When Atlanta was founded in 1837, even the chief engineer of the railroad responsible for putting the town on the map didn’t expect much of the place.
“The Terminus will be a good location for one tavern, a blacksmith shop, a grocery store, and nothing else,” Stephen Long wrote, declining a chance to buy property in the frontier village.
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2016 edition of Living Intown Magazine.
How did that unpromising village become one of the 10 largest urban centers in the United States? It’s a long and complicated story, but a handful of turning points along the way help to track Atlanta’s transformation.
1. 1837: Terminus
The railroads gave birth to Atlanta at the same time the last of the area’s original inhabitants were being swept away.
At the dawn of the 1800s, two Native American groups occupied what became metropolitan Atlanta: The Creeks, a loose confederation of tribes, claimed the land south and east of the Chattahoochee River, while the Cherokees, a more centralized culture, controlled a domain above the river stretching into the southern Appalachians. Neither was long for the land.
The Creeks were ousted during the 1810s and ’20s after their leaders were pressured to sign treaties ceding their territory to the state. The Cherokees followed during the 1830s, when they were forcibly removed and sent westward on the Trail of Tears.
White settlers had been streaming into the area for years. The migration accelerated in 1837 when engineers for the Western & Atlantic Railroad marked the southern end of a new line to connect Georgia’s interior with the Tennessee River at Ross’s Landing (Chattanooga). They called the spot Terminus. In the next few years, as the junction was joined by lines from Augusta and Macon, the burgeoning community would be renamed Marthasville and finally the more felicitous Atlanta.
2. 1868: Atlanta rises out of the ashes
The Civil War, which saw much of Atlanta destroyed, also helped make it the most important city in Georgia.
When lawmakers debated seceding from the Union in 1860, they did so in Milledgeville, the state capital for 53 years. But the focus of the fighting was Atlanta, Georgia’s largest railroad center, which had boomed as a center of Confederate war industries and distribution.
Everyone knows that Union troops under General William T. Sherman conquered the city in 1864 and burned much of it to the ground. Less known is what happened next: The federal occupation made Atlanta the headquarters of the Third Military District, overseeing Georgia, Alabama and Florida. In essence, the rebuilding city became the place where Georgians looking to pick up the pieces after the war came to see the people in charge.
A rewritten state constitution in 1868 designated Atlanta as the new capital. A 16-car train brought furnishings from the old Capitol building in Milledgeville in time for the next General Assembly. The legislators have met nowhere else since.
3. 1888: Establishing a city of higher learning
Atlanta has been a college town since the end of the Civil War, when the American Missionary Association founded Atlanta University to educate former slaves. In the coming decades, several colleges were established in or near the city, including Oglethorpe (1870), Morehouse (1879), Spelman (1881), Agnes Scott (1889), Georgia State (1913) and Emory (1915).
One of the signal moments in Atlanta’s growth as a center for higher education occurred in 1888 with the establishment of the Georgia School of Technology. When the Legislature decided to fund a technological school, city leaders badly wanted it because it fit so well with their vision of Atlanta as an industrial capital of the forward-looking New South. But they had to fend off several competitors — especially Athens and Macon — to win the prize of Georgia Tech.
Today the Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education counts 57 colleges and universities in the metro area, with more than 250,000 students — one of the largest concentrations of its kind in the country.
4. 1895: The great debate
On the opening day of the Cotton States and International Exposition, a fair Atlanta staged in 1895 as a sort of national coming-out party, Booker T. Washington delivered a celebrated speech about race relations that was influential not just for what he said, but for the reaction of others.
Washington, the head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, called for blacks to better themselves by learning a trade and working hard rather than spending their energies on the uphill fight for social and political equality. The oration was acclaimed by white and black leaders alike, including a young Ohio college professor, W.E.B. Du Bois, who sent a letter congratulating him on “a word fitly spoken.”
Du Bois’ attitudes evolved. He moved south to teach at Atlanta University, where he began to criticize Washington as an accommodationist and refer disparagingly to his speech as “the Atlanta Compromise.” He went on to help organize the NAACP and pioneer a more activist approach to securing civil rights. The dueling visions of Du Bois and Washington defined race relations in America for decades.
“Both men seized upon Atlanta as the place to work out their thoughts,” says Calinda Lee, historian at the Atlanta History Center. “This has been an African-American intellectual capital for a long time.”
5. 1925: Clear for takeoff
Atlanta’s position as a premiere air hub started on a dusty race track south of the city. Built for automobiles, Candler Field served almost as well for barnstorming pilots. A local boy named William B. Hartsfield saw his first plane there as a teenager and fell in love with aviation. A few years later, he staged an air show in which a parachuting dog was dropped from the sky.
Hartsfield was elected to the board of Alderman and in 1925 headed the committee that recommended buying Candler Field for Atlanta’s first airport. “The city that makes its port on this new ocean [will] be the city of the future,” he said, according to Frederick Allen’s book, “Atlanta Rising.” Hartsfield worked to make sure that Atlanta and not its main rival, Birmingham, would be that city by helping to win Congressional approval as a key part of a federal airmail route.
Decades later, Mayor Hartsfield oversaw construction of a new airport on the site in 1961. One of his successors, Maynard Jackson, built an even bigger one in 1980. Their legacy, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, is the world’s busiest, with more than 100 million passengers a year — but no parachuting dogs.
