Georgia's Great Undertaking: The Beginnings of the Western & Atlantic Railroad

The new challenge in the United States of the 1820s and 1830s was a frantic commercial rivalry among the Atlantic seaboard states to capture the lucrative trade of the rapidly growing West. The favored instrument for securing this trade was the internal improvement — the road, the canal, the railroad. A spirited competition began that would decide which state would benefit most from the growth and westward spread of the nation’s population.

Georgia’s response to this challenge was to create in 1836 the Western and Atlantic Railroad (W&A). This line, which runs northwest from Atlanta, connects Georgia’s other railroads with the transportation systems of states to the west. Modern historians have described it as the cornerstone upon which rests the transportation advantage that has made possible much of the economic development of the state. Some go so far as to give it credit for Atlanta, which grew into a major metropolitan area from its modest beginnings as the southern terminus point for the W&A after Decatur declined the honor.

The extent of the W&A’s influence may be debated, but its uniqueness cannot be questioned. Of the many nineteenth-century state projects undertaken in the nation, it was probably second in success only to New York’s Erie Canal. This was so because the state set for itself a reasonable goal and executed it in a way that ensured it achieved its ends. Many of the projects begun by other states at about the same time were either abandoned incomplete or were so poorly conceived that they failed to fulfill their sponsors’ hopes. Georgia was relatively fortunate in its experience with the W&A, and this happy outcome owed much to the fact that it was viewed as the cornerstone of a coherent rail network and not as a standalone project.