While we celebrate the beginning of a new year, it is a good time to remember the beginnings of our town. The railroad responsible for the formation of Kennesaw nearly caused its destruction.
The Erie Canal opened in New York to much fanfare in 1825. Built by the state, the canal brought a wave of economic prosperity to New York City. Other states took notice and began their own public works projects. Many of these projects were canals, but they also included a new technology: the railroad.
Unfortunately for many states, neither canals nor railroads could cross the Appalachian Mountains. With most of the state south
of the mountains, Georgia did not have this disadvantage, and capitalized on it.
On Dec. 21, 1836, Georgia authorized the construction of the Western and Atlantic Railroad. Owned by the state, it would start south of the Chattahoochee River and end at Ross’s Landing (in present-day Chattanooga). Trains could travel from northern states to Augusta or Savannah, then travel west to the railroad’s southern terminus, and finally travel north along the Western and Atlantic to the other side of the mountains. This turned the railroad into the heart of the South’s railroad network.
Col. Stephen Harriman Long was tasked with surveying the new route, which follows a similar path through North Georgia as today’s Interstate 75. The site chosen for the southern terminus was conveniently named Terminus, which eventually became Marthasville, and
later was renamed Atlanta. Construction began on the railroad in 1838, and by 1845 it had reached Marietta.
As construction progressed north, a community of shanties was founded at the highest point between the Chattahoochee and Etowah rivers. The small community was called the Big Shanty Grade. This later was shortened to Big Shanty. According to some accounts, the name was the brainchild of a railroad worker named Jacob Russell. Workers from Big Shanty helped build the “State Road” — as the railroad commonly had been called since 1840 — for the remainder of the railroad’s construction. Big Shanty and Atlanta would not be the only rail communities founded. Acworth, Smyrna, Cartersville, Adairsville, Calhoun, Resaca, Dalton and Ringgold all owe their existence to the railroad.
The Western and Atlantic opened to Chattanooga in 1847, but construction continued until 1850. After it was completed, locomotive engineers realized that heading up from the Chattahoochee River and Etowah River proved difficult in the morning, because of dew on
the tracks. A place was needed to rest overnight at the high point between the rivers, which happened to be Big Shanty. In 1859, the Big Shanty Eating House was constructed, so trains could stay in the community overnight. It later was managed by George Lacy, and it commonly is referred to as the Lacy Hotel.
At the start of the Civil War, the State Road became busier than ever, and its strategic location made it especially important. Because of the railroad, a Confederate training camp named Camp McDonald was established in Big Shanty, and visitors came from across the state to see the soldiers training. On April 12, 1862, Union soldiers led by civilian spy James J. Andrews stole the General locomotive in Big Shanty and attempted to destroy the railroad. The Andrews Raiders were not successful, and their daring saga later became known as the Great Locomotive Chase. The event gave Big Shanty national recognition.
As the Union Army made its way through Georgia in 1864, the importance of the railroad was recognized by both sides. Gen. William T. Sherman ordered that all of the towns along the Western and Atlantic between Big Shanty and Atlanta be destroyed, so that the enemy could not return to the area. Ironically, the railroad had created Big Shanty, and it was the railroad that caused its destruction.
After the war, the rebuilding of Big Shanty began, and the community was incorporated as Kennesaw in 1887. The railroad remains an important centerpiece of Kennesaw today. The Western and Atlantic, now leased to CSX, still runs through the heart of downtown Kennesaw. The city and the railroad have been linked together, for better or worse, for more than 175 years.
– Andrew Bramlett is vice president of the Kennesaw Historical Society and an honorary member of the Kennesaw Cemetery Preservation Commission.