Atlanta BeltLine (and Belt Lines)

The Ormewood depot, built on the A&WP Belt Line around 1930.

The Atlanta BeltLine is a comprehensive redevelopment and transportation project focused on the 22 miles of mostly abandoned rail corridors encircling downtown Atlanta. The project uses the name Atlanta BeltLine, with belt line as a single word, which helps to distinguish it from the historic Atlanta belt lines discussed here.

Built by several different railroad companies between 1871 and 1908, the
22 miles of rail lines include former main line segments, various belt line connections, and, on the north side of town, still-active mainline tracks. While collectively these lines do form a circle around downtown Atlanta, there was not a single belt line company that owned or operated the whole (although one was proposed in 1899).

The oldest segment of the BeltLine, now called the Eastside Trail, was built not as belt trackage but as part of the mainline of the Atlanta & Richmond Air-Line Railway, which was completed in 1871-73. This railroad became the Atlanta & Charlotte Air-Line in 1877 and Southern Railway in 1894. Some old maps show the segment as the "Decatur Street Belt" or the "Southern Railway Belt." (See northside map.)

Southern Railway bridge over Ponce de Leon Avenue, 2012

Southern Railway bridge over Ponce de Leon Avenue, constructed in 1906.

The first line to be constructed as a belt line came in 1883. This was the 3.3-mile connection between the then-new Georgia Pacific Railway at Howell and the Atlanta & Charlotte Air-Line at Belt Junction.* (Labeled on the map below as Belt Line R.R.).

On this ca. 1895 map, Peachtree Street/Road is shown running up the middle. The area labeled Exposition is now Piedmont Park. Ponce de Leon Ave. is in the lower right corner.

The next belt line to arrive on the scene was the 8-mile Seaboard Air-Line Belt Railway, which was a connection between Howell and a point on the Georgia Carolina & Northern Railway (later merged into Seaboard) that was also called, confusingly, Belt Junction.* Chartered July 22,1892 and opened in March 1893, it made a long arc across the northern part of the city. Along its western section it ran parallel to, and north of, the earlier Georgia Pacific belt line. (See northside map.)

A belt line on the southeast side of town came with the 1899 organization of the Atlanta Belt Railway Company. The project had been started earlier by the Atlanta & West Point Railroad, which had made a survey for a 6-mile line from a point on its main line near East Point to a point on the Georgia Railroad on the east side of Atlanta near Inman Park (see A&WP Belt map). The A&WP had purchased about one-half of the right of way at a cost of $39,455 before a restraining order stopped the project. To complete the line it was necessary to incorporate the Atlanta Belt Railway Company as an independent company.

At the time it was reported that the company had a larger goal in mind:

"In the interest of the Atlanta & West Point, the Atlanta Belt Railway Company has applied for a charter to build a belt line about 30 miles long, beginning at or near Howell Station, on the northwest of the city of Atlanta, on the Western & Atlantic, Southern and the Seaboard Air Line railroads, and proceeding southerly and easterly around the city in Fulton County, and partly in De Kalb County, to or near a station on the line of the Georgia Railroad, known as Clifton; thence northerly and westerly further around the city, until it reaches the point of beginning." (Railway Age, September 22, 1899).

As it turned out, the 5.5-mile line from the A&WP mainline to Inman Park was the only trackage built by the Atlanta Belt Railway Company. It was completed in 1900 and then leased to the A&WP.

The final belt line was on the west side of town. It was initiated by the Central of Georgia, which in 1899 was reported to have secured 7.2 miles of right of way from East Point north to a connection with the Western & Atlantic at Howell. Other railroad companies were involved including the Louisville & Nashville which had a half-interest in the lease of the Georgia Railroad (at the time the Central possessed the other half) and the A&WP, which was controlled by the Georgia.

The strongest party in this arrangement was the L&N, which was intent on entering Atlanta as part of a new route from Cincinnati. Meanwhile, the Central was on its way out of the picture. In his History of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, Maury Klein summarized the events:

"In February, 1898, he (L&N president Milton H. Smith) managed to obtain the Central’s half of the Georgia Railroad lease by paying that hard-pressed company’s share of the rental. The Central promptly brought suit to regain its rights as co-lessee but lost the decision. Smith did not want sole possession of the lease (and its annual deficit) as much as he wanted to eliminate the Central’s negative attitude from the Georgia’s management. In August, 1899, the L&N sold half interest in the lease to the more reliable Atlantic Coast Line."

Although the L&N could exert significant influence over the other three railroads, it could not easily control Georgia’s legislature, which viewed it as a potential threat to the value of the state-owned Western & Atlantic. An L&N incursion into Atlanta and northern Georgia might compete with the W&A, especially as the two railroads neared Atlanta. For this reason, it was perhaps preferable that the Central, not the L&N, start the process of building a belt line on the west side of Atlanta. Besides, the Central was a Georgia-based enterprise while the L&N was not.

L&N had some advantages, specifically the Georgia Railroad lease and a significant interest in the A&WP. But these two railroads were on the east and the south sides of Atlanta, and the L&N would probably have to approach the city from the northwest (the W&A’s territory).

As part of its strategy to enter Atlanta, L&N acquired the Atlanta Knoxville & Northern Railway, which extended from Knoxville to Marietta, by stock purchase in 1902. For the Marietta-Atlanta link, the AK&N acquired trackage rights on the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway, which had leased the Western & Atlantic. L&N owned a majority of the NC&StL’s stock, which certainly helped in getting the desired rights. Lastly, L&N acquired $200,000 in Atlanta Belt stock, which would help it get around the southeast side of the city to a connection with the Georgia Railroad.

By 1904, the various parts of the plan came together. The west side belt line was constructed by the AK&N, and the following year L&N trains began running into the city. (See westside map.)

Also in 1904, the Southern Belt Railway Company was incorporated to build a rail line about three miles long on the north and west sides of downtown Atlanta to connect Southern Railway lines entering the city. The new Terminal Station was under construction at the time, making improvement of existing rail corridors leading to it a priority. One result of this activity was the discontinuance of passenger service along the original northeast mainline which became known as the Southern belt line (today's Eastside Trail).

Above, the Railroad Commission of Georgia mileage listings for Southern Railway's Atlanta belt lines, from 1907 and 1909. The top box (1907) indicates the belt line as a 3-mile route on the north side of town; the bottom box (1909) indicates the Atlanta Belt as a 6-mile route on the east side. The earlier belt line became the mainline, while the old mainline became a belt line. (Walker's Mill was on Clear Creek next to present-day Piedmont Park.)

The former Southern Railway Belt Line east of Piedmont Park, April 2012.

One final link in the Atlanta BeltLine corridor needs to be mentioned: the main line built by the Atlanta, Birmingham & Atlantic in 1908. Because it was the last railroad to enter the already developed city, the AB&A had to follow a convoluted route that approached town from the west, then turned north to make an inverted U before entering downtown. A short part of the top of that U has been included in the BeltLine’s planning. (See AB&A map.)

See also: Atlanta BeltLine Trails.

* There were two places on the north side called Belt Junction. The western Belt Junction was at a place later to become Armour Yard, near present-day Monroe Drive. The eastern Belt Junction is just north of the intersection of Clairmont and North Decatur roads. Georgia's Railroad History & Heritage. © Steve Storey.

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