Posted by Jason Kaplan on

In 1836, the Georgia General Assembly decided to build a railroad that could link Savannah, GA to the U.S. Midwest. A location was chosen as the line's terminus and a stake marked "Terminus" was driven into the ground (now called the Zero Mile Post). A few years later, homes and stores were built around the post and the settlement grew. Between 1845 and 1854, four additional rail lines arrived, and before long, the rapidly growing town became a rail hub for the entire Southern United States.

Today, the Zero Mile Post is what we call Atlanta—the first great American city to be located near zero major waterways.

But Atlanta is significant for more than just its origin story. During the Civil War, Atlanta served as an important railroad and military supply hub for the Confederate Army. As a result, many factories were built to support the manufacturing need, which made it a major target for Union troops.

The first true factory was a sawmill, opened in 1844 by Jonathan Norcross. (A future mayor of Atlanta.) By 1860, the city had four large machine shops, two planing mills, three tanneries, two shoe factories, a soap factory, and clothing factories.

These factories were crucial to the economic development of the south. But they also had a dark side.

Being a confederate city, about 20% of the population was enslaved. Consequently, many factory workers were unpaid slaves—forging the very materials used in the fight against their freedom.

Ultimately, the Union troops overwhelmed the Confederate troops, and in 1864, Atlanta was evacuated and destroyed

From the ashes, Atlanta was rebuilt from the ground up. Freed slaves flocked to the city in search of opportunity and the population increased rapidly. As a result, Atlanta became a major center for education, business and industry—particularly among black Americans.

In the 1900s, Atlanta served as a major organizing center for the Civil Rights Movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King and students from Atlanta's universities. Through peaceful sit-ins, marches, and protests—the nation paid attention, and some of the first examples of desegregation occurred in Atlanta.

Though Atlanta often found itself on the wrong side of history—where most saw ashes, leaders in the city saw opportunity. Those who shaped the city through good and bad, and their beliefs, are an important part of American history—and should not be forgotten.