Sunday, September 23, 2007

Back to the Past, Part III

Before I started this blog, I used to have a Livejournal account. Recently I was looking over it and I've decided to post a few of my old posts here, on what I think will become a more lasting place for my thoughts. Last February, I had the chance to come wander across a long deserted Civil War battlefield in rural North Georgia. It was awe-inspiring to tour the battlefield and a few nearby bits of infrastructure. One of those appears to the left: the Western and Atlantic Railroad. Today the rail line is leased by CSX and here you can see the rails bending off into the Allatoona Mountains. Back in February I posted twice (because it was late and I wanted to go to sleep) about my trip to Allatoona, hence "Part III." Anyway, below is my old post, followed by some pictures which were not originally included.
It's not often that you discover a bit of history in your own back yard. I mean, really discover something unexpected. I have always been a history buff, and as such, I am constantly searching for some morsel of the past. Over the years, I came to learn quite a bit about the history of my little community. So I have a general idea of what is out there to be found. But last week, I stumbled upon a piece of Georgia history that I had always believed to be submerged beneath the waters of time.

Last Thursday brought me to the base of Allatoona Dam. I had been meaning to get out there and see it from the bottom for a long time now. It is a masterpiece of civil engineering-indeed it was the first Army Corps of Engineer's lake project in the Southeastern United States. The body of water that this dam created flooded the valleys of the Etowah River and Allatoona Creek. My hometown, Canton, was about 25 miles upriver along the Etowah channel, at the point where the unruly river meets the still, muddy waters of Allatoona Lake.

I have always wondered about the Cherokee County I never had the opportunity to get to know. In many places, I have been able to go out and uncover remnants of the way things were in generations past and vestiges of a future that never was to be. But there is one place that I have never been able to look.

For as long as I can remember, I was told that the reservoir downstream from Canton was named for a town that was flooded when the Etowah was impounded. And from what I understood of Georgia history, so was the site of the Civil War battle that took place around the town.

I suppose it is a bit ironic that one of the very reasons for the importance of the settlement of Allatoona was the same reason for its later demise.

Millions of years ago, during the time of the formation of the Appalachians, a small chain of mountains was pushed up along what is known today as the Cartersville Escarpment. This north-south range, called the Allatoona Mountains, provided a formidable barrier to east-west travel across this section of North Georgia. The mighty Etowah cut a steep gorge through these mountains as it flowed from its origin at Hightower Gap to its confluence in Rome. These rocky hills served as the site of an engineering marvel many years ago. In the 1840s, the State of Georgia was constructing a railway to connect the Tennessee and Chattahoochee Rivers. The northern endpoint of this railway, Chattanooga, opened up the Georgia wilderness south of the Cherokee nation to development; and the settlement on the southern end of the track was a testament to the potential that this railroad gave the state. Perhaps it is fitting that the city took its name from the railroad--Atlanta certainly shows the power of transportation in creating a city, even today.

At any rate, as the Western and Atlantic Railway began its serpentine journey through the Georgia woodland, it too had to penetrate these mountains. The railway workers achieved this by cutting a 360 foot long gap, 180 feet deep at its highest point, through the mountains. Even today, the sight of this man-made pass is astonishing. Sheer rock cliffs tower over the railroad bed, the top of the slope is as high as a twenty story building.

Less than a month after the fall of Atlanta, on October 5th, 1864, Confederate forces attempted to retake the gap from Federal hands in order to cut off Sherman's only supply line to the rest of the Union. This battle demonstrated another great irony of these mountains. Only a few years before this bloody battle, in April of 1862, Union troops under the command of James Andrews roared through this gap aboard the stolen locomotive General while they attempted to destroy the railroad link between Atlanta and Chattanooga.

In both cases, the rairoad stood the test of battle. It was a link that wouldn't be severed. Yet today, the gap does not echo with the sounds of steel on steel. It proved battleworthy, but didn't stand up to the test of time.

Today, the trains sound only as a distant rumble. In 1946, the tracks were relocated as part of the Corps of Engineers project which would flood parts of the little town of Allatoona, Ga. This project buried hundreds of years worth of Native American settlements and even American settlements under thousands of cubic yards of Lake Allatoona. Impoundment of the Etowah River, Little River, and Allatoona Creek was completed in 1950, and by that time, the Western and Atlantic had been relocated, its old embankment had been raised to form a dam to hold back the muddy lake water.

Yet just yards from the lapping waves, this cut through solid rock stands, an engineering marvel. These walls ran red with blood in one of the bloodiest battles of the Atlanta Campaign. A campaign which brought war to the citizenry in Sherman's infamous Scorched Earth strategy. It was a war that pitted brother against brother, father against son, man against man. It was a battle fought to make a difference in a war whose main outcome was being the bloodiest war in America's history; and whose only real cause was stubbornness.

It is a stubbornness which continues today unabated in the Southland. How many more cliffs must run red before brother can live with brother? Father with son? Man with man?

The blue waters show no hint of sorrow; the relentless, pounding surf can do little to cleanse America's conscience of her guilt.

It seems that as the wind whistles through the cut, the sounds of notes on a page filter through: "How many times must the cannonballs fly before they are forever banned?"
As you can see from my ending, I was feeling a bit dismayed at the tendency of Southerners to support the Iraq War and war in general. Those words, best sung by Joan Baez, really touch me. So much in fact, that I put them on the sign I made to take to the war protest last weekend in Washington. I suppose it's a bit ironic that she also sang "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."

Above is where my journey began in earnest back in February. In the distance, you can see the new W&A bridge over the Etowah River Valley, constructed in 1946 as part of the creation of the Allatoona Lake.

The moon hangs under this close-up of one of the railroad bridge's piers.

Allatoona Dam, the first Army Corps of Engineers impoundment project in the Southeast. This shot is from the north side, looking across the gorge.

Turning to my right, you can see a wonderful vista downstream as the Etowah winds westward. At the bottom of the picture, you can see an old iron furnace. It used to be the centerpiece of the town of Etowah, Georgia until the town (and it's railroad spur) was destroyed by Sherman's troops in 1864.

Epitomizing the "New South," Plant Bowen stands on the horizon powering the economy. The Georgia Power facility is almost 12 miles distant from where this photo was taken. In 2006 it ranked 3rd in the United States for power generation, adding well over 22 million MWh to the power grid.

It seems to look smaller from the bottom, but I wouldn't want to be down here if those floodgates were open.

And, finally, the famous Allatoona Pass. It is man made, although I believe Alfred Nobel might have helped a bit. The Civil War fortifications are in surprisingly good shape. The town's railroad station would have stood just behind me, along with the rest of the town.

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