History of Downtown

From the Ashes, a Great City Arises

Like its symbol, the legendary phoenix of Egyptian mythology, Atlanta rose from the ashes with renewed strength and beauty. Following the destruction during the Civil War, Atlanta became the mecca of the new South, and today is an exciting international city.

The first people to live in Georgia were prehistoric Indians called Mound Builders. The Cherokee Indians, who settled north and west of the Chattahoochee River, and the Creek, who populated the area south and east of the Chattahoochee, followed them. The state was named after Great Britain's King George II and was the last of the 13 original U.S. colonies.

Atlanta began taking substantive shape in 1837 when the Western & Atlantic Railroad selected the site as the southern end of its tracks. The town was called Terminus until 1843 when it was renamed Marthasville after the daughter of Gov. Wilson Lumpkin. In 1847, the city was renamed Atlanta, supposedly a feminine form of "Atlantic" probably created by an engineer with the Western & Atlantic. The city was incorporated in 1847.

By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Atlanta was a major railroad hub, manufacturing center and supply depot. But in 1864 in order to cripple transportation between the South and the North, Union General William T. Sherman's army burned all of the railroad facilities, almost every business and more than two-thirds of the city's homes to the ground during his infamous "March to the Sea." Atlanta lay in ruins, the only major American city ever destroyed by war.

Atlanta's first resurgence began soon after. Within four years of Sherman's attack, the Georgia capital was moved from Milledgeville to Atlanta and a drive to attract new business was under way. One man, newspaper editor Henry W. Grady, earned much of the credit for coaxing the "brave and beautiful city," as he called it, toward a new economic agenda in a new, reconciled South.

In the meantime, colleges and universities began to open, telephones were introduced and trolleys began to roll. In 1895, the Cotton States and International Exposition in Piedmont Park showed 800,000 visitors and residents that Atlanta was headed in a new direction and braced for the 20th century.

By the late 1920s, a downtown business sector, ringed by residential districts, had taken shape giving Atlanta much of the distinct pattern it maintains today. At the same time, Atlanta Alderman (and later Mayor) William B. Hartsfield campaigned long and hard to convince the city to turn a vacant racetrack into an airport.

While the city continued its economic surge, it also became known as the "City Too Busy to Hate." Atlanta and Georgia pre-empted much of the strife associated with the 1950s and '60s by taking the lead in the Southeast in strengthening minority rights. The city's strongest identification with the movement was through its native son, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but many others played key roles. In 1963, Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr. was the only Southern mayor to testify before Congress in support of the pending Civil Rights Bill. When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, Mayor Allen pleaded for calm. His request was met with anguished, but peaceful, mourning throughout the city.

In 1965, the city built Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium despite the fact that it had not signed any teams to play there. In short order, however, baseball's Braves moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee and the National Football League awarded the city the Falcons expansion team. Hank Aaron hit his historic home run number 715 at the stadium in April 1974.

Much has been accomplished in the last 25 years to elevate Atlanta to world-class status. An efficient public transportation system, MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority), was put in place; Underground Atlanta was added to the entertainment map; the Georgia World Congress Center made the city a convention hub; the Georgia Dome was built in 1992; and Philips Arena was built in 1999.

And decision-makers have taken notice. Atlanta hosted the 1988 Democratic National Convention, Super Bowl XXVIII in 1994, Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000, NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four, the NBA All Star Game in 2003, and the 2003 NCAA Women's Basketball Final Four.

From July 20 through August 4, 1996, the eyes of the world were on Atlanta as the city hosted the Centennial Olympic Games. The city successfully hosted the biggest Olympic games ever, showcasing itself to 2 million people in person and through global broadcast to 3.5 billion people - more than two-thirds of the world's population - thus sharing Atlanta's vision and America's spirit.

The Olympics served as a catalyst for a second resurgence of Atlanta as it dramatically transforms from great American city to greater international city by launching more than $2 billion in new construction projects and other changes.

Courtesy of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau

Guided Walking Tours of Downtown Atlanta's Historic District
Atlanta Preservation Center

Spend the afternoon outside and learn more about the historical and architectural significance of Atlanta's downtown. Each tour takes approximately 90 minutes and has a designated starting point.
404-876-2041 ext. 13