6. 1942: Bubble economy of "brain tonic and intellectual beverage"
Pharmacist John Pemberton first stirred up a batch of his “brain tonic and intellectual beverage” — otherwise known as Coca-Cola — in 1886. Asa G. Candler soon owned the enterprise and took the product national during the early 1900s. But the third proprietors, a syndicate headed by banker Ernest Woodruff, transformed the brand into a global phenomenon under the leadership of his son, Robert W. Woodruff.
A key moment came during World War II. The first world war and resulting wild swings in the price of sugar had almost ruined the company. The second world war provided an opportunity to grow the business as Coca-Cola persuaded the U.S. government that refreshment was an essential part of the war effort. With the blessing of the military, portable bottling operations followed American troops around the world, cementing the brand’s identity with happy memories back home.
After the war, Coca-Cola aggressively used this beachhead to expand its operations overseas and become the best-known trademark on the planet — each bottle a green-tinted testimonial to its home town.
7. 1962: Artistic ambitions and major-league aspirations
When it came to cultural institutions, Atlanta was little better than a backwater on the cusp of the 1960s. The Atlanta Art Association had greater ambitions. In the spring of 1962, the group organized a tour of European museums as part of its push to create something better in the city. On June 3, the Air France charter carrying the tour crashed on takeoff at Orly Field near Paris and burst into flames, killing 106 Atlantans who were among the city’s most devoted arts patrons.
The disaster focused the city on completing the task they had begun. With the financial support of Robert W. Woodruff, the Memorial Arts Center opened in 1968, providing a new home for the High Museum of Art and the Alliance Theatre, and a concert hall for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
It was an era of major-league aspirations. Around the same time, the city wooed the Braves from Milwaukee and erected a stadium that the baseball team shared with the Falcons football team. The Hawks basketball team and Flames hockey team weren’t far behind as joint tenants of the Omni arena.
It should be noted that one team has out-performed the others: The orchestra has won almost 30 Grammys for classical music recordings, while the sports franchises have captured exactly one professional championship.
In memory of the plane crash victims, the French government donated the Auguste Rodin sculpture “The Shade” to the High Museum. Also in tribute of the tragedy, the Louvre Museum temporarily loaned the High paintings by James McNeill Whistler, Georges de la Tour and Jean Pierre Franque.
8. 1968: Free at last
A few hours after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead in Memphis, rioting erupted in Washington, D.C. In the coming days, civil unrest spread to more than 100 cities as looters and arsonists clashed with police and militiamen. “In response, 57,500 National Guard troops deployed around the country, the largest domestic military mobilization since the Civil War,” wrote Rebecca Burns in her book, “Burial for a King.”
There was one notable exception to this outbreak of frustration and violence: Atlanta, King’s hometown.
Atlanta had tried to stand apart from the rest of the South during the civil rights revolution. Its leaders, ever mindful of the city’s image, had acquiesced to token integration at several junctures. Ivan Allen Jr., alone among Southern mayors, had testified before Congress in support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The city’s elite had grudgingly honored King with a banquet after he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Atlanta had its share of racists and institutional prejudice, but its desire for good PR and smooth business conditions kept these instincts at bay during the turbulent ’60s.
The funeral played out accordingly. Neither white nor black leaders wanted the city to boil over at such a sensitive moment. More than 150,000 people walked behind the mule-drawn cart that carried King’s body through the streets of Atlanta during the funeral procession. The city remained peaceful as an apostle of nonviolence was laid to rest in a respectful and appropriate manner.
9. 1996: An Olympic year
It started as the longest of long shots when real estate lawyer Billy Payne, a former University of Georgia football player, first proposed that Atlanta host the world’s biggest extravaganza, the Summer Olympics. He enlisted Mayor Andrew Young and others in the cause, and after much politicking and schmoozing, members of the International Olympic Committee to everyone’s surprise, voted to stage the centennial games of 1996 in the crossroads of the South and not in Athens, Greece, the presumed favorite.
The 1996 Olympics were the ultimate expression of Atlanta’s well-known penchant for boosterism. The city welcomed an invading army of outsiders who placed Atlanta under a critical scrutiny such as it had never faced. The games themselves provided moments of unmitigated joy (Muhammad Ali lighting the cauldron) and others of pain and panic (the Olympic Park bombing). In the end, the experience affected the city and its maturing sense of itself on a global stage in ways that we are still trying to understand.
10. 2007: Big and bigger
In its annual population estimate for 2007, the Census Bureau reported that the Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta Metropolitan Statistical Area (as this big schmear of a city is officially known) had crossed the 5 million threshold. To put it in perspective, that’s about 10 times its population when “Gone With the Wind” premiered on Peachtree Street in 1939.
Such announcements were once cause for jubilation. When Atlanta hit 1 million in 1959, the Chamber of Commerce designated corporate transfer Don Smith as “Mr. Million” and showered his family with gifts. When the area passed 1.5 million during the ’70s, Mayor Sam Massell presented a bottle of champagne to the parents of the milestone baby in Piedmont Hospital.
What happened for 5 million? Not much. By the first decade of the new millennium, Atlanta had built an international reputation for ill-considered growth and was beginning to grapple with existential issues of water supply and traffic congestion that made many people wonder if it was time to tap the brakes.
The recession that began in 2007 did the job, as the metro area’s population growth slacked off a bit. But the long-term trend is clear. The latest Census tally: 5,614,323 … and rising.