Searching for the Geographic Origin of Atlanta: The Terminus

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PHOTO: Mike Downey

Atlanta’s origins are unique in that we were planted like a seed. We did not spring up around a geographical feature like a deep water port. In 1837, the Georgia General Assembly edited the Western & Atlantic Railroad’s charter, allowing that the “terminus” of its railroad could be up to eight miles from the Chattahoochee. In 1842, a good spot was found, and surveyors planted a seed, in the form of a stone post, in the ground to mark it.

We still have that post. We keep it under a parking deck in an abandoned office building. But its current resting place is not the geographical center of Atlanta. So where was that? The Atlanta Banana decided to find out.

The historical marker that goes with the post gives us a clue:

The original terminus was between the present Forsyth and Magnolia Streets.

Well, all right, but if you look at a modern map of the city, that’s pretty vague. To be fair to the marker, it’s from 1958 and a lot has changed since then. Here are Magnolia and Forsyth marked on a modern Google map of Atlanta.

Magnolia-Forsyth2014

As you can see, there’s a pretty wide area there. There are some railroads which give us a bit of a clue, but the Georgia Dome and Phillips Arena occupy a lot of that space. Thankfully, there’s such a thing as the Wikimedia, which contains Old Maps of Atlanta. There we find this map from 1853, which shows a black shape which seems like a pretty good clue as to where the geographical epicenter might once have been.

545px-1853-Atlanta-Vincent-map

The problem with that map is that though Forsyth is marked, Magnolia St. isn’t. It’s pretty different from a modern map. Here’s our Google map with the 1853 map overlaid.

1853overlay

It’s tough to tell how right this is, firstly because your correspondent is neither a cartographer nor a historian. Secondly, there is some discrepancy between the proportions of the 1853 map and Google’s satellite-based representation of the city.

A map from 1911, however, does have Magnolia on it, and it helps narrow our search area down a bit.

Magnolia-Forsyth1911

There’s some guesswork involved here, but the middle of the empty triangle in the 1911 map seems to be where the original Terminus was. So what’s there? Well, if you’re a Falcons fan, you might already know. It’s the area — which is not to use words like “wasteland” — known as The Gulch.

thegulch

Here’s a panorama of the Gulch, taken last night.

Gulchpanorama

There’s also a vine of the same view here.

Now, you may say to yourself, as we do, “Well it kinda sucks that the historic epicenter of Atlanta is, to use the Wikipedia’s editor’s term, ‘unbuilt.'” But there’s good news. As our friends at Curbed have noted, a current plan for the site, called the Atlanta Multi-Modal Passenger Terminal (MMPT), will “blow your mind.” Sadly, the slick GDOT video has been removed from Vimeo, but there’s also a somewhat less slick looking GDOT web site with some information. The ATL Urbanist also has some thoughts about the future of the Gulch.

We love the MMPT idea on a lot of levels, but most of all because that location is where everything that is Atlanta began. What better place to plant a new seed of Atlanta development? We would love it. But there’s a way we could love it even more.

We implore you, the State of Georgia, Georgia Department of Transportation, Governor Deal, and Kasim Reed. Please, please rescue the Zero Mile Post from underneath the parking deck at 90 Central. Return it to its rightful spot, or as close as we can get it. It’s amazing that we have such an artifact at all, but to have the artifact and leave it out of redevelopment plans of its original site would be absurd.

Let’s make the Gulch into something of which we can all be proud, with a stone jewel returned to its rightful place: the Terminus.

Sources:
Perry Buffington and Kim Underwood, “Archival Atlanta, Forgotten Facts and Well-Kept Secrets from Our City’s Past,” (1996)
Webb Garrison, “The Legacy of Atlanta, a Short History,” (1987)
James Michael Russel, “Atlanta 1847-1890,” (1988)
The National Park Service’s Zero Mile Post Information
Wikipedia’s History of Atlanta

4 COMMENTS

  1. “We still have that post. We keep it under a parking deck in an abandoned office building. But its current resting place is not the geographical center of Atlanta.”

    Banana Man, the building housing the Zero Milepost is not ‘an abandoned office building.’ It was constructed in 1986 by the Georgia Building Authority as a passenger loading station for the ‘New Georgia Railroad,’ a passenger excursion operation the Building Authority started in 1984. Large groups could schedule an event in the freight depot and ride a train powered by a steam locomotive around the city. The operation was later extended to public excursions around Atlanta, the train also traveled around Georgia. The Building Authority operated the train until 1994.

    If the building was used as GBA Police HQ, it was after 1994.

    Second: “The original terminus was between the present Forsyth and Magnolia Streets. It was moved here in 1842.” This is referring to the W&A passenger and freight station, not the town of Terminus:

    http://www.shorpy.com/node/10236

    There is The Gulch in all its glory. The Western & Atlantic heads for Chattanooga to the right. To the left, the Macon & Western, and the Atlanta & West Point, depart for Macon and West Point.

    The tall building in the foreground is the W&A freight / passenger station, the ‘original terminus’ mentioned on the marker. The building in the background is the roundhouse where locomotives were maintained.

    Behind the photographer is Whitehall (Peachtree) St. and the Car Shed:

    http://www.shorpy.com/node/6484

    The Car Shed served as a ‘Union Station’ for the railroads entering Atlanta (the three mention earlier entered the far end, and the Georgia Railroad (which ran to Augusta) entered the end closest to the photographer. This is the location of the scene in ‘Gone With the Wind’ of soldiers lying in the railroad yard.

    So the Zero Milepost currently under Central Avenue has never moved, it was never intended to serve as the geographic center of Terminus, and ‘the terminus’ mentioned on the marker is not the town of Terminus.

    • If you’ve been by 90 Central recently, you know that the current state of the building underneath is indistinguishable from an abandoned office building, complete with empty shelves and telecom wires running nowhere. That’s because it was used as an office building and is now abandoned. It looked that way when I was inside a while back, and still did as recently as a few weeks ago, the last time I peered in the windows.

      I do remember my GBA representative mentioning the train rides you speak of, but if you open a hat store, then convert it to an ice cream shop, then abandon it, it’s an abandoned ice cream shop, hats notwithstanding. Also, there’s only so much space on the internet, and this is a post about the history of Terminus/the terminus, not necessarily 90 Central.

      As for your second point, you may well have me there, but it is a matter of opinion. I’m away from my books at the moment so I can’t read any further, but given that the marker notes that it moved in 1842, which is when the W&A charter got edited to move the terminus from earlier position, one might say that it is the beginning of Terminus.

      But the terminus (lowercase) had previously been where I say it was (near the Gulch) maybe as early as 1836, at least according to the NPS data here: http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/atlanta/wes.htm

      I’ve also read that the post was driven into the ground as early as 1836, although I’m away from my books as I say so I’m at a bit of a loss. Regardless, the ZMP, or at least the point it represents (little tee terminus), has unquestionably moved.

      We can agree that it was never meant to serve as the geographic center of Terminus (uppercase) since the railroads probably didn’t really care if a settlement happened. They just wanted railroads. When a settlement did happen, however, and someone had to organize it, it was already after 1842, which was after the ZMP had been moved to 90 Central.

      So, the ZMP at 90 central (or the point it represents) did absolutely move. It probably wasn’t meant to be the center of Terminus, but that’s kind of immaterial, and I agree that the W&A probably didn’t give two hoots of a train whistle where a settlement sprang up.

      But a settlement did spring up and its original point, as far as I can tell being neither a cartographer nor a historian, was marked by a mile post located near what is now the Gulch.

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