Atlanta without the Western & Atlantic Railroad: The impact of the State Road

It’s hard to imagine Georgia without Atlanta. But, at the dawn of the 19th century, the city did not exist. Georgia’s statehouse was in the tiny hamlet of Louisville, where it remained until 1806, and its power centers included Augusta and Savannah.

That began to change in 1837 when Col. Stephen Harriman Long, the chief engineer of the state-owned Western & Atlantic Railroad, or perhaps one of his colleagues drove a stake into the ground at a point located roughly seven miles east of the Chattahoochee River. The unceremonious happening had far-reaching effects still felt today.

Long and his team had identified the southern end of the line between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Here, the community that grew up around the railroad was initially named Terminus, later renamed Marthasville and, finally, Atlanta.

The story of the Western & Atlantic Railroad is a combination of vision, gumption and engineering fortitude. The workers who built the road between Atlanta and Chattanooga etched a line in the earth that largely remains unmoved to this day. They carved through mountains, crossed rivers and wound a path through North Georgia’s hilly countryside until they built the “crookedest road under the sun,” as Superintendent John W. Lewis called it in the 1860 report.

The Western & Atlantic’s impact on the state of Georgia and the cities and towns between Atlanta and Chattanooga is enormous. The railroad created a lifeline for communities and was vitally important to the South’s War effort. It also helped the Union defeat the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Even today, the line is a backbone for local industries. As Atlanta grapples with its transportation future, it is worth noting that without the Western & Atlantic Railroad, Atlanta would not be the city it is today.

While the state of Georgia still owns the railroad, private companies have leased the line since 1870. Even with many upgrades over the years, the route (mostly) follows the one Long identified more than 180 years ago.

Adapted from my book, Western & Atlantic Railroad. Visit for more information.