The Zero Mile Post, a historic stone railroad marker of the city’s center since the 1850s, has been moved to the Atlanta History Center from its long-inaccessible downtown site. The marker will join the famous locomotive the “Texas” in its long-awaited exhibit debut on Nov. 17.
Whether the Zero Mile Post will remain at the History Center permanently or return to its downtown spot is still an open question, according to the Georgia Building Authority, which owns the marker. Meanwhile, the agency is doing a swap with the History Center, loaning the original marker in exchange for a replica that will be installed in the downtown spot, which is being reconfigured for public accessibility.
“Some different things are in play, so we’ll see if it makes more sense for it to remain at the History Center,” said Building Authority spokesperson Morgan Smith-Williams. But under the current five-year loan agreement, she said, the center “will do a great job of connecting [the Zero Mile Post] to the larger story” of Atlanta’s railroad past.
The Zero Mile Post move cements the History Center’s status as a repository for key artifacts left homeless by Atlanta’s redevelopment. The gigantic “Battle of Atlanta” cyclorama painting was moved from Grant Park to the center last year, and will go on display in a custom circular building starting on Feb. 22. The “Texas,” an 1856 locomotive, came from Grant Park, too. And recently the center acquired the Civil War-scarred Solomon Luckie lamppost, which long stood in Underground Atlanta downtown.
“These are the three great Atlanta icons, period,” said Sheffield Hale, the History Center’s president and CEO, in a press release. “The Zero Mile Post, the Solomon Luckie Lamppost and ‘Texas’ locomotive present a triad of iconic artifacts indicative of the founding of Atlanta and its expansion during the Civil War and beyond. At the Atlanta History Center, they will prompt a rich discussion for generations to come about the many facets of our collective history.”
Not everyone is happy with the move. Jeff Morrison, an architect who occasionally leads history tours in downtown, complained about the move’s secrecy and said that the marker did not need to be relocated to be saved, noting it survived the Civil War, among other massive changes.
“The Atlanta History Center has done more to damage the milepost than even General Sherman,” Morrison said in an email. “…If the Georgia Building Authority had made any effort to engage the community for input, any number of better solutions could have been imagined. The fact that the Atlanta History Center insisted on keeping the agreement secret until the deed was done illustrates that they knew there would be significant criticism.”
The Zero Mile Post was a mile marker for the Western & Atlantic Railroad, the line that the city of Atlanta developed around. Specifically, it marked the start of the line, and was used to mark the city’s geographical center. The marker was moved a few times, but had been on its downtown spot since the 1850s, Smith-Williams said.
It stood for so long that development happened around it. Eventually it was shrouded by parking decks around 90 Central Avenue and the street’s bridge. In the 1990s, the state constructed a building around it as part of its long-gone New Georgia Railroad, a tourist-trip train. The building later became a Georgia State Patrol precinct and then was vacant for many years. That left the Zero Mile Post virtually inaccessible, with the general public only being able to see it through a window.
The opportunity for a move has come as the state plans to demolish the building by year’s end. Moving the Zero Mile Post ensured its safety and preservation. The state and the History Center cut a deal earlier this year and dug up the marker last month under the signed agreement, which swore the state to secrecy until after the marker was moved.
At the History Center, the marker will be on view in a public gallery — and in a way it has never been seen since the 1850s. While standing about 42 inches above ground, the post is actually 7-feet-5-inches long, with its bulk buried securely in the earth at its downtown spot. For the move, the History Center had it excavated, and decided to display it at full length rather than reburying it. The marker is being installed upright, but unburied, according to the History Center.
The marker will be displayed alongside the “Texas,” which is also an artifact from the Western & Atlantic.
“Positioning the Zero Mile Post beside the recently restored Texas locomotive, one of the two remaining Western & Atlantic locomotives that would have passed by that very mile post scores of times during its service, offers valuable interpretive possibilities,” said Hale in the press release. “Railroads built and created Atlanta, and these two objects tell Atlanta’s origin story like no others.”
Meanwhile, back at the original Central Avenue spot, the replica Zero Mile Post will be set up around January. With the old building gone, it will be far more accessible, with sidewalks added to make it so. The replica marker — which the History Center will deliver once the site is ready — will be given some kind of protective cover and an official Georgia Historical Society explanatory sign, said Smith-Williams.
The five-year lease agreement appears to be done at no cost to the History Center, according to a copy of the contract provided by the Building Authority. The deal can be renewed as well as canceled. The big question, said Smith-Williams, is whether there is “adequate funding” to return the marker to its original location and with suitable protection.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that the Zero Mile Post would be displayed at the Atlanta History Center laid on its side, as shown in one publicity photo, rather than vertically.