Atlanta's Railroad Gulch

Atlanta's railroad gulch in 1871

Called "The Gulch" because its elevated streets cross over a sea of parking lots and railroad tracks, creating a canyon-like appearance within the cityscape, this area has long been the center of railroad operations in Atlanta. In fact, it dates back to the city's earliest history when the Western & Atlantic Railroad, the Georgia Railroad, and the Macon & Western Railroad came together at a place first called Terminus.

The converging rail lines formed a large triangle of land on the northwest side of what was then a small community, and from there a corridor of tracks extended southeast to the passenger depot at Pryor Street and Loyd Street (Central Avenue) and beyond.

The east side of the triangle was the first to be laid out. Initially it was decided that the Georgia Railroad and the W&A would come together at a point near the north end of what would later become the triangle (approximately where CNN Center is now). Expecting this, the Monroe Railroad (predecessor of the Macon & Western) arranged for the construction of an embankment leading to the agreed-upon point; it was completed in 1840 or 1841, forming the west side of the triangle. Unfortunately for the Monroe Railroad, the first terminus site was said by some to be unsuitable, and the W&A moved it eastward to the place that later became the block bounded by Pryor, Alabama Wall, and Loyd streets.

Finding that it had incurred an unnecessary expense in building a line to the wrong place, the Monroe Railroad protested, but to no avail. In 1846, the Monroe's successor, the Macon & Western, constructed a new southerly connection to the W&A, completing the third side of the triangle.

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Western & Atlantic Railroad depot and roundhouse during Civil War

This 1864 image shows the Macon & Western tracks in the foreground and the Western & Atlantic tracks mostly out of sight to the right. The view is to the northwest from a point near present-day Forsyth Street. On the right is the W&A freight depot and beyond it the W&A roundhouse. At the time the area to the left of the roundhouse was something of a true gulch.
(Library of Congress)

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Macon & Western Railroad roundhouse

Looking west, probably from the W&A freight depot, this 1864 photo shows the M&W tracks that formed the south side of the railroad triangle. The M&W roundhouse is at right center. Today this area is covered with parking lots, both at ground level and elevated. (Library of Congress)

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By the time of the Civil War, only one bridge, an 1853 wooden structure at Broad Street, crossed the tracks in the business district. Others were added over the decades including bridges at Forsyth Street (1891), Peachtree-Whitehall Street (1901), and Courtland-Washington Street (1909). The culmination came in 1929 when Pryor Street, Central Avenue, and Wall Street were elevated, creating what would later be called Underground Atlanta.

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Railroad tracks in downtown Atlanta before viaducts, view towards Peachtree Street, Pryor Street, and Union Depot

The railroad corridor in downtown Atlanta in the 1880s. The view is from the Broad Street bridge looking towards the Peachtree Street crossing, the Pryor Street crossing, and Union Depot. (New York Public Library)

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Pryor Street in Atlanta, ca. 1880

Looking west on Pryor Street, ca. 1880. The mansard-roofed building on the right is the first Kimball House hotel. Just beyond it are the railroad tracks where part of the fan-lighted arch window of Union Depot can be seen on the left side of the street. (New York Public Library)

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Peachtree Street railroad crossing before bridge was constructed

Peachtree Street rail crossing ca. 1880. The view is to the north towards Five Points. Horse car tracks can be seen crossing the train tracks.
(New York Public Library)

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Broad Street bridge over railroad tracks in Atlanta

Bridge over the tracks at Broad Street, ca. 1880. The view is towards Marietta Street. (New York Public Library)

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Forsyth Street in Atlanta before the tracks were bridged

The Forsyth Street crossing ca. 1880. A half century later the city's third Union Station would be constructed over the tracks on the right side of the image. The view is towards the southwest. (New York Public Library)

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To the northwest, at the railroad triangle, the first bridges were built at the corners: at Nelson Street (pre-1872), Forsyth Street (1891), Mitchell Street (1899), Peters Street (1904), and Magnolia Street [now Andrew Young International Boulevard] (1905-06).

