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The Railroad Gulch is Atlanta’s Dry Riverbed

This guest post comes from Jeff Morrison, an Atlanta architect who operates the popular Unseen Underground walking tours of Downtown’s historic sites. He is the author of the forthcoming Atlanta Underground: History from Below (Globe Pequot Press, December 2019).

Atlanta is, in many ways, a city of gaps. The urban fabric is plagued by discontinuities large and small that prevent it from thriving as a healthy, cohesive whole.

In the mid-twentieth century, aging building stock was razed rather than being renovated or replaced, and acres of surface parking took its place. Interstate freeways obliterated entire neighborhoods, and barricaded others. Other menacing gaps include sports stadiums, corporate plazas, windowless megastructures, and empty blocks left fallow where crumbling housing projects have been cleared away. Against this decay, the city struggles to hold itself together.

The Gulch on a game day
The Gulch on a game day

The area known as the Gulch is one such gap, but it is not an empty hole. It is still an active railroad junction with long freight trains regularly thundering through. It teems with life on game days, blanketed with boisterous tailgaters. And it resonates with a history and significance that predates the city itself. Not merely an empty void, it is a particular place which has always been integral to the vitality of the city, though not particularly hospitable to inhabit.

It is not so much a hole that needs to be filled, as it is a wound in need of suture. This is a location fundamental to the creation and sustenance of our city, but in its current neglected state, it is one of our most challenging gaps. This is our own dry riverbed. Where other cities have leveraged their rivers as a resource to revitalize adjacent historic and industrial districts, we are left with the Gulch and the lingering question of what to do with it.

Crossing the river

Atlanta has always had a peculiar relationship to its river. The Chattahoochee is roughly eight miles from downtown, awkwardly distant, and even now that the metropolis has expanded well beyond its banks, it remains overlooked and underutilized. Atlanta breaks the pattern of most cities before it, which traditionally were established at seaports or river landings.

Even at Chattanooga, our sister at the other end of the Western & Atlantic Railroad, it was Ross Landing on the Tennessee River that was the destination for the railroad, the obvious nexus of commerce and transportation. At this end of the railroad, however, the Chattahoochee River was viewed from the start only as an obstacle to be crossed. The Western & Atlantic’s achievement was in bridging across the Chattahoochee, continuing past it, and then meeting up with two other railroads from across the state.

Like the Chattahoochee, the Tennessee River is interrupted periodically by rocky shoals. In the nineteenth century, paddle-wheeled steamboats were hauled in to Chattanooga to operate over a portion of the river, until eventually the system of locks and dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority enabled continuous navigation. The Chattahoochee, being shallower and more frequently blocked by shoals, is entirely un-navigable above the Fall Line at Columbus, and has never been of any use for transportation. (It is only ironic coincidence that Fulton County is named after Robert Fulton, the American inventor of the steamboat.)

Nevertheless, local waterways played a significant role in the early settlement of the region. Fort Peachtree, the first government presence in the area, was built in 1814 on the promontory of land at the confluence of Peachtree Creek and the Chattahoochee River (now the site of a pumping station for the Atlanta Water Works). The first wagon roads were cut through the wilderness leading to places built along creeks and rivers, such as mills, or to places conducive to crossing by ferry, bridge or ford. Those roads were given names still familiar to us today, like Paces Ferry, Moore’s Mill, Holcomb Bridge, and Rocky Ford.

1892 birdseye map of Atlanta
1892 birdseye map of Atlanta

By the time of the Civil War, stationary steam engines had replaced water wheels as the source of powering mills and factories, so being located near a railroad or a town became more important than being near a body of water. The impressive water-powered New Manchester mill on Sweetwater Creek, southwest of Atlanta, produced cotton for Confederate uniforms until it was destroyed during the Atlanta Campaign. After the war, the entire mill town of was abandoned as obsolete, and has since reverted to forest around the ruins of the brick mill.

In more typical waterfront cities like Chattanooga, the business district developed along the water’s edge, the point of arrival and departure for people as well as goods. Factories and rail yards lined the banks to gain access to the river. Through the course of the twentieth century, the dependence upon rivers for shipping and transportation was largely replaced by railroads, which in turn gradually gave way to interstate freeways and air travel.

A dry riverbed for Atlanta

The general decline of heavy industries left massive industrial sites abandoned and decaying along polluted waterways that were neglected and inaccessible. Thankfully, many cities eventually rediscovered their waterfronts as an asset. Water pollution was addressed, banks were cleaned up, and brownfield sites were restored. Previously overgrown in-between spaces were developed as pockets of nature preserve and park space that reestablished access to the river for recreation and views. In Chattanooga, as in other cities, the adjacent historic downtown was given new life, offering density and character that paired with the natural amenity of the river.

