal.  The building has been vacant since, but located conveniently adjacent to the tour.  Today:

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The newspaper building is labeled in the below map.

16 - Atlanta Aerial Photo 1949

Today, all but a couple tracks have been removed.  The small two story building in the middle of the building was the switch building, one of the few historical railroad buildings remaining.

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I counted about 90 attending, but I heard another count at 108.  The group got stretched due at a few stairwells, but all were able to gather around and listen at the stopping points.

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All in all, it was an enjoyable hike and an informative trip.  Kudos to Jeff for his passion and willingness to share.

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If you’re interested in a future tour, add “Unseen Underground Walking Tour” on Facebook.

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