Just Gulch Things

This is the main area of the gulch, the biggest open-to-the-sky piece of ground in downtown Atlanta. As you can see it is currently a parking lot.

This area is directly in the middle of the triangle formed by the railroads at the center of Atlanta. In former times this would have been a tangle of yard tracks.

You would never know it but this is also on the Eastern Continental Divide.

Lots of people have ideas about what to do with this space. The Multimodal Passenger Terminal, if ever built, would use this space. There are also various plans to built elevated parks/plazas over the top of all this, up at the level where the viaducts run.

As it is, this space serves the city mainly as a place for tailgating during Falcons games.

These next are some pictures of the area between the Spring and Forsyth viaducts. Fairlie street runs into this parking lot from the north and ends. Cars frequently turn down Fairlie and then turn around once they realize it doesn’t go anywhere.

The two sets of tracks that split here form two sides of the “triangle”. This is one of the vertices. It is the only one that has a grade crossing that is still open to cars in modern times directly at the point of the triangle. It is also much simpler than the other corners, there being only two tracks here that have not been abandoned.

Formerly this was the location of Union Station, and the trackage would have been more complex. You can see unused rails in the dirt.

This connection called “circle Jubction” is the current mile zero of  CSX’s Western and Alantic subdivision. The historical “zero milepost” is located slightly east inside a building. I believe it was the post that moved, not the railroad.

Another notable thing, you can actually drive beside trains for a few blocks through the underground parking decks to the east of here, without having to pay to park. You would be driving (I think) on the original alignment of Wall Street (with the modern street directly overhead) and you will pass under the intersection with Peachtree. You should try that once before they do something to mess it up.

About that “air line” thing


In the days before air travel air line was a common term for the shortest distance between two points: a straight line drawn through the air (or on a map), ignoring natural obstacles. Hence, a number of 19th century railroads used air line in their titles to suggest that their routes were shorter than those of competing roads.

The Seaboard never owned an airplane. In 1940 the railroad proposed the creation of “Seaboard Airlines,” but this idea was struck down by the Interstate Commerce Commission as violating federal anti-trust legislation.

During a spate of interest in aviation shares on Wall Street following Charles A. Lindbergh‘s trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, Seaboard Air Line shares actually attracted some investor curiosity because of the name’s aviation-related connotations; only after noticing that Seaboard Air Line was actually a railroad did investors lose interest.[2]

The CSX Abbeville sub (Tucker, Lilburn, etc) is the major remaining Seaboard line in the Atlanta area. The line west of Atlanta became the Silver Comet Trail.

Some of the “belt” lines were built as main lines

From this history of the Georgia, Carolina & Northern Railway:

Organized in December, 1886 to build a rail line from Monroe, N.C., near Charlotte, to Atlanta, the GC&N began construction in North Carolina in 1887. The line was completed to a connection with the Georgia Railroad at Inman Park on the east side of Atlanta in 1892.

Ok so it sounds like the original route of what eventually became the CSX Abbeville subdivision was the line that is now considered the “Inman Park belt”, rather than the current main line that runs from Emory to Howells yard. Hmm. That’s actually a shorter route. Why did they change it?

Because an injunction stopped the new line from entering the city of Atlanta from the east, the GC&N was forced to construct the Seaboard Air Line Belt Railroad in 1892. This eight-mile line branched off the GC&N at Belt Jct. (near Emory University) and ran west to a connection with the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway at Howells. By use of trackage rights over the NC&StL, GC&N trains were able to enter Atlanta despite the injunction.

Shenanigans! I don’t know what this “injunction” was, whether it was the work of competitors or of what you’d now call NIMBYs, but it looks like we have legal entanglements to thank for the current layout.

Now it gets even more interesting when considering Norfolk Southern and its predecessors. This 1872 map shows the Atlanta & Richmond Air-Line Railway, the earliest predecessor to NS’s Piedmont division line, connecting to the Georgia as well! That is, the line that is now the Atlanta BeltLine east-side trail was also the main line of its original railroad. The line around the north to connect to Howells seems to have been built later. (It is shown on the 1895 topographic map)

Incidentally, I don’t know that the “Atlanta and Richmond Air-Line” or its reorganized form “Atlanta and Charlotte Air-Line” ever had any association with the better known Seaboard Air-Line. I doubt it, but it seems to have been using the “air-line” name before the more famous road.

