Sorry Cobb – Atlanta’s identity is intertwined with our locomotive – ‘the Texas’

By Guest Columnist SHEFFIELD HALE, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center

The Smithsonian scoured its vast collections, resulting in a list of 101 Objects that Made America. The British Museum launched A History of the World in 100 Objects.

It often takes a compilation of artifacts, objects, and images to really capture the historical essence of a nation or a city. In January 2016, even the Atlanta History Center will host its own display of Atlanta in 50 Objects.

But truth be told, if challenged to pick one, we think we could narrow it down to “Atlanta in One Object.” And that one object is the locomotive Texas.

Sheffield Hale

Sheffield Hale

Unlike most other cities in the eastern United States whose locations owe their existence to a river or port, Atlanta was – and still is – a railroad town.

In 1837, the City began simply as the terminus of the Western and Atlantic Railroad (W&A RR), which had been established by the state legislature the year before. The line of the new railroad was set to run between Chattanooga, Tennessee, and a point on the map in north Georgia known only as the Terminus.

The site where engineer and surveyor Stephen H. Long staked the terminus point of the W&A in 1837 was situated where Foundry Street crosses the railroad tracks near the present day Georgia World Congress Center, although it was subsequently moved before the railroad was built. It was from this epicenter that Atlanta grew rapidly, sustained almost entirely by railroad commerce.

As the W&A’s traffic and business grew, the railroad steadily acquired new locomotives. Many of these engines were at the technological forefront – and it was their efficiency and speed that were critical to the line’s early success.

One particular engine, purchased by the W&A from New Jersey locomotive maker Danforth & Cooke in 1856, was the Texas. It was a classic 4-4-0 design (indicating an engine with 4 leading wheels, 4 driving wheels, and 0 trailing wheels) and had a reputation as one of the W&A’s finest machines.

The 4-4-0 locomotive design was so ubiquitous that it was chosen as Atlanta’s first symbol – represented on the City’s first official seal in 1854.

The Texas

The Texas at Atlanta’s W&A yards, 1907. (Source: Atlanta History Center)

The Texas’s long history would also soon be linked to a famous Civil War escapade. On April 12, 1862, Union soldiers – disguised as Confederate civilians – seized another W&A locomotive, the General, from a small depot known as Big Shanty (now Kennesaw). Running the General North toward Chattanooga, the raiders attempted to block or destroy key points along the W&A line, intending to prevent Confederate reinforcements from reaching Chattanooga during the Union’s siege of the City.

After a seven-hour chase, requiring the use of several locomotives, the Texas managed to overtake the General and the raiders. Following the Great Locomotive Chase (also known as the “Andrews’ Raid”), both engines reentered service for the W&A, though after the war only the General would receive acclaim for its involvement in this soon-to-be-historic event.

The Texas continued to haul freight and war materiel, ending the war in Saltville, Virginia, where it serviced the town’s salt mines for the Confederacy.

Meanwhile, the W&A’s obvious importance to the Confederate war effort made Atlanta a prime military target. In the spring and summer of 1864, General William T. Sherman’s Union armies followed the route of the W&A to Atlanta, eventually destroying at least forty percent of the City and wiping out its vital railroads and support infrastructure.

“Since they have been doing so much to destroy us,” Sherman reasoned, “we must destroy them.”

As Atlanta rebuilt itself after the Civil War and became the unofficial capital of the New South, the Texas was a workhorse on the W&A line through the early 1900s. The W&A was privatized by the State of Georgia through a series of leases, eventually leading to its stewardship under the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway (NC&StL).

The Texas

The Texas (Special: Atlanta History Center)

In 1890, the NC&StL renumbered and renamed several of the locomotives on the W&A roster. The aging Texas, by now outclassed by larger and more modern locomotives, became Cincinnati, and was relegated to a branch line in Emerson, Ga., to service a corn mill.

By now the Cincinnati had been upgraded to burn coal instead of wood, and its smokestack, pilot (“cow catcher”), wheels, boiler, and most other parts had long ago worn out and been replaced with newer parts.

Eventually a few history enthusiasts rediscovered the old Texas in Emerson, including Anthony Murphy, a participant in the Great Locomotive Chase, and future Atlanta historian and artist Wilbur G. Kurtz, Sr. In 1903 Kurtz arranged for photographs to be taken of the engine –the last known images of the Texas in service.

In 1907, the NC&StL sent the old locomotive to Atlanta’s W&A yards to be scrapped. Alerted by newspaper reports, Atlantans responded with a nickel-and-dime fundraising campaign and called on State authorities to negotiate with the NC&StL for permission to save the historic engine. Though the NC&StL offered to donate the engine to Georgia to be displayed on the grounds of the capitol building, the State declined to accept it.

