Atlanta owes its very existence to the railroads. In 1839, when the city of Savannah was celebrating her 106th anniversary, Atlanta was little more than the dusty crossroads of two old Creek and Cherokee trading roads, one of which still exists today (in more or less its original form) as “Peachtree Street”. There were a handful of trading posts there, and little else.
But that was soon to change, because in 1836 the Georgia legislature had voted to build the Western and Atlantic Railroad to open trade with the Midwest. And in 1837, the future city of Atlanta was chosen to be the site of the line’s depot. A booming city soon grew up around the railroad depot, which proved to be the city’s very lifeline.
But then disaster struck. General Sherman burnt Atlanta to the ground in 1864. Atlanta’s massive railroad depot was, of course, a prime strategic target: just as you always seem to go through Atlanta’s airport when flying these days, back then most goods shipped in the South went through Atlanta, too. And so the Good General made damn sure that it burned to the ground, along with most of the rest of the city.
In the years immediately following the war, Atlanta got by with a few improvised rail depots. But there was never a question that a new depot would be built. And so, in 1869, work began on the Georgia Railroad Freight Depot. Interestingly, for reasons I have yet to learn, the new depot was built in a gully. Remember this, as it will be important later.
The depot did a brisk business. Business was so brisk, in fact, that the area surrounding the depot had become hopelessly congested by the 1910s. There were trains, horses and buggies, pedestrians, and more and more of those newfangled automobiles jockeying for space on Alabama Street. The area became so congested that the city built iron bridges over a few of the streets for automobile traffic.
In the early 1920s, Atlanta architect Haralson Bleckley convinced the city to replace the haphazard iron bridges with a unified system of concrete bridges over all the streets in the area. So instead of Alabama Street having a 5-block long dip in it, the bridges would elevate the road and make it perfectly level. The plan also called for filling in other gaps created by the railroad depot and creating a system of small parks that would connect the new streets for pedestrians. The city approved his plan, and basic construction was completed by the mid 1920s. Unfortunately, none of Beckley’s planned parks were ever built, save one: Plaza Park, which was built in 1943 and later renamed Peachtree Fountains Plaza, which sits at the modern entrance to Underground Atlanta.
One consequence of Bleckley’s plan was that all of the businesses that had been located at the original street level moved up to what was then the second floor. The old storefronts were boarded up and became basement storage. Well, most of them. Some of them became speakeasies during Prohibition. Blues legend Bessie Smith’s “Atlanta Blues” opens with the lines:
Down in Atlanta G.A.
Underneath the viaduct one day
Drinking corn and hollerin’ hoo-ray
Piano playin’ till the break of day
As we all know, Prohibition ended – and with it, the need for speakeasies. And many businesses in the area went under, moved, changed hands, or lost old timers due to retirement. So after a few years, the entire subterranean area – a 12 acre, 5 block stretch of street – was completely forgotten about.
It wasn’t until 1968, during some construction work, that the area was rediscovered. And, like a time capsule, the area proved to be fascinating to local residents. Much of the brickwork, granite archways, cast-iron pilasters, ornate marble, wooden posts and gas streetlamps from a century earlier were found in perfect condition. Even the street trash – gum wrappers and cigarette butts – was completely undisturbed. Many a writer has evoked Pompeii when discussing this find, and it’s not for nothing that they do.
Two young investors named Jack Paterson and Steve Fuller then got the idea of turning the area into an entertainment complex. Since New Orleans was the hot destination at the time, Underground Atlanta would take its cue from the Crescent City. The new complex would feature dinner, dancing and lots of brick and wrought iron. The city readily agreed to the plan, and rubber stamped all the permits, allowing Underground Atlanta to open on April 8, 1969.
At first, Underground was a great success. Bars and restaurants like Dante’s Down the Hatch, Scarlet O’Hara, The Blarney Stone, The Rustler’s Den, The Bank Note and Mulenbrink’s Saloon are legendary with old-school Atlantans. Former governor Lester Maddox – famous for his Pickwick Restaurant, where he drove black customers away with axe handles, and eventually sold out rather than integrate – opened a new version of the Pickwick, complete with a souvenir stand selling mini axe handles and other trinkets. Local newspapers were packed with stories of Gregg Allman, Cher, the Rolling Stones, the cast of The Waltons, and other celebrities hanging out at Underground. It was Atlanta’s Bourbon Street, Rush Street, or Times Square. In the early 1970s, it was the place to be.
Unfortunately, a lot of that had to do with the liquor laws of the time. During the late 1960s, Fulton County (and, in reality, just the city of Atlanta) was the only place in the state where you could buy a mixed drink. And licensing laws required that licensees have a dress code: jackets and ties for men, and similar attire for women. This did help to keep the “riff-raff” out of Underground Atlanta, so John and Mary Suburbanite could walk from bar to bar enjoying exotic mixed drinks with little fear of crime.
But then nearby counties also began allowing “liquor by the drink” sales. Attendance at Underground started to slip. To compete with nearby counties, Fulton County dropped the “dress code clause” of the liquor license agreement. This opened the floodgates for criminals at Underground. Now that people from the suburbs could buy a martini almost anywhere, there was little need to drive all the way downtown. And once a few highly-publicized muggings hit the news… well, that was it for Underground Atlanta. White flight had left Underground for Atlanta’s tourists and conventioneers. The complex struggled along, finally closing in 1980.
In 1989, a group of local investors decided to resurrect the area… only this time they turned it into a sterile, plastic shopping mall. This version of Underground Atlanta is sometimes called “New Underground” to differentiate it from the “old, fun Underground”. Underground still serves as Atlanta’s Times Square: every New Year’s Eve, a giant peach drops at midnight, and every year, thousands come out to watch it. On the rare occasions the city wins something – like the 1996 Olympics or the 1995 World Series – Underground becomes a central rallying point for celebrations.
You can still find echoes of the original Underground sometimes, though. Fans of the short-lived Fox series Vanished might recall a particular scene in the second episode. The FBI and Atlanta police were searching for a Georgia senator’s wife who had been kidnapped by a bunch of “Illuminati” types. They tracked down a bad guy believed to be involved with the kidnapping, who then flees through the city’s sewer and drainage ditches. At some point, the bad guy busts through a wall… and takes off through a turn of the century underground ghost town… just as Underground might have looked back in 1968… or 1922!