The Western & Atlantic Railroad, the serpentine trunk line connecting Chattanooga and Atlanta, was created by an act of the Georgia General Assembly on December 21, 1836. The road’s chief engineer, Colonel Stephen Harriman Long, selected a site on the southeast bank of the Chattahoochee River as the southern end point for the W&A, driving a stake in the ground and giving the place the unimaginative name Terminus. The settlement that grew up around that point, christened Marthasville in 1843 in honor of the daughter of former Georgia Governor Wilson Lumpkin, would soon outgrow its name and adopt the grander moniker of Atlanta.
Colonel Long laid out a twisting, 138- mile route for the road through the rocky hills of north Georgia to the banks of the Tennessee River, with more than 10,000 total degrees of curvatures. The railroad’s superintendent in his 1860 annual report proudly called the Western & Atlantic “the crookedest road under the sun.” Construction proceeded throughout the 1840s. At the time of Lieutenant William T. Sherman’s visit to north Georgia in 1844, the road was graded for much of its length, but the first 22-mile stretch would not open until 1845. The W&A was completed and the two growing depot towns were linked on May 9, 1850, when a 1,447- foot tunnel—the first railroad tunnel in the South—was opened at Tunnel Hill near Dalton. The new railroad was dedicated with several bottles of Madeira wine and a generous sprinkle of water said to be from the River Jordan.
The W&A had been fully operational for just over a decade when the Civil War began, and it soon became the stage for some of the most dramatic railroad episodes and military actions of the war. On April 12, 1862, a group of Ohio soldiers under Federal spy James J. Andrews stole a locomotive called The General at a station north of Atlanta in an effort to cut off Chattanooga from supply and reinforcements and leave the town defenseless to approaching Union troops. Dogged pursuit led by The General’s conductor, William A. Fuller, thwarted the plan, resulting in the execution of Andrews and seven others. The event would be known ever after as “The Great Locomotive Chase.”
Two years later, Union soldiers traveled on the W&A in the other direction.The road served as the logistical lifeline for Maj. Gen. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign as his 100,000-man army made its drive into the Deep South. The Federals used the W&A as a critical supply line to support their relentless southward advance until, during the March to the Sea, they began destroying the state’s railroads and other infrastructure, fulfilling Sherman’s promise to “make Georgia howl.”
The railroad line follows almost the same path today as it did when it was constructed in the 1840s. The street grid on the southwestern side of downtown Atlanta retains its awkward diagonal slant, parallel to the railroad tracks. Northward the line winds across the Chattahoochee and past historical markers commemorating the same landmarks Sherman’s men marched past in 1864, including Vinings Station, Marietta, Kennesaw Mountain and Allatoona.
Years after the war, Sherman emphasized that the railroad itself played a crucial role in the invasion of Georgia. “[T]he Atlanta Campaign of 1864 would have been impossible without this road,” he wrote in an 1886 letter, “and the Western & Atlantic Railroad of Georgia should be the pride of every true American because by reason of its existence the Union was saved.”
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.