In Atlanta, the business district grew tightly on either side of the rail junction, for proximity to the passenger and freight depots. The tracks were lined with warehouses and railroad facilities, an incinerator and a pair of enormous coal-gas storage tanks. Where other cities built bridges across their rivers, Atlanta built bridges across the increasingly dense rail yards in the center of town, in an effort to stitch together the busy streets on either side. As the tracks multiplied, more bridges were built, eventually creating an elevated street grid with an “underground” network of storefronts hidden below. The no-man’s land of railroad tracks that the elevated streets looked down upon, now utterly disconnected from the every-day city street life, came to be known as the “Railroad Gulch”. In time, the passenger stations were demolished, freight operations moved elsewhere, and most of the tracks were pulled up, all to be covered with fields of asphalt parking.

1960 aerial of the Gulch
1960 aerial of the Gulch

The area was never literally a gulch, but it did originally have more topography, including the upper headwaters of Proctor Creek. Low-lying terrain was incrementally filled in to accommodate expansion of the railroad yards. Natural streams were replaced by storm drains and underground pipes. As was common throughout Downtown, these were typically combined with sewer drainage, essentially converting the network of natural creeks into the city sewer system. Only recently has the city been going to great lengths to separate the two again. In the Old Fourth Ward, Clear Creek was daylighted from its underground culverts and became the centerpiece of a park now surrounded by unprecedented development.

The Gulch is our dry riverbed. But despite the parallels, it cannot be rejuvenated in the same way. Other cities have had railroad yards in the center of town, and some dealt with them in similar fashion, but most also had rivers. We have tried inserting new attractions into it: two or three versions of Underground Atlanta, the Omni Complex (which originally housed an ice skating rink and an indoor amusement park), a sprawling convention center, two football stadiums, and arenas for basketball and two departed ice hockey teams. But none of these could adequately fill the gap. They either didn’t generate enough sustained activity, or were not meaningfully connected to the rest of Downtown, or they required most of the Gulch to remain as parking to support them.

Aerial photo of the Gulch in the mid-20th century
Aerial photo of the Gulch in the mid-20th century

In addition to the “underground” shops along Alabama Street, the nearby blocks of South Downtown are filled with historic commercial buildings that are only recently beginning to be renovated, including one of our most overlooked historic districts, Hotel Row. Isolated by the Gulch, these resources have awaited investment decades longer than other historic downtowns.

If Atlanta has been accused of having no “there” there, then this is the “there” that isn’t there. Whether it is seen as an opportunity or a hole, there are many who recognize that this is at the heart of our city. This dry riverbed can somehow be nurtured back to life as a vital asset to the city. But if not as a river, then as what? It is more than just another brownfield site, like Atlantic Station, where the toxic residue of the past is sealed underground by a four-foot thick concrete cap. It will not be sufficient to fill it with layers of concrete parking and spread a grid of anonymous mid-rise buildings across the top. We must come to know this as a place with history and memory and identity. It can only be brought back to life if we understand something about who we are and what makes us unique.

What the Gulch could become

Nearby, Bellwood Quarry is a literal hole in the ground of immense proportions. The abandoned quarry is being filled with water to create a reservoir for drinking water, and the surrounding left-over post-industrial space is becoming an instant waterfront park. It has amused some to imagine the Gulch, or even the Downtown Connector, being flooded to create a vast new water feature for the city. But if it is to be redeveloped, the Gulch must be much more than that. It is an opportunity to define a place, to make it what we idealistically want to be. It could be a place that acknowledges its history, and explores the unique layering of the viaducts. It could be an integration of public city streets that celebrate the distinctive geometries of the railroad wye.

Locomotives headed into Terminal Station, in the Gulch
Locomotives headed into Terminal Station, in the Gulch

It could be a neighborhood that reaches out to South Downtown, Five Points, Castleberry Hill, Vine City, the stadiums and Georgia World Congress Center, Georgia State University, Marietta Street, and the government district. It could be a community comprised of a diversity of people, jobs, and incomes, with buildings with a diversity of use, character, and ownership, in scales both grand and human. It can include a new passenger rail terminal, once again becoming a destination for thousands of daily commuters. It can be honest and inspiring, a generator, a focus, a real place, and a community.

As our motto “Resurgens” suggests, Atlanta is a city of transformation and rebirth. The Gulch is no longer an obstacle to be overcome. It is an opportunity to be embraced, a door to be opened. This is not a pothole to be filled with more concrete. It is an opening to become whatever we can dream up. Dream big, Atlanta.