by Jim Hodgson
Digital cameras have fundamentally changed childhoods. Anyone can look on Facebook and see it. My entire feed is pages upon pages of photos of kids.
My family has maybe only two photos of my grandfather, who was born in the 20s, as a child. There were a few more of my mom and dad, who were born in ’49 and ’47 respectively, because cameras had gotten a little cheaper and more widespread by then. There are still more of my sister and myself, both born in the 70s, even if they’re now a little yellower than when they were first taken.
My sister’s kids, though, who are only a few years old, are photographed dozens of times a day. As they should be, of course, being the two cutest nieces ever to walk the Earth, but I can’t help but marvel at it. They won’t just have albums of a few childhood photos to be embarrassed by later in life. They will have an unfathomable myriad.
But there’s more than that. Thanks to GPS chips in phones, cameras, and other devices, the girls won’t just have hundreds of photos of every minute life event, they’ll also know exactly where it happened within inches, as well as exactly when it occurred within microseconds.
Can you imagine what that will be like? What would our lives be like now if this GPS tagging had been going on for centuries? I mean, what if, say, when the Georgia General Assembly decided to start a brand new city, which would later become our beloved Atlanta, they stuck a stone marker in the ground, and now, nearly 200 years later, we still have it?
As it just so happens, they did exactly that, and we do.
Now, the Georgia General Assembly had a pretty sweet state on its hands in December of 1836. It had a respectable port city called Savannah, and even a pretty decent gold rush going on in the mountains, but it needed a way to get goods into the north and midwest. Chattanooga was nice and close, and had some truly choice railroads to connect to. It was decided that a new railroad would be built, and engineers were dispatched to find a good spot. They found such a place just east of the Chattahoochee river, and they drove a stake into the ground to mark the spot where the railroad, known as the Western and Atlantic, would end. That spot, originally called simply “Terminus” is now called “Atlanta” and has since solved every single one of its transportation problems.
When I found out we still had the marker, called the Zero Mile Post, while idly Googling the origins of the city of Atlanta for article ideas, I knew I had to see it. A little more searching around told me that the post was situated below street level near Underground Atlanta. Perfect! Who doesn’t love a trip to Underground?
The next morning, a fine Friday in late June, I grabbed my camera and headed out for a bit of historical adventuring. My directions weren’t terribly accurate, and I tend to forget almost everything nearly immediately, so I ended up just driving to Underground and asking people if they’d heard of the Zero Mile Post. Not many had, but after a few false starts I met a lady in the Underground main offices who had not only heard of it, but actually seen it herself. Score.
She gave me better directions, and that’s how I found myself underneath a parking deck at 90 Central Street peering into the abandoned offices of the Georgia Building Authority. I cleared some dust off the panes of the door, and there, at the end of a short, dark hallway, a single spotlight shining off-center, I could just barely make out a shape which had to be the stone marker that started this whole thing we call a city.
A chill ran up my spine. Where would I be without that thing? Where would my Atlanta heroes be? On what street corner in America would Willy Terry’s stretchy-shorted bulge be visible if not for Briarcliff and Ponce? To what other town would Baton Bob be bringing joy? From whence would Coke-a-cola or CNN have sprung forth? Would they have at all?
I made a few phone calls in hopes of locating someone who could let me in to see the post properly, but the lady I spoke with at the Georgia Building Authority, Sharon, told me there was no one available. My hopes sank. It began to look like I was as close as I was ever going to get.
Sharon said she’d see what she could do and call me back. I thanked her, and hung up. I moped around the area for a while. Luckily there is a bench close by which is perfect for moping.
But then, Sharon called back.
Sharon said she’d found someone, Robert, who could let me in to see the marker, but he wouldn’t have time until after the 4th. I rejoiced,
thanked her profusely, and hung up. Over the next few days I blabbed excitedly to anyone who would listen.
“Oh yes,” they’d say, eyes testing the upper boundaries of their sockets. “A stone thingy under a parking deck. How nice.”
“Well, yes, but you see, it’s the original marker,” I’d say. “Of the whole city!”
The subject would invariably change at that point. That was, until I happened to blab about the marker to my friend Chris, who said, simply “We still have the marker? Wow! I want to go!”
I confirmed a Zero Mile Marker viewing time with Robert of the Georgia Building Authority. He proved to be quite a lucky person to get, as he shared my and Chris’s interest in local history. Inside the building with the marker, we snapped photos and Robert told us what he knew about the post’s origins.
The post was moved in 1842. It traveled from its original spot to where it now resides, in a small house-like office building nestled underneath a parking deck. Robert figures it was originally situated closer to where the Georgia Railroad Freight Depot is now. The marker’s sign proclaims its original location to have been between Forsyth and Magnolia streets, but Magnolia street seems to have disappeared from the downtown area, possibly sometime after the marker was erected in 1956.
On one side of the marker can be seen the markings W & A, R R, 00. On the other side it reads W & A, R R, 135. Presumably, the letters stand for Western and Atlantic Railroad.
The numbers I assume to be mile markers. Zero miles on one side to designate the end of the line, and 135 on the other side to indicate miles to Chattanooga. The post bears a number of other markings and has chips missing in places, thanks to nearly 200 years of hard use. The top is discolored, as though a million passersby over the last 175 years or so stopped to lean on it for a rest.
Robert and Chris bonded over a mutual love of classic rock as I admired the marker. As a result of their fast friendship, we ended up being treated to a short tour of some other close Atlanta landmarks, guided by the affable Robert.
Did you know that the Olympia building—the white one overlooking Woodruff park that has the huge neon Coke-a-cola sign on top—is the site of the first Atlanta grocery store, which later became the first post office? Did you know that the sculpture in the middle of the Five Points intersection is the site of Atlanta’s first well, as well as the first mayoral election?
Standing in places like these and pondering their significance fosters a sense that this thing we’re doing together, this city we’re participating in, is significant. Some things it has done very well. Others it has done very poorly. But we’re still together, thanks in no small part to the Zero Mile Marker.