Every day, the urban landscape tells the stories of its past. The trouble is, we often don’t recognize that a story is being told. Traces of the Past is a new column that aims to illuminate some of those stories.
The latest big thing downtown is the Atlanta Streetcar—except it’s really nothing new at all. Atlanta began as a transportation town and has stayed that way, from its origins as a railroad terminus to its present-day status as the site of the world’s busiest airport. And for a nearly 80-year period smack in the middle of Atlanta’s history (1871-1949), streetcars were a mode of transportation that not only moved people through the city, but also shaped urban development and the built environment.
The Atlanta Streetcar will run from Centennial Olympic Park through the Georgia State University campus and to the King Historic District, a total distance of just under three miles. The route lends itself well to streetcar use, with broad avenues and an absence of hard 90-degree turns—characteristics that exist because streetcars previously ran along these rights of way. In fact, as workers on the Atlanta Streetcar Project currently excavate the downtown streets, they are turning up old rails from previous systems, long since paved over.
Atlanta’s first streetcar system made its debut in 1871. The Atlanta Street Railway Company operated a mule-drawn trolley line from downtown to the suburb of West End (then a separate town). Ten years later, the company was operating six lines on eleven miles of track. During the 1880s and 1890s, several other street railroad companies formed, expanding their lines in all directions and bringing new development with them. Some of the streetcars were converted to run on steam “dummy” engines during this period. In 1889, businessman Joel Hurt introduced the first electric streetcar, as part of his new line from Five Points to his speculative development east of the city: Inman Park. During the next decade, Hurt was instrumental in consolidating the various competing streetcar companies into his Atlanta Consolidated Street Railway Company and electrifying the 54 total miles of line.
The late 19th century was a time when upwardly mobile families sought to move away from the increasingly dangerous and polluted city; accordingly, “country living” in the suburbs was promoted for its health and moral benefits, and the new technology of streetcars made this bucolic dream a reality for many in the upper middle classes. Real estate speculators were often owners or interest holders in street railway companies, a fact that remains with us in the form of street and neighborhood names. A sampling of established streets in southeast Atlanta reveals the monikers of former streetcar company owners: Haas, McPherson, and Patterson in East Atlanta; Underwood in Ormewood Park; Arkwright in Edgewood. Inman Park, a neighborhood that owes its very existence to the streetcar (Edgewood Avenue was constructed to carry a streetcar line to the new suburb), is named after the co-owner of the firm that developed it, Samuel M. Inman.
For the first quarter of the twentieth century, and into the second quarter, streetcar travel was de rigeur for Atlantans. After electrification, service expanded exponentially into a spiderweb of 200 miles of line—a rider could go practically anywhere. So what happened to the streetcar in the past 75 years that caused its disappearance? A slow decline in ridership—as the automobile began to gain popularity in the 1930s—led to increased operating expenses and decreased service, until finally Atlanta’s last streetcar officially went out of service in 1949. One by one, the lines were ripped up or, more often, paved over or adaptively used, leaving behind their imprint on the built environment—which, as time marched on, became indecipherable to generations familiar only with automobile travel, now scratching their heads at seeming “weirdness” in the landscape.
Some dead giveaways to the likelihood of former streetcar presence: broad streets that curve (often seemingly for no reason) instead of turn at 90-degree angles; divided streetscapes with a grassy median separating two lanes of traffic (often with one lane at higher grade than the other); small commercial strips like those found in Candler Park or Oakhurst; metal or wood utility poles attached to nothing; “flatiron” shaped buildings, like the one that now houses Rocky Mountain Pizza near the Georgia Tech campus, or the unassuming little buildings in between the two sides of Flat Shoals Avenue north of Memorial Drive.
In the decades since the streetcar’s demise, the former rights-of-way are now adapted into the landscape through both elegant and awkward examples. Perhaps the best-known reuse, the Trolley Barn in Inman Park now hosts weddings and corporate events in a space where electric streetcars were once repaired. The PATH Trail that runs from Kirkwood through Decatur and out to Stone Mountain follows a former streetcar line; it hugs Woodbine Avenue’s discomfited divided streetscape around Coan Park and Gilliam Park. In the Ormewood Square shopping center, the former streetcar line is now a bumpy back entrance to the parking lot from Gilbert Avenue—but the presence of a neighbor’s privacy fence at an angle, a glance at the tax assessor’s GIS map or even a Google Maps image, reveals the ghostly imprint of the former line running from the “clipped” Jiffy Grocery building (on the corner of Moreland and Ormewood), through the parking lot and out to broad, curving Delaware Avenue. A seldom-used entrance to the Glenwood Park mixed-used development emerges on Moreland Avenue, its other end obscured by kudzu and an aging chain-link fence on the other side of I-20, the construction of which obliterated this stretch of 1880s streetcar right-of-way. And naturally, buildings formerly associated with the operation of streetcar lines have been adapted for residential, office, and commercial use: The lofts across from Parkside Elementary School and the King Plow Arts Center are just two examples.
A three mile circuit in downtown Atlanta in the early 21st century: some would call it a start. And it is. But consider that in 1914, 200 miles of streetcar line traversed the metropolitan area: south to College Park, Hapeville, and Lakewood; northwest to the Marietta; northeast to Chamblee; east to Decatur, Clarkston, and Stone Mountain; west to Washington Park and Westview; and north to Buckhead and Brookhaven. Countless intown neighborhoods were connected: Virginia Highland, Midtown, East Lake, Grant Park, Ormewood Park, East Atlanta, Castleberry Hill, Edgewood, Kirkwood… the list goes on. Streetcars served Georgia Tech, Morehouse, Spelman, Emory, and Agnes Scott. In the saga of adaptive use, from rails-to-trails (PATH Foundation) to rails-to… another kind of rail (the BeltLine), one can’t help but wonder if we’re devoting considerable resources to reinventing the wheel, or maybe the steel girder. A core mantra of preservation is that the best use for a historic structure is the same use it’s always had—for example, a historic house is rehabilitated and continues its function as a single-family home. A historic school continues to serve its community in education. It is difficult to argue the benefits offered by community amenities such as trails and greenspace, but if we can’t learn lessons about the scalability of intown transportation without building networks of highways, are we stuck paying for our hasty neglect of urban infrastructure by rebuilding and rebranding it all?
Amber Rhea is a student in the Master of Heritage Preservation program at Georgia State University, hoping to parlay her lifelong love of old buildings into a career. She is interested in things most people find mundane or annoying, like urban infrastructure and traffic flow. In a previous life, she was a web developer, blogger, podcaster, and conference organizer. She was responsible for PodCamp Atlanta in 2007 and Sex 2.0 in 2008, and co-hosted the award-winning podcast “Mostly ITP” from 2006-2009. Amber grew up in Augusta and used to bad-mouth Atlanta, then ate her words after landing here in 2004 and realizing there was nowhere else she wanted to be.
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