Mayor Mark Mathews stood in front of the new tunnel Thursday afternoon, which gives pedestrians the option of walking under the railroad tracks in downtown historic Kennesaw instead of over them.
The $3 million tunnel, with stone and brick adorning the entrances and metal lining on the interior, stands at 115 feet long and 8 feet tall. The ramps leading into the tunnel are decorated with large replicas of paintings created by the late Wilbur Kurtz that depict the history of the Great Locomotive Chase, which began in Kennesaw during the Civil War.
The story of the chase is written with photos and text on a marble slab in front of each painting, taking residents through a timeline of the chase beginning at the Main Street entrance and ending at the Cherokee Street entrance.
According to one of the templates, Kurtz interviewed the train's conductor, William Fuller, in 1903, and went on to marry his daughter a few years later. Most of the paintings were completed in the 1930s, according to the signatures on the paintings.
For years, pedestrians had to dangerously cross the CSX railroad tracks if they wanted to visit the Southern Museum of Locomotive History and other sites on the eastern side of downtown, and then back over the tracks to visit shops near City Hall.
During the Big Shanty Festival in April, a woman in a motorized scooter was crossing the tracks when a wheel on the scooter became stuck. A train was approaching and five Georgia State Defense Force soldiers working security came to her rescue. For their bravery, the four men and a woman were awarded Medals of Valor.
"It took the state and the city to make CSX understand that if you can't go over the tracks, as they said, then you have to go under them," State Rep. Judy Manning said. "It's been an extremely dangerous intersection. Sometimes the trains go 40, 45 miles per hour, and I looked it up that there are sometimes 100 trains that come through here a day. So something had to be done."
The initiative in Kennesaw started 14 years ago, Manning said, when CSX closed two of its pedestrian crossings in Marietta. Kennesaw residents began vouching for a pedestrian underpass in Kennesaw to alleviate safety concerns, but for many years, CSX did not want to see that happen, Manning said.
"I'm amazed it finally got done. It only took 14 years," Manning said with a laugh.
Mathews acknowledged that the tunnel took much longer to complete than the city's residents had hoped and expected.
"I am the third mayor to have served during this entire project, and we did our final walkthrough on June 29," Mathews said. "It's been quite an undertaking on everyone's part to keep the support and keep this moving forward after all these years."
Mathews said the pedestrian underpass is "built under the busiest section of the CSX network," and that the project still has a few landscaping details to be done and a historic, restored push car to be placed in front of the Main Street entrance.
But, for the most part, it's done. Which is a sigh of relief for Mathews and several other Kennesaw residents and politicians.
"It was well worth the wait," Mathews said.
Also in attendance at Thursday's ribbon cutting were: approximate 40 residents, former Kennesaw Mayor Leonard Church, state Sen. John Wiles, state Rep. Ed Setzler, Cobb school board Chairwoman Lynda Crowder-Eagle, Hiram Mayor Carmen Rollins, and all members of the Kennesaw City Council.