Atlanta Old and New: Prehistory to 1847
Articles in this series:
Atlanta:Prehistory to 1847
Atlanta:1848 to 1868
The first great inland city in the United States grew at the intersection of great roads. Peachtree was the first, and today the most famous, but the story of Atlanta, especially early Atlanta, is the story of a different road - the railroad.
Evidence exists that Archaic Indians lived in the area in 6000BC, specifically in the area now covered by East Palisades (part of the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area). Over time these early Indians evolved into a Woodlands culture that inhabited the area when an early Moundbuilder culture moved in, building a temple mound opposite the confluence of Peachtree Creek and the Chattahoochee. Part of a transitional culture that exhibited traits of both the Hopewell and Mississippians, they controlled the flood plain of the Chattahoochee for miles, including all of present-day Atlanta.
Creek Indians, perhaps descended from the ancient Moundbuilder culture, were known to inhabit a village (Standing Peachtree) near the mound prior to the American Revolution. Before Fort Peachtree was built in 1813, an Indian path running from Suwanee to Standing Peachtree was upgraded by local men. With this completed, Lieutenant George Gilmer left Fort Daniel (Hog Mountain in present-day Gwinnett County), traveled south on Peachtree Road and completed Fort Peachtree [Gilmer] on a small knob overlooking the Chattahoochee.
At the time the fort was built this was the western edge of America's frontier and not a part of the state of Georgia. When the Creek ceded the land in 1821, Georgia created Henry and Fayette Counties in the area of Atlanta. These governments then ceded their northern area east of the Chattahoochee River to DeKalb County in 1823. During this time Montgomery's Ferry (later DeFoors Ferry), which crossed the Chattahoochee near the confluence of Peachtree Creek, became the first business in the area.
One of the first acts of the new DeKalb County government was to build a more direct route from the city of Decatur (the county seat) to what was now called Fort Gilmer and Montgomery's Ferry. This was the first road to the east built from Peachtree Road and was called Sandtown Road.
About halfway between Decatur and the ferry a town began to form at the intersection of Sandtown and Newnan Roads. In 1835 Charner Humphey built a clapboard covered, whitewashed home that served as a tavern and inn. With the addition of a post office Whitehall became large enough to have its own political designation as an election district. Anderson Walton built a popular resort near a spring in the mid-town area (presently Walton Park behind Peachtree Plaza Hotel).
To the east of Whitehall an event occurred in 1837 that would change the history of the area forever. Western and Atlantic Railroad Chief Engineer Stephen A. Long approved the location of the southern terminus of that line on property owned by Hardy Ivy (present-day Courtland near International). An employee of Long's, with the approval of Mr. Ivy, placed a marker to indicate the site where the W&ARR and the Georgia Railroad would meet. John Thrasher purchased land near the zero-mile marker and built a grocery store. Montgomery's Ferry, Walton's, and Whitehall, along with the terminus, formed the nucleus of the city that would become Atlanta
From the east the Georgia Railroad pushed ahead, grading and laying track in a continuous operation. Meanwhile, work began on the roadbed of the Western and Atlantic. In 1838 the bridge over the Chattahoochee at Boltonville was completed. By 1840 grading had been completed through much of the corridor from Chattanooga to the terminus when Long quit. For two years the line would remain stagnant, but not the future city of Atlanta.
Lemuel Grant, a civil engineer for the Georgia Railroad could not convince a local citizen to sell the railroad a right-of-way through his property west of Decatur. Grant, who was 24 at the time, bought the land out-of-pocket and then gave the railroad the right-of-way. It was the first of many land purchases made by Grant in the city he soon called home.
In spite of Grant, Ivy, Thrasher and other citizens, the Terminus was a rowdy area filled with railhands and prostitutes who lived in nearby shanties. In 1842, the terminus of the W&ARR moved east about a quarter mile to its present location at Underground Atlanta on land donated to the city by Samuel Mitchell. Additional land in this area was owned by Mitchell, Grant, and Grant's father-in-law, Ami Williams. Thrasher, disgusted with the move, packed up his store and left. In December, 1842, the locomotive Florida made the first run to Marietta.
Terminus did not strike many citizens as a good name for the small group of buildings developing around the depot. Daughter of railroad proponent and former governor Wilson Lumpkin, Martha Atalanta Lumpkin had the town named in her honor in 1843 (Marthasville). Whitehall, along Sandtown Road, became known as West End, and both the post office and election district became Marthasville.
Over the next two years the country suffered through one of the worst economic times of our history and growth in Atlanta came to a standstill. Work on the Georgia Railroad continued west from the coast, but the Western and Atlantic Railroad struggled to lay rails. 1844 saw the arrival of Jonathan Norcross. His sawmill and lumber yard gave Marthasville one of its earliest non-railroad related businesses.
John E. Thomson, Chief Engineer of Georgia Railroad proposed Atlanta as a suitable name for the new town and in 1845 the name was changed. Mr. Thomson told varying stories as to how he came up with the name; our favorite is that he altered Martha Lumpkin's middle name Atalanta. That same year rail service finally came to the city. It was a time of many firsts between 1845 and 1847. In addition to the first doctor, first newspaper and first school, the city adds a third railroad, the Macon and Western
Finally, late in 1847, Atlanta is incorporated. The town is defined as extending 1 mile from the Terminus. The battle for control of the city had begun.
Articles in this series:History of the area around Atlanta
Atlanta:Prehistory to 1847
Atlanta:1848 to 1868
Archives of Fulton County