The Zero Mile Post marking the southern terminus of the Western & Atlantic Railroad has finally made its way to Buckhead after 169 years, give or take.
It is on display at the Atlanta History Center after being unceremoniously upended from its rightful place downtown, where the city of Atlanta literally swallowed it to the point it could only be viewed by appointment. It was in the basement of an abandoned building on Central Avenue, part of Underground Atlanta. The state is demolishing the building, and there was no way to protect Atlanta’s most important historic relic during the construction.
It’s been a long journey for the concrete post from 1850 with “W&A R.R. 0 0” inscribed on the side. That’s Western & Atlantic Railroad, zero miles. Around this point, the city of Atlanta grew.
For a brief moment that marker was destined to be in Buckhead, but an amendment by the state Legislature ensured it was not to be.
In 1836, at the bequest of Gov. William Schley, the General Assembly approved the construction of a railroad through the center of the state.
The language was specific:
“From some point on the Tennessee line near the Tennessee River commencing at or near Rossville in the most direct practicable route to some point on the southeastern bank of the Chattahoochee River and which shall be most eligible for the establishment of a branch railroad then to Athens, Madison, Milledgeville, Forsyth and Columbus, and to any other point which may be designated by the engineer or engineers surveying the same as the most proper and practicable.”
Rossville is near Chattanooga in case you, like me, were wondering. The key wording, though, is “some point on the southeastern bank of Chattahoochee River.” The state proposed the southern terminus to be on the bank of the river.
The state hired engineer Stephen Harriman Long of New Hampshire, a mathematics professor at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. His team made six initial recommendations, one being at Montgomery’s ferry.
Maj. James Montgomery first served in the area during the War of 1812 at Fort Gilmer near the Muscogee village of Standing Peachtree. He returned to the Chattahoochee River bank in 1821 and was granted a franchise to operate a ferry on the river. His homestead became a trading post, as he was friendly with the Cherokee, whose nation was on the other side of the Chattahoochee.
Ultimately, Long recommended Montgomery’s ferry in present-day Buckhead above the others because it was “the more economical and favorable, in all respects, and has been fixed upon as the adopted route.”
It has long been my position, and apparently, the position of the state in 1836, that the terminus of the Western & Atlantic Railroad should have been near the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Peachtree Creek in present-day Buckhead.
However, the site did not hold up the latter part of the legislation calling for the railroad to “be most eligible for the establishment of branch railroad then to Athens, Madison, Milledgeville, Forsyth and Columbus.”
That would be a ridge about seven miles away.
According to Franklin Garrett’s book “Atlanta and Environs,” the state Legislature later amended the initial bill so “the Western and Atlanta Railroad shall continue from the southeastern bank of the Chattahoochee River to some point not exceeding eight miles, as shall be the most eligible for running branch roads…”
The Zero Mile Post was never placed at Montgomery’s ferry, but when the engineers completed their initial survey and selected that spot on the southeastern bank of the river, it was considered the terminus, however briefly. That is, until the specific wording for the creation of the railroad was amended.
It has been a long time coming, but the historic post is finally in Buckhead, where it should have been all along.