Rome


 
Rome
Georgia, U. S. A.
County:Floyd

That Rome becomes an important center quickly in her early life is not surprising. The mineral wealth of the surrounding mountains and the available power from the Etowah and Oostanaula Rivers make it a natural selection for a city even before settlers cross the Chattahoochee. When Floyd County holds it's centennial (100 year) parade on October 27, 1933 people have been living in the area for hundreds of years.

Although some contemporary historians dispute deSoto's arrival at an American Indian village in the vicinity of Rome, most agree that he passes this way in 1540 with some 600 men. Within twenty years these Moundbuilders are gone, victims of some disaster that has been lost to time. Replacing them are Creek, and later Cherokee, who inhabit "Head of Coosa" until forcibly evicted, the Creek in the mid-1820's and the Cherokee in 1838.

The village passes from Creek hands to the fierce Chickamauga (or Lower Towns) Cherokee. Books frequently distort the facts surrounding the period of the Chickamauga rule, in regard to the relationships with settlers, painting one side or the other in a better light. Suffice to say brutality is widespread on both sides.

Mortal enemies Tennessee Governor John Sevier and Cherokee Chief Major Ridge
Major Ridge(right)
John Sevier(left)
Governor of Tennessee John Sevier raids the city and fights a pitched battle in the vicinity of Myrtle Hill Cemetery in 1792. The raid is in retaliation of an attack by Cherokee warriors in Tennessee, brought on by the freeing of a man President Washington orders tried for the murder of a Cherokee. In spite of overwhelming evidence that the man committed murder and a United States President orders the trial he is freed, solely because Sevier is a close friend and courts rarely convicted Whites in crimes against Cherokee.

Missionaries joined the few Whites that had been accepted by the Cherokee after 1800. Head of Coosa becomes home to a number of Cherokee dignitaries including Major Ridge and Chief John Ross, leader of the fledgling Nation. Both have multiple business ventures and impressive houses(see Chieftains Museum) in the city, but the main source of income for them are ferries operated by slaves. Building a capital at New Echota, a day to the east, a spirit of nationalism sweeps the Cherokee.

By 1832 settlers are commonplace in the area of Rome. Two land lotteries that year divide the Cherokee land in North Georgia. Most natives of Rome are familiar with a meeting between Philip Hemphill, Daniel R. Mitchell and Zachariah B. Hargrove and others at a spring in present-day downtown. The name Rome is chosen by lot, and the Georgia legislature creates the city on Dec. 20, 1834.

Rome's Broad Street was one of two in the city laid out to be 132 feet wide
Rome's Broad Street
Wide streets were only one of Rome's early hallmarks.
Rome's wide streets impress even the casual tourist. Using a chain an early resident lays out the streets. Two of them are 132 feet across. Rome's first courthouse is built of brick in 1835. Whites gladly appropriate ferries run by Ross and Ridge, and with the early agriculture, these are the main businesses of the early days.

In 1836, according to Les R. Winn, in his excellent book Ghost Trains and Depots of Georgia, "...far-sighted business leaders in Rome recognized a new economic opportunity." When the state announces the Western and Atlantic Railroad, a group of Rome businessmen build an 18-mile spur from Kingston to Rome. Completed in 1849, and named the Rome Railroad in January 1850, according to Mr. Winn, "This road became an important feeder line..."

Rail is not the only form of transportation important in these early days. Rome is crossroads of Indian paths that spread from the base of the Appalachians to Alabama in the west and Augusta in the east. And the mighty Coosa is navigable most of the time to the Gulf of Mexico. Steamboats are a common sight on the rivers of the city.

Cotton, however, is not as common as one might imagine. In fact, Rome imports most cotton before the war. It is not until after the war that the city becomes a large cotton exporter. According to Bobby McElwee of the Rome Area History Museum, the major export before the Civil War is lumber.

The city grows and by the war had foundries, industry, a railroad and cemeteries. In 1863 Nathan Bedford Forrest saves the city from the hands of Colonel Abel Streight and his Lightning Mule Brigade. Rome honors him as a hero. A statue in his honor is erected downtown, later moved to Myrtle Hill.

Union General Jefferson C. Davis captures Rome in May 1864, a major target of the Atlanta Campaign. General William Tecumseh Sherman orders Davis to "attack the town directly, at the point of greatest resistance." Approaching the city, Davis gets reports of the extensive fort system the citizens and the Confederate Army have constructed. Forward detachments report the forts manned and prepare for battle. During the battle Confederates retreat to Fort Stovall (Myrtle Hill) to regroup. From this point they pull back under cover of darkness on May 16, 1864. The hardest fighting occurs at Fort Attawa, northwest of Rome on the Summerville Pike.