Atlanta’s bridge to nowhere

The Bankhead avenue bridge once carried US 78 over the railroad tracks. Now it stops abruptly in mid air.

Both NS and CSX pass under here. This set of tracks running parallel to Marietta street between about the King Plow center and the Georgia World Congress Center is a major funnel of train activity, and certainly was already in 1912 when this bridge was built. You can see why they would want to put a bridge over it.

Here are some photos taken on the approach to and on the bridge itself. These were taken a few weeks ago.

This is an older photo of the end of the bridge, clearly taken at a different time of year. As you can see, it just kind of.. stops. There is nothing to prevent you from just walking off the end of it.

I’m surprised you never see news stories about homeless people falling off of it.

The bridge and tracks under it can easily be observed from the Northside Drive bridge slightly to the north. This is not a bad place to stand waiting for trains, if you can find a place to park. I actually went to the bakery cafe at the corner of Northside and Marietta and bought something so I wouldn’t feel guilty about parking there.

I also went down under the thing to trackside level, to get pictures of trains going under it.

Just to give an idea of train frequency here. The three trains shown were 10 and 5 minutes apart. It had been about 30 minutes since the previous train which was leaving just as I arrived. I would expect this pattern to hold at most times of day.

Eastern Continental Divide (probably not the last you’re going to see of it here)

Atlanta was not built at a natural seaport (like Savannah) or at the head of navigation of a major river (like Macon and Augusta). Atlanta is near the Chattahoochee river, but is not actually centered on it, and is also much too far upstream for steamship navigation.

No, Atlanta was built as a railroad junction. You probably knew that. But what you may not know is that some of the oldest railroad lines, and some of the oldest roads, were built on top of the Eastern Continental Divide. This is the boundary that divides the rivers that drain to the Gulf of Mexico from those that drain eastward to the Atlantic.

There are good reasons why roads and railroads would be built on top of a natural watershed boundary. They avoid they need for bridges over streams, since by definitions the boundary lies between all the streams. They avoid low, swampy areas where early roads would get bogged down. The ridge can provide a relatively consistent elevation at the expense of being a bit twisty. “Ridgeways” have been in use worldwide for a long time. There is a trail in England called The Ridgeway which is over 5000 years old.

The ECD is not much remarked upon in Atlanta, mostly because it is a very gentle boundary. Atlanta is not mountainous. The ECD twists around through gently rolling hills. Because so many roads were built near it, you can drive through the city on it, and you get no sense of being on top of any kind of ridge. So most people don’t actually know it even exists, much less where it runs.

It is supposed to be a common belief that Peachtree Street runs along the ECD, but this is only true of a short section which was formerly called Whitehall Street. The main portion of Peachtree Street has little to do with the ECD.

I could not resist taking the 1895 topo map and adding a red line that vaguely approximates the ECD.  The map gives a mostly unobstructed view of the contours and streams, so the divide almost jumps out on its own. Click on this thumbnail to get the whole map.


So many towns are centered on this invisible line. Jonesboro, Morrow, Hapeville, East Point, Atlanta, Decatur, Clarkston, Tucker, Norcross.

As you can see on the full map, the divide is actually not that far from the Chattahoochee. In fact you can see all the way from one side of the Chattahoochee’s drainage area to the other on this map.

This image from Wikipedia shows the entire Chattahoochee, Flint, and Apalachicola river system. The yellow area is that drained by these rivers.

Notice how narrow this drainage area is upstream from Atlanta. That is our water supply. All of the city’s (and several surrounding counties’) water comes from rain that falls on that small yellow area. This is why Atlanta’s water supply is threatened by drought every few years.

1895 map of Atlanta and surrounding areas

Another gem from the USGS store.

This thumbnail shows the long-abandoned Roswell Branch of the Southern Railway where it joins the main line in Chamblee. Click to get a much larger map covering a much larger area.

Notice that most of the Chattahoochee are still ferries on this map, rather than bridges. Holcomb Ferry is located more or less where Holcomb Bridge road is now, and so are the others.

The Eastern Continental Divide is rather easier to see on this map than on a modern map, if you know where to look.