|Zero Mile Post after its move. (Atlanta History Center)|
A granite post that marked the birth of the city of Atlanta and survived the Civil War has been moved from the location it occupied since 1850 to a museum several miles to the north, sparking criticism by preservation and civic groups.
While the Atlanta History Center and Georgia Building Authority say Friday's relocation will protect Zero Mile Post and better interpret its story, some organizations are unhappy with the agreement, saying the precious landmark should have stayed where it is.
The aged rectangular post, which marked the southeastern terminus of Western & Atlantic Railroad, will be paired at the AHC with the restored 1856 locomotive Texas in a new exhibit about Atlanta’s origin and railroad history. The Texas is famous for its role in the Civil War’s Great Locomotive Chase in April 1862. Opening day is set for Nov. 17.
“It was this railroad that provided the impetus for the beginning and subsequent growth of the city of Atlanta and marks the center of the city from which the Atlanta city limits were measured,” says the National Park Service. The Western & Atlantic was vital for the Confederacy, sending both supplies and troops to the front.
|Post at old location (NPS)|
Maria Saporta, founder of the Saporta Report, wrote in February, “If you want to find Atlanta’s heart – our zero mile post – good luck. It is buried beneath a downtown parking deck in a state-owned building surrounded by chain-link fences in addition to spiked metal bars topped with barbed wires.” (Her column argued that developers in what’s called the Gulch area downtown should have included a multimodal station in their plans. She has since decried the move of the post in a Nov. 5 column.)
Zero Mile Post’s fate became the subject of debate when development plans firmed up and news that two bridges – on Central Avenue and Courtland Street – were tapped for replacement. The GBA said it needed to raze the building so that a parking deck between the bridges would have additional exit and entrance options.
Agency: Artifact needed protecting
“We endeavored to get a lot of different perspectives on what do with the post,” including from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said Morgan Smith-Williams, communications director for the state authority, While the agency said it knew the significance of the marker was its location, protecting the artifact was foremost, she said.
|This building under a bridge enclosed the artifact since the 1980s (Picket photo)|
That’s because of the fear that motorists or pedestrians might damage the Zero Mile Post because it would be much more exposed, said Smith-Williams.
“The original marble marker is fragile -- any outdoor location would expose it to the elements and potential for vandalism, and endanger its survival,” the history center said Monday in a press release.
A replica of Zero Mile Post that has long been at the Atlanta History Center in the Buckhead neighborhood will replace the original. It will be accompanied by a marker with text provided by the Georgia Historical Society, officials said.
|Click Georgia Battlefields Assn. map for wartime spots|
“The marker and replica post will be positioned along sidewalks that will be constructed around the original site, increasing the visibility and awareness of this preserved historic spot on a daily basis, something that could not be done previously,” the AHC said.
It said the use of replicas is commonplace, particularly when fragile items are exposed to the elements. "By doing this, the artifact is preserved, but the historical significance of the location is also acknowledged."
City Council wanted it to stay put
The relocation has faced opposition, including from Atlanta City Council, which in May adopted a resolution calling for Zero Mile Post to stay put.
It said the artifact, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, “is arguably the single most important object relating to the story of Atlanta’s founding.”
The resolution noted that the post “survived the construction of the 1853 Union Depot, Gen. William T. Sherman’s destructive entrance and exit from the City in 1864, the construction of the viaducts in the 1920s, more demolitions and fires, and has remained in the ground since 1850.”
It added that it could have been a draw for visitors once the surrounding, unoccupied building was removed.
|The old marker for Zero Mile Post|
That’s the viewpoint of the Atlanta Preservation Center, which has Zero Mile Post on its endangered list. The group argues the downtown street grid grew around the marker and railroad lines.
David Mitchell, director of operations for the group, said news of the move Monday was a dark day for preservation. “It is always better to leave things in their original location.”
“I would have liked to have seen further conversation to whatever alternatives could have been provided,” he told the Picket. “This belongs to the city of Atlanta and its citizens and no singular entity has governance over what belongs to the general public.”
Mitchell said engineering students at Georgia Tech could have helped come up with a plan to protect the original post once it was out in the open. Many other monuments are exposed to the elements, he said.
“The stone has been there for 150 years. It is 5 inches wide by 7 feet tall. You are telling me this is thwarting a multimillion project?”
In a newsletter during the summer, the Georgia Battlefields Association noted: “We’re confident the post will be preserved, but where it will be preserved is uncertain. Its significance derives from its location, which adds to the complexity of the issue.”
Smith-Williams, the spokesperson for the Georgia Building Authority, said the replica will be in the same location, but will be “more sturdy and weatherproof than the original.”
A second replica will be placed near by the Georgia Railroad Freight Depot, she said. The arrangement with the AHC is a five-year lease.
“I think this is a win-win for Georgians,” Smith-Williams said. “The original historic artifact is with the authority that is best-suited to preserve it.”
The history center said it will be a good steward of the “irreplaceable artifact” of Atlanta’s railroad history.
“Positioning the Zero Mile Post beside the recently restored Texas locomotive, one of the two remaining Western & Atlantic locomotives [the other being the General] that would have passed by that very mile post scores of times during its service offers valuable interpretive possibilities, AHC President and CEO Sheffield Hale said in a statement. "Railroads build and created Atlanta, and these two objects tell Atlanta's origin story like no others."
Kyle Kessler, community program manager for the Center for Civic Innovation in Atlanta, called the move a “major disappointment.”
He quoted the National Park Service by saying, “Moving a property destroys the relationships between the property and its surroundings and destroys association with historic events and persons.” The move threatens the status of the post on the National Register, he added.
Kessler said the “clandestine operation” came before adequate input from agencies and the public.
Many of those who commented Monday on the AHC’s Facebook page, which showed a video of the marker being pulled into the Texas gallery, were critical of the move, saying there should have been more discussion. “Happy for you guys, but really disappointed in Atlanta and how they protect history. Other states don’t do it this way,” one commenter wrote.Others were more supportive.
Markers like Zero Mile Post informed train crews where they were along a route. One side of this marker is engraved with "W&A RR OO" – the W & A indicating the Western & Atlantic Railroad and the double-zero designating the beginning of the rail line. The other side of the marker is engraved “W&A RR 138.”
When removed from the ground, entirely exposed, the 800-pound marker measures 7 feet 5 inches, and weighs approximately 800 pounds. That is how the Atlanta History Center will display it, as opposed to 42 inches exposed in its old location.
The center said the Solomon Luckie lamppost will be in an adjacent gallery, adding to the story of the city's early history. Luckie, a free African-American, was killed during Union shelling of the city in summer 1864.