An ad-hoc group of citizens – called the “Ladies of Atlanta” – then sent an appeal to railroad officials asking that the Texas be donated to Atlanta instead. The railroad and the Governor of Georgia were receptive and, in February 1908, the City was given ownership of the Texas through the Ladies of Atlanta.

The city seal

Atlanta City Council seal shows “The Texas”

But it was not until 1911 that the badly-rusted locomotive was moved out of the W&A yards to an outdoor shelter at Fort Walker in Grant Park.

In 1921, the City of Atlanta constructed a new brick building intended to house both The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting and the Texas (initial plans had called for the General to be included as well) but the City did not have enough money to move the Texas into the building until 1927.

Here, protected from the elements, the Texas remained untouched until 1936 when the City received funding from the Works Progress Administration to restore the cyclorama painting and add its diorama figures. As part of the team of artists hired for this work, Wilbur Kurtz took the opportunity to restore the Texas to its 1862 appearance, replacing the smokestack and pilot with reproduction parts and re-painting the entire engine.

The Texas was again repainted between 1979 and 1982, when it was temporarily moved out of the Cyclorama building during renovations.

Atlanta logo

United Airlines once marketed Atlanta as a railroad town (Brochure provided by the Atlanta History Center)

Today, of hundreds of locomotives that serviced the W&A Railroad and its successors, only two survive.

The other W&A engine, the General, is exhibited at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw. All others disappeared as they were sold or scrapped over time.

The Great Locomotive Chase was an important moment in the Texas’ history. It’s also why the engine was preserved.

Yet for Atlanta, the Gate City of the South – which owes its foundation to the building of the Western & Atlantic Railroad – the Texas has played an even larger role.

From railroads and highways, to aircraft and the information network, Atlanta is one of the nation’s most important transportation centers. No artifact can be more important for telling the story of Atlanta’s beginnings than the Texas, which served the City and its environs for 51 of the most formative years in the City’s history.

The Texas

The Texas

In 2014, the City of Atlanta entered into a 75-year licensing agreement with the Atlanta History Center to bring both the Cyclorama painting and the Texas to its Buckhead campus.

This fall, the History Center breaks ground on a new 23,035 square-foot expansion to exhibit these and many other related artifacts from its vast collections.

The Texas will be housed in a specially-designed glass structure on the front of the museum building, where the historic locomotive will be visible from the street at all times and lit up at night. Within this structure, exhibits will highlight the Texas’s Civil War history, the story of the W&A Railroad, and the founding of Atlanta as a transportation hub.

A $10 million endowment gifted by Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker ensures that the Texas and the Cyclorama painting are not only exhibited, but preserved and protected for generations to come.

SIDEBAR QUOTE

“Atlanta is the place for the keeping of this engine [The Texas]. The participants in the pursuit of Andrews lived here: the subsequent history of the raiders is indissolubly connected with the town, and Atlanta herself, from the time she left off being Marthasville, owes her present prosperity to the railroads.” — Wilbur G. Kurtz, Sr., 1911

Note to readers from Maria Saporta: July 1 marks the end of an era with the closing of the Atlanta Cyclorama and the Texas locomotive – that will be making their move to the Atlanta History Center. The change of location gave Atlanta’s neighbors to the north (Cobb County) a glimmer of hope that they could kidnap the Texas – just like they did the Atlanta Braves. But when the question came up, the Georgia Properties  Commission asked for a legal opinion from the State Attorney General’s Office, who determined that the Texas is indeed owned by the City of Atlanta. When a city spokeswoman informed Cobb County that the Texas belonged to the city, state Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) had this to say:

“She sounds a little bit like those Yankees did when they stole our train. She’s counting her trains before she gets them on the tracks. I think Cobb County and the Kennesaw Museum of Southern Locomotive History can make a really good case that Conductor William Fuller, if he was looking at this today, he’d be casting a gimlet eye on those folks across the river there. You know, he was the conductor on the Texas, chasing the boys up there, and he’d be looking back and saying ‘hmm.’ What did they call them back then? ‘Scallywags.’”

Please click this link for more information on the whole situation with the Cyclorama and the Texas.

 

5 replies
  1. Wormser Hats says:

    Where was Mr, Ehrhart and his constituency when Scallywags saved the Texas from the scrap-heap? 

    Since it has a history of reverence for nostalgia, Cobb County would do well to heed the 10th Commandment: “Thou shalt not covet.”Report

    Reply
  2. Dowager says:

    I really enjoyed this article. Railroads and locomotives are a fascinating part of our history — especially Atlanta’s — and I’ve been sort of confused until now about the railroad stories described in Mr. Hale’s article.  I still harbor a few sour grapes over the decision to build in aquarium in landlocked Atlanta, when a transportation museum would have been a better choice.  The display of the Texas in the Atlanta History Center is a great step.  Maybe expansion  to include more of the history of transportation in Atlanta is possible.Report

    Reply

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