Archaeological investigations of “the Gulch” in downtown Atlanta

Submitted by Dylan Woodliff

Edwards-Pitman Environmental, Inc. (EPEI) and New South Associates (NSA), under contract with HNTB Corporation, recently completed preliminary investigations of the Gulch, a low-lying area of downtown Atlanta long associated with the railroads, in preparation for the planned Georgia MultiModal Passenger Terminal (MMPT). The Georgia MMPT is a massive transportation-related project that will bring together various bus and rail transit services in a centralized Downtown Atlanta location to create, or recreate, a bus and rail terminal for the people of Georgia. Preliminary archaeological investigations conducted by EPEI and NSA consisted of extensive archival background research, soil coring, and a large-scale geophysical survey of the project area. These investigations not only shed light on a fascinating and significant part of Atlanta’s history, but represent the most extensive investigations of their kind in an urban setting in the Southeast.

The Gulch was the site of Atlanta’s first developments, which were linked directly to the pioneer railroads of Georgia in the late 1830s and 1840s. The Western & Atlantic Railroad (W&ARR), the Georgia Railroad (GARR), and the Macon & Western Railroad (M&WRR) came together to form a wye junction in what was essentially wilderness. Atlanta blossomed around its railroad center, giving rise to colorful neighborhoods, businesses, and attractions. The railroads themselves expanded, graced Atlanta with its first examples of permanent formal architecture, and ensured continued growth and prosperity. The effects of the Civil War transformed the character of the Gulch, but rebuilding efforts and the enthusiasm of Atlanta’s inhabitants guaranteed its place as a transportation and commercial hub of the Southeast. Wide-spread adoption of the automobile in the mid-twentieth century led to massive abandonments of passenger rail, which resulted in much of the Gulch being abandoned, the beautiful passenger depots being demolished, and paving of the rail yards for parking lots. The wye junction, however, continues to be used for freight trains moving through the city center.

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Soil coring was used to identify the many building stages of the now level railroad corridors and parking lots that characterize the area. Originally, several ravines and spring heads existed in the Gulch. These terrain features were gradually graded and leveled to accommodate an ever-expanding railroad center. Soil cores indicated that up to 45 feet of fill was used in some areas to level the yard. Coring also identified the oldest man-made terrain feature in Atlanta, the Monroe Embankment, which was constructed in 1838 as the original right-of-way of the M&WRR. Geophysical investigations of the Gulch, consisting of ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey with 400 and 200 MHz antennae identified over 275 anomalies associated with rail features, utilities, platforms, and building foundations related to historical manifestations of the Gulch. These investigations allow us to chart the development of the Gulch as well as the historical trends that shaped Atlanta.

The Georgia MMPT project represents a unique opportunity for Atlanta to reawaken its transportation center. This project is ongoing and a more detailed understanding of this important part of Atlanta history will emerge as the project progresses.