October 24, 2013

A perilous position in Tunnel Hill

Western & Atlantic Depot placed on state endangered site list

Charles Oliver

— Ordinarily, being imperiled isn’t a good thing.

But Tunnel Hill City Manager Blake Griffin said he’s excited that the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation has named the city’s Western & Atlantic Depot as one of its top 10 “Places in Peril” for 2014.

“I hope this will bring some attention to the depot, and help us get some funding to fix it up,” he said.

“Places in Peril” is designed to raise awareness about Georgia’s significant historic, archaeological and cultural resources, including buildings, structures, districts, archaeological sites and cultural landscapes “that are threatened by demolition, neglect, lack of maintenance, inappropriate development or insensitive public policy.”

Griffin said that Ty Snyder, former manager of the visitors center for the Dalton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, played a key role in getting the depot on the list.

The depot dates to the start of the railroad in 1850. It sits just across the railroad tracks from the Tunnel Hill Heritage Center on Oak Street and the battlefield and the historic Clisby Austin House, and it is close to the railroad tunnel itself. The site witnessed many important events during the Civil War: a speech by Jefferson Davis in 1861; the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862; several Civil War skirmishes; and the first headquarters of General Sherman during his Atlanta Campaign.

The General Assembly deeded the property to the city in 2007. It had been used for several decades as part of a feed mill, and it most recently was used in the first few years of the 21st century as part of a recycling business. When that firm went out of business, it left a large amount of debris on the property.

“It was almost two stories high in some places,” Griffin said. “The county public works department hauled all of that away under our service delivery agreement, and they did an outstanding job for us.”

Griffin said city officials would like to repair the depot and develop into a community center.

“We don’t have any concrete plans yet. But we have talked about it being a place where people can have weddings or meetings and receptions, a place where people could watch trains,” he said. “We’d really like to do with it something like the people up in Ringgold have done with their depot.”

 The depot has since fallen even further into disrepair. According to the Georgia Trust, the depot has structural damage including mortar erosion, the lack of an overhanging eave and cracked lintels over the original freight door openings, which are contributing factors to the overall deterioration of the building. The limestone bricks, which were harvested from nearby Chetogetta Mountain, remain in good condition.

The building is currently a part of the Western & Atlantic Railroad Tunnel and Museum Site, but it has yet to be restored and is not open to the public.

Through “Places in Peril,” the Georgia Trust encourages owners and individuals, organizations and communities “to employ proven preservation tools, financial resources and partnerships in order to reclaim, restore and revitalize historic properties that are in peril.”

“This is the Trust’s ninth annual Places in Peril list,” said Mark C. McDonald, president and CEO of the Georgia Trust. “We hope the list will continue to bring preservation action to Georgia’s imperiled historic resources by highlighting 10 representative sites.”

Sites that have been placed on previous years’ lists have included Stilesboro Academy in Bartow County, which received a $25,000 gift in 2013 to restore the exterior; Chattahoochee Park Pavilion in Gainesville, which was restored in 2013; Fort Daniel in Buford, which was purchased by Gwinnett County and leased to the Fort Daniel Foundation who is developing an educational outreach program; the Spencer House in Columbus, which received a $10,000 grant from the Historic Columbus Foundation and community support to finish restoring the exterior; and the Hill House at Andalusia in Milledgeville, which received a Preservation Award for Excellence in Restoration from the Trust in 2013.

Updates on these sites and others can be found at www.georgiatrust.org.