Saturday, November 5, 2011

All aboard: Northwest Georgia communities market Civil War, trains

Like many residences across the South, the Clisby Austin House in Tunnel Hill, Ga., changed hands during the Civil War.

Men in gray used it as a hospital after the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863. Gen. John Bell Hood, who would later command Confederate forces at the Battle of Atlanta, recuperated here after his leg was amputated at Chickamauga. The limb is buried outside the stately brick home, built in 1848.

The boys in blue occupied the home for a time during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, staff officers and couriers hustling about as Gen. William T. Sherman plotted his next moves.

These days, local governments and tourism officials are hoping this pocket of northwest Georgia will witness another color: The green of tourism dollars.

"Tourism is one of the tools in our tool box," says Ty Snyder, manager of visitors centers at the Dalton Freight Depot and the Tunnel Hill Heritage Center.

This area, rich in railroad and Civil War history, including the only Georgia battle involving U.S. Colored Troops, could use the boost.

With an unemployment rate well above 12 percent, Whitfield County has lost jobs as the once-thriving textile and carpet industry has endured hard times.

The Dalton Convention and Visitors Bureau, which employs Snyder, has increased its Civil War tourism efforts, enhancing billboards and signage on Interstate 75 and U.S. 41.

The area's proximity to Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park also will be a boost during the Civil War sesquicentennial.

The effort, assisted by lodging taxes, is paying off, said Snyder.

Visitor numbers for 2011 (about 3,000) at the Tunnel Hill Heritage Center already are ahead of the 2010 total. October was a particularly strong month, Snyder says.

This year, Snyder became the first full-time manager of the two venues as part of a five-year plan to "reinvigorate" the sites.

The Western and Atlantic railroad ensured that Dalton would be a critical point in the Civil War.

James Andrews and his band of Union raiders unsuccessfully tried to destroy much of the Western and Atlantic as they rushed northward from Atlanta toward Chattanooga, Tenn., during the "Great Locomotive Chase" in 1862.

One of their targets was supposed to be the 1,477-foot tunnel blasted through Chetoogeta Mountain at appropriately named Tunnel Hill, a town 110 miles north of Atlanta.

Two years after the Andrews Raid, Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s forces and Confederate soldiers fought several times around Tunnel Hill during his 1864 campaign to take Atlanta.

An annual re-enactment of the various battles and skirmishes in the area is held in September.

For an affordable $5 ($3 for children 12 and under), visitors can take a guided walk through the tunnel and learn fascinating details of its construction and use.

The Tunnel Hill Heritage Center includes exhibits on the early days of the textile business in the area. Snyder said he is trying "junior tours" to increase interest among children.

"You have to expand your focus," Snyder says.

Until this year, the Clisby Austin House was a private residence. In conjunction with the Tunnel Hill Historical Foundation and the town of Tunnel Hill, weekend tours of the home began this fall. Its grand opening is scheduled for Dec. 3.

The visitors bureau sells a $15 audio driving tour of area Civil War sites. Along with a guide book and map, the tour includes informaton on Dug Gap, Buzzard's Roost Gap and the Battle of Resaca.

The bureau operates another visitors center at the Dalton Freight Depot.

"We are the only place in Georgia, outside of Atlanta, where the Norfolk Southern and CSX rail lines intersect and run side-by-side," it says. "This rare convergence makes Dalton great for train viewing.

The depot includes eight exhibit cases, a webcame and a 1949 Pullman passenger car.

Visitors bureau | • Tunnel Hill Heritage Center
Chickamauga battlefield | • Dalton 150th

Photos courtesy of Dalton Convention and Visitors Bureau

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