In 1882 the railroad triangle expanded to the west when the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railroad came to town. It ran alongside Elliott Street between Simpson Street on the north and Nelson Street on the south. Because the tracks on the old Monroe Railroad embankment remained in place, the result was a rail triangle within a triangle.

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Stylized 1902 illustration of Atlanta's railroad gulch depicting new viaduct

The opening of the Peachtree-Whitehall Street viaduct in 1901 prompted this heavily stylized illustration for the cover of a city-booster booklet. (From: E. Y. Clarke, Atlanta; Greatest City of the Great South ... Facts and Official Figures, 1902, online at Internet Archive.)

 

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Peachtree Arcade, ca. 1917

The Peachtree Arcade, a 3-level block-long shopping mall, sat on the Gulch's edge at the Peachtree Street viaduct from 1917 until 1964 when it was replaced by a 41-story office tower. Apparently the Gulch (lower left) was considered too ugly to include in the scene, so it was painted out.

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Courtland-Washington Street viaduct, Atlanta

The 1909 viaduct linking Washington and Courtland streets crossed the tracks and bisected the Louisville & Nashville Railroad freight depot.

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The construction of Terminal Station at the southwest corner of the Gulch in 1905 brought a network of tracks for passenger trains; this was expanded in 1930 when Atlanta's third Union Station was built above the tracks at the southeast corner of the triangle at Forsyth Street. The two stations were connected by the Spring Street viaduct built in 1923 alongside the eastern edge of the triangle. (This viaduct, recently rebuilt, is now part of Ted Turner Drive.)

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Aerial view of Atlanta's railroad gulch in 1933

The southeast corner of the railroad triangle in 1933. The view is to the north. Union Station, then three years old, faces Forsyth Street at an angle. A short viaduct connects the station to the Spring Street viaduct which passes over the Central of Georgia freight depot on the left and the Seaboard freight depot at right center. Marietta Street runs along the right edge of the photo, and Terminal Station is out of view to the left.

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Two new viaducts were constructed in 1961-62 as Hunter Street and Techwood Drive were extended over the heart of the triangle, meeting on the west side of the tracks. (Hunter Street is now Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and Techwood Drive is now Centennial Olympic Park Drive.) A newspaper article at the time noted that "Business interests and planners expect the air space over the rail yards to be developed in the future into vast, new commercial districts. Federal money has been made available to study the feasibility of such an expansion."

By the end of the decade an elevated 2-level parking structure called The Decks had been built on air rights near the northern corner of the gulch. It lead the way for an adjacent sports arena called The Omni, completed in 1972, and an office-hotel-commercial structure known as Omni International, which opened in 1976. On the north side of The Omni a large convention facility called the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) also opened in 1976. The Omni was later demolished and replaced by another arena on the same site, and Omni International was renamed CNN Center.

After the demolition of Terminal and Union stations in the early 1970s, most of the former train yard was given over to surface parking lots. At the northern corner the convention center expanded to the west side of the tracks (the former ETV&G tracks still pass between two GWCC buildings) and later the Georgia World Congress Center Authority built two sports stadiums, in 1992 and 2017, on the west side of the Gulch.

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Site of 1930 Union Station in Atlanta, 2005 photo

The southeast corner of the railroad triangle looking to the southeast, ca. 2005. Here the rails join before passing under the Forsyth Street viaduct. MARTA's Five Points station is on the right. The 1930 Union Station stood here until it was torn down in 1972.

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Today a plan to construct a large office-commercial-residential complex inside the railroad triangle is being debated. If built it would create new streets at the level of the existing viaducts, effectively burying the old landscape below, much as was done at Underground Atlanta in 1929.

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Maps and Aerial Photos:

The Gulch in the 1850s

The Gulch in 1871

The Gulch in 1892

The Gulch in 1919

The Gulch in 1930

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More:

Six viaducts at the Gulch, c. 1907

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Suggested Reading:

David H. Steinberg and the Southeastern Railway Museum. When Atlanta Took the Train. Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2018.

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See Also:

Atlanta Depots

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