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.