Atlanta’s zero milepost belongs at Atlanta’s zero mile mark

By Maria Saporta

It’s just plain wrong.

Atlanta’s zero milepost has been moved seven miles away from its foundation near Underground Atlanta where it has been since the 1850s identifying the origins of our city.

The relocation of our zero milepost to the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead feels as though Atlanta’s history has been uprooted. It adds to that all-too-familiar feeling in Atlanta – that our history is transient and that we keep disconnecting history from its physical past.

zero mile post

Atlanta’s Zero Milepost when it was housed in a building underneath Central Avenue (Special: the National Parks Service photo by Jody Cook)

On Oct. 25 and 26, the Atlanta History Center got a fork lift that moved the seven-foot long zero milepost (most of it anchored underground) from a small building underneath Central Avenue next to the railroad lines that created Atlanta and shipped it to West Paces Ferry Road – far away from any of our historic rail lines.

As soon as I heard the news, I emailed my displeasure to Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center.

To his credit, Hale called me right away. We had a heated discussion about how the Center, charged with treasuring Atlanta’s history, had moved the city’s zero milepost far away from its origins – a place where a town once called “Terminus” was born because of the junction of three different rail lines.

Hale tried to explain that the zero milepost would be protected in its new home and that the Atlanta History Center had given the State of Georgia a replica of the zero mile marker to be placed in Atlanta’s heart.

His arguments failed to convince me. But he did give me hope when he said the State of Georgia retains ownership of the zero milepost. The Atlanta History Center has a five-year renewable license agreement to display the marker in Buckhead.

Steve Stancil, the state properties officer who also is executive director of the Georgia Building Authority, insisted on retaining ownership.

Archives Steve Stancil

Cristal and Steve Stancil at the implosion of the Georgia Archives building in March 2017. (Photo by Maria Saporta)

In a phone interview Saturday morning, Stancil admitted he had reservations about moving the zero milepost.

“The Georgia Building Authority still owns the marker,” Stancil said. “We gave them a license agreement. It can be revoked or canceled at any time, and we can move it back to its original position.”

Stancil said he complained “heavily” to his staff about having to move the marker, hoping to keep it in downtown Atlanta. But he couldn’t come up with another good option that would make the zero milepost available to the public.

The eminent rebuilding of Central Avenue meant the state needed to build a new underground exit for its parking garage. And the best spot for that exit was through the small building that housed the marker. The demolition of the building would have left the zero milepost unprotected.

The building dates back several decades to when the state ran the New Georgia Railroad, a tourist train that had a couple of options, including one from downtown to Stone Mountain. When the New Georgia Railroad went out of business, the building that housed the marker “sort of got locked up down there and forgotten,” Stancil said.  “Nobody could see it.”

Stancil said he studied the various options, including moving it to a warehouse until it could get a new home. But it would not have been open to the public. The Authority considered moving it to the Georgia Freight Depot, but Stancil said there would have been few opportunities for public viewing.

zero mile post building

The inaccessible building that used to house Atlanta’s zero mile post (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Then the Georgia Building Authority was approached by Tommy Hills, a former state treasurer, who presented the option of moving the zero mile post to the History Center. There it would be displayed with the historic Texas locomotive in front of the renovated Cyclorama exhibit.

“It was not a knee-jerk decision,” Stancil said. “Our best option was the History Center option More people will see it there than any other place. And it will be very well preserved.”

But if Stancil has his way, the move would be temporary.

“Personally, I didn’t want to move it,” Stancil said. “I would love for it to come back.”

Ideally, Stancil said the marker would be relocated to the city’s actual zero mile mark, where it could be displayed in an interpretive center with a small theater and historic memorabilia – a place where Atlanta’s history could come to life.

Stancil estimated that such a facility might cost between $500,000 to $750,000. “One day when the funds are there, hopefully we can move it back to where it was,” he said.

Ironically, after being ignored for decades, that part of downtown is now a hot spot for redevelopment. Underground Atlanta is being redeveloped by South Carolina-based WRS, and Los Angeles-based CIM is proposing to redevelop the Gulch next to State Farm Arena.

zero mile post

Another view of the building that housed Atlanta’s zero milepost. The building will be demolished. (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“We have not closed any options with this,” Stancil said. “We retained ownership, and we can bring it back. I would not agree to sell it to the History Center or give it to them.”

Instead, Stancil would like to see the zero milepost included as a destination in either the Underground or Gulch project.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Atlanta History Center actually participated in the effort to reunite the zero mile marker with its historic foundation? After all, the Center could create a lot of good will if it were to have a base in downtown Atlanta. Most city museums around the world are located in the historic centers of their cities.

Meanwhile, Stancil said he was aware by the grassroots efforts by people who fought to keep the zero milepost where it belongs.

“I hate people being upset because I think it will brought back and done right,” Stancil said. “I did the best I could to preserve it, and to keep our options open.”

Let’s hope the Atlanta History Center – working with the city, the state and downtown developers – will right this wrong.

YouTube zero milepost

An image from a YouTube video of Atlanta’s zero milepost when it was in the building underneath Central Avenue (Special: YouTube)

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

8 replies
  1. Greg Hodges says:

    Maria is correct….this historical benchmark belongs precisely where it had been since it was first laid down so long ago. It was the very epicenter of today’s great city and metropolitan region…..return it to its rightful home in five years.Report

    Reply
  2. Chris Johnston says:

    The History Center is the third location for the marker. The original location was about a mile north of the downtown location. See “Atlanta and Environs, volume 1” by Franklin Garrett.Report

    Reply
  3. Jean L Spencer says:

    No, that is a common misunderstanding. The location for the terminus of the Western & Atlantic Railroad moved from 1837 to 1842, but the Zero Mile Post (placed in 1850) had never moved from the final location chosen in 1842.Report

    Reply
  4. Jean L Spencer says:

    This is the problem with making decisions in a silo. Without public hearings and public comment, without consulting more than one organization dedicated to preservation or downtown Atlanta, there is little chance of fresh ideas and creative solutions. Why do three guys in a room get to decide this? And it’s not as if development plans are written in stone, unlike the marker.Report

    Reply
  5. Matt says:

    99.9% of people in metro Atlanta would have no idea what you’re talking about if you ask them about the Zero Mile Post. That’s the fault of the GBA, city, and state that goes back decades since the failure of the New Georgia Railroad. Think about it…ignoring such a landmark…it was probably the last relic from 1850 to have never been moved…ignoring it for decades led to this decision. At least people will be able to see it at the AHC…I tend to agree…and once the area downtown redevelops, the AHC would be foolish to not open a downtown branch centered around the Post in its accurate location.Report

    Reply

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