Underground Atlanta History

History of Underground Atlanta

Underground Atlanta, or “the original Atlanta” has been here from the very beginning.

1836 – 1860: Atlanta Begins as a Railroad Town

The State of Georgia chartered a railroad to connect farming and cotton states to eastern markets and ports in 1836. A rail line was built between Atlanta and Chattanooga and 138-mile markers were placed. The Zero Milepost still stands next to Underground Atlanta today on the basement level of the Georgia Railroad Freight Depot. A bustling new town emerged around the Zero Milepost. On the eve of the Civil War, Atlanta had 10,000 people. It had already become the trade and cultural center for the South. Alabama Street, between Peachtree Street and Central Avenue, was the city’s center, which was to become Underground Atlanta.

1861 – 1864: Atlanta Serves as the Supply Depot of the Confederacy During the Civil War

Georgia seceded from the Union in January 1861. Atlanta, the railroad center of the South, was a prime target for the Army of General William T. Sherman. Federal shelling into the city’s center damaged the gas lamp, which still stands at Peachtree and Lower Alabama Streets. The railroad depot which stood between Pryor Street and Central Avenue was where Scarlett O’Hara and doctors worked frantically over Confederate soldiers, wounded in battles surrounding the city, in the fictional movie “Gone with the Wind.” Only a month after the siege began, Atlanta was surrendered to federal troops. A Union camp was established near Underground Atlanta.

1866 – 1920: Atlanta Rises from the Ashes

In 1866, Atlantans sifted through the ashes of wartime destruction, once again building their city around the Zero Milepost. In the five years between 1866 and 1871, the city’s population doubled to 22,000. In 1869, the Georgia Railroad Freight Depot was built with an impressive three-story head house. The remaining single-story structure, which still stands next to Underground Atlanta, is central Atlanta’s oldest building. In the 1870s, the district included the train station, banks, hotels, saloons, grain wholesalers, law offices, a whiskey distillery, and Packinghouse Row, on the northern side of Alabama Street between Pryor Street and Central Avenue.

In 1887, Coca-Cola was first served at Jacob’s Pharmacy soda fountain on Peachtree Street a half-block from Union Station. In 1889, Atlanta introduced the electric streetcar to the South. By 1900, Union Station Depot served 100 trains a day with direct rail service from New York, Cincinnati, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Macon, Augusta, and Columbus. By 1910, several iron bridges had been constructed to cross the rail tracks at Union Street. Local architect Haralson Bleckley proposed new concrete bridges be built to replace the iron bridges. A linear mall at the bridge level would connect the concrete viaducts and create a series of public plazas.

1920 – 1929: The Viaducts Create a “City Beneath the Streets”

During the 1920s, construction of the concrete “viaducts” elevated the street system one level to permit a better flow of traffic. Merchants moved their operations to the second floor, leaving the old fronts for storage and service. Thus, giving birth to what is now Underground Atlanta.

1930 – 1969: Atlanta Grows While Underground Atlanta Lies Dormant

Atlanta continued to stride forward, attracting new industries and increasing its role as a transportation center for the United States. In 1943, a new park, named Plaza Park, was built over the railroad gulch. It was the only one of Bleckley’s proposed plazas to be constructed. The park was replaced by a new and larger plaza, Peachtree Fountains Plaza, which has become a major entrance to Underground Atlanta. In the 1960s, Atlanta was the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement. In the commercial district near Atlanta, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led numerous non-violent demonstrations to protest racial segregation. Tragedy struck when Dr. King was assassinated in 1968. The funeral procession from his church to the cemetery passed over the viaducts through the Underground Atlanta district.

1968 – Present: Underground Atlanta is Restored

In 1968, the Atlanta Board of Aldermen declared the five-block area of the original downtown a historic site. Many significant architectural features survived from original storefronts, including ornate marble, granite archways, cast-iron pilasters, decorative brickwork, and hand-carved wood posts and panels. One-year later, Underground Atlanta opened as a retail and entertainment center. In 1980, The construction of the MARTA rapid transit line and other factors led to the closing of the original Underground Atlanta.

Yet, upon its closing, civic and business leaders succeeded in having Underground Atlanta placed on the National Register of Historic Places and leaders vowed to re-open the area. Underground Atlanta was reopened in 1989, at a cost of $142 million, through a joint venture between the City of Atlanta and private industry. It was redesigned to be one of the major projects aimed at preserving and revitalizing the center of Atlanta as the focal point of community life. Today, Underground offers a complete family experience, with retail shops, specialty and gift shops, fast food in the Old Alabama Eatery, unique features and entertainment, special events, and fine restaurants.

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