Sherman spends several days in the city after its capture, in the home of one Charles H. Smith, who becomes one of the most famous writers of the latter half of the nineteenth century under the pseudonym of "Bill Arp".

Upon retreat from Atlanta, John Bell Hood's now meager army moves into the general area about October 10, in hot retreat from Sherman's well supplied hoard. One local wrote "...they plodded on their weary march, some barefoot, others with raw-hide strapped around their bleeding feet. I could see Lost Cause stamped on every face. I knew then the Confederacy was doomed."

After the Union army leaves, part on the March to the Sea, part to chase Hood on the disastrous Nashville Campaign, roving bands of men, supposedly organized as guerillas in the war cause much grief as rule in the area bordered on anarchy. After the end of the war Rome is one of the few North Georgia towns large enough to house a Freedman's Bureau. Separate camps of blacks and whites spring up on the outskirts of town.

Rome becomes a hub for railroads and steamboats serving much of the southeastern interior. Sam Jones, the Methodist preacher, holds regular services in the city, and after two years in service to his congregation here, he leaves, becoming renown around the world for his fiery delivery and impassioned speaking.

The cotton market blooms. As more north Georgia farmers begin raising the crop, and because of the city's highly developed transportation system, Rome becomes a cotton center in northwest Georgia and northeast Alabama. By 1873 cotton trade was a major industry. Among the men attracted by the industry was Albert Shorter, who founded Shorter College.

The city is now set for an expansion unlike any city in North Georgia. By 1880 the Nevin Opera House is completed. Long distance telephone arrives the same year. Electric lighting is installed and a new city hall is built. Electric streetcars make their debut in 1885. Unbeknownst to the people of Rome, the stage is set for utter destruction.

1886 photo of Rome, Ga. during a flood
Downtown Rome, Ga. during The Flood of 1886

Nevins Opera House is to the right. Only the top floor of the Rome Area History Museum can be seen above the water to the left. The Nevins Opera House burned in 1919.
Floods were not new to the city at the confluence of the Etowah and Oostanaula Rivers. Seasonal rains begin early in 1886 and are particularly hard, filling the rivers. As the Etowah and Oostanaula begin to rise it is nothing the residents have not seen before. Only this time it is different. At 10 feet above flood stage the rivers are still rising. The Atlanta Journal office downtown loses power and telegraph service. Nevins Opera House is completely flooded and the only way to travel downtown is by boat. Cresting above the twelve-foot mark the streets are so inundated that a steamboat actually travels down Broad Street! Destroying bridges, railroads and buildings, the rising waters have a positive long-term effect. Within a year a tremendous building boom sweeps the city. Industry, including ironworks dot the perimeter, which would help the city during the "Cotton Bust" 30 years hence.

Serving beer above the legal 3.2 limit the bars along Broad Street are closed in 1909. By 1910 speeding cars were the topic of discussion. Debate in the newspaper rages over the automobile and how the wealthy citizens of Rome were speeding through its downtown streets. A police crackdown on the lawbreakers only netted more criticism, this time from some of the town's elite.

Rome's blessing has not only been with abundant resources, but with visionary citizens who shaped the lives of the city, the state, the nation and the world. Working tirelessly with boys from poor families Martha Berry builds the Industrial School. In 1909, Ms. Berry begins her second school, for women, encouraged by President Teddy Roosevelt. On October 8, 1910, the former President graces the educator with a visit and all Rome comes out to see him. Just a few years later Rome again gathers for a more somber occasion and another presidential visit as Woodrow Wilson buries his wife in a grave at Myrtle Hill.

By the 1940's Rome had suffered through the Cotton Bust and Great Depression. The dam at Allatoona had been approved years earlier but delayed by the war. In 1947, with construction having begun on the dam, the last of the great Rome floods swept through the city. With the completion of the dam at Allatoona no longer would the water wreck havoc in the city or throughout the Etowah River Valley.

By the 1950's Rome completes a gradual shift from the railroad to the automobile. Although the Martha Berry Highway (U.S. 27) was built through downtown the high traffic Highway 41 between Atlanta and Chattanooga wove its way further east. Interstate 75, which roughly followed the same route as U.S. 41 also bypassed the city. Time and again talk arises of building a high speed limited access road to Rome, but as of 1997 no project had been started.

Rome today

The population growth that the state of Georgia experienced over the past 20 years has not found its way to Rome. Most of the growth has been in unincorporated areas outside the city limits. From 1986 to 1995 the city annexes land totaling one-third of its present size, reducing the population density from over 1500 people per square mile in 1986 to just over 1000 in 1995

Sources:

A History of Floyd County George Battey
All Roads Lead to Rome Roger D. Aycock
Bobby Mcelwee, Executive director Rome Area History Museum

Directions: From Atlanta take I-75 North to Exit 125, then west on Highway 20
Archives of Floyd County

History of the area around Rome


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