For a town built on raw power and hubris, Atlanta has remained true to her roots, philosophically anyway.
Physically, however, there is little evidence of the roaring iron horses that forged the Gate City of the South out of nothing.
The raw power is the steam engines and the steel tracks. Railroads transformed America and the world with speed and versatility in the mid-1800s, nowhere more so than Atlanta.
The reality the city is an economic development project by the state of Georgia is the hubris. The government bought the land and mapped out the route for the railroad connecting, according to state law, “Athens, Madison, Milledgeville, Forsyth and Columbus, and any other point which may designated by the engineer ...” to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The city didn’t sprout from a thriving settlement. It came into being out of a desire for growth and all the trappings that come with it.
The city emerged around the Zero Mile Post, marking the southern terminus of the Western & Atlantic Railroad. It has since been moved from its original spot in the basement of an abandoned building on Central Avenue in downtown Atlanta and is on display at the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead. It is a stout concrete post from 1850 with “W&A R.R. 0 0” inscribed on the side — Western & Atlantic Railroad, zero miles.
At least the Zero Mile Post still exists. In the 1970s city leaders demolished the two stations that served the city for decades.
The earliest of these was Union Station, which was just west of Five Points in downtown. The old Union Depot went back to the city’s founding in 1845, serving the Georgia, Macon & Western, Western & Atlanta and Atlanta & West Point railroads.
Demolished and rebuilt several times, the station’s most recent iteration was completed in 1930 and demolished in 1972. The construction of Underground Atlanta and the Five Points MARTA Station destroyed the remainder of the original site.
The ornate Terminal Station was the grander — and busier passenger-wise — of the two. The Thornton Marye-designed building opened in 1905. The Spanish-inspired station featured terracotta roofs, open, arched breezeways and soaring towers. Terminal Station, too, came down in 1972; the land beneath it is currently the site of the Richard Russell Federal Building on The Gulch.
The Gulch is a tangle of rail lines through the heart of downtown and a good reminder of why the city raised its streets in the 1920s. It remains mostly out of sight. Soon enough it will be swallowed whole beneath a $5 billion mini-city project called Centennial Yards.
That leaves the Peachtree Station, better known as Brookwood Station, as the lone visible reminder in its original location of Atlanta’s steam-driven past. The Italian Renaissance-style brick building has stood at the corner of Peachtree and Deering roads for 102 years.
It is a through station, which means passengers don’t have to cross any tracks to get to their train. There is little parking and there are only two places you can go: New Orleans or New York, with a lot of stops in between. There are ticket windows, wooden plank benches and a small garden that looks out on the connector. A staircase leads down to the tracks and the train.
The building itself is among the more unique in Atlanta. The station was a suburban commuter hub and an alternative to Terminal Station.
Designed by the architectural firm of Hentz, Reid and Adler, the facade has three large Palladian-style windows bordered by brick pillars. Across the top of the building, the words “Peachtree,” “Southern Ry” and “Station” are engraved in classical style.
It stands alone: The last train station in metro Atlanta.
Despite being placed on the National Register of Historic Places list in 1976, the building was on the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2012 Places in Peril list. But a quick search of the Atlanta Preservation Center’s website turns up nothing. For the time being, the few trains will keep stopping there twice a day. But we ought to worry about this little gem.
It is an ironic symbol — handsome and tiny in tony Buckhead, the last functioning vestige of the ego and potency that created Atlanta out of nothing.