Urban spelunking on the Unseen Underground Atlanta tour

Jeff Morrison’s guide to the city’s hidden spaces shows us how much Atlanta has changed

Atlanta’s original street level isn’t where you think it is. Indeed, Underground Atlanta isn’t even technically underground.  Jeff Morrison, a local architect and history buff, has spent the better part of a decade giving sporadic free tours of the city’s hidden infrastructure around Five Points and the Gulch. His urban spelunking adventure traverses Atlanta’s hidden “underground” spaces, exploring the city’s railroad origins.

Jeff Morrison leads tour-goers below the surface streets of Atlanta
Jeff Morrison leads tour-goers below the surface streets of Atlanta

Photograph by Matt Walljasper

The beauty of Morrison’s tours lies in their frequency—he only leads them when he feels like it. The rarity of the tours makes them popular; on our March 8 tour, Morrison pegged the head count at 132. His next excursion, March 21, has already filled up. He offered both of those tours in conjunction with the Atlanta Preservation Center’s Phoenix Flies Celebration. Beyond that, only Morrison knows the next date. Enthusiastic explorers should keep an eye on the “Unseen Underground Walking Tour” Facebook page for future tour dates.

Unseen Underground is a essentially a tour of things that no longer exist.

Under Wall Street, near Pryor Street, looking east.
Under Wall Street, near Pryor Street, looking east.

Photograph by Matt Walljasper

Morrison distributes pamphlets before we begin to provide visual aids to a bygone Atlanta now clad in concrete. We head down an unassuming staircase off of Wall Street and, after recovering from a pungent biological odor, our eyes adjust, and we realize we’re under the artificial street level that surrounds Five Points.

Morrison directs us to a small building. It’s owned by the state, and no, we cannot enter. All around us is a ill-kept parking garage. Above us, more parking. Behind the building, freight tracks. Inside this glorified de facto lot attendant’s kiosk sits Atlanta’s core historical artifact, the Western and Atlantic Railroad Milepost Zero. It was from here that Terminus, the railroad settlement that evolved into Atlanta, was established. Just as it sounds, it was the railroad’s end. Today, it seems oddly fitting that the literal founding point of our city is surrounded by parking lots.

Behind the walls and iron bars rests the zero milepost, the very beginning of Atlanta
Behind the walls and iron bars rests the zero milepost, the very beginning of Atlanta

Photograph by Matt Walljasper

We continue “underground,” traveling west, parallel to the Green and Blue MARTA lines. Stopping to discuss the still-active freight rail and to observe the few remains of storefronts that once lined these tracks, we are interrupted by a car driving through the tunnel. The group pushes on, and we emerge near the CNN parking deck with our first at-grade view of the Gulch. Morrison discusses the decline of passenger rail in America and even entertains a question on the pie-in-the-sky Multi-Modal Passenger Terminal that one day could replace the open pit of rail and parking . . . possibly.

Active freight rails parallel the MARTA East/West line under downtown. One day, this line could take commuters to Athens.
Active freight rails parallel the MARTA East/West line under downtown. One day, this line could take commuters to Athens.

Photograph by Matt Walljasper

Our group treks up to Marietta Street. We stop in front of the State Bar of Georgia, where a historical marker commemorates Thrasherville, the first permanent white settlement in what would become Atlanta. Morrison is full of historical tidbits, and ties in the settlement to the street raising that began to take shape roughly 75 years later. He beckons us onward toward the Georgia Dome and its newly rising counterpart. As we look over the Gulch, Morrison points out the railroad tracks below us, and we return to our familiar “underground” access point, a parking garage.

A train rolls above the caverns around the Georgia Dome bound for the Gulch
A train rolls above the caverns around the Georgia Dome bound for the Gulch

Photograph by Matt Walljasper

We travel down to the bottom, six or more levels of stairs below the Dome. This area is different than the tour’s last underground adventure. It’s clean, well-lit from the surface, and even pleasant. Here, the bowels of the stadium fit into the city’s infrastructure so perfectly that one wonders what will happen to this manmade cavern when everything above is eventually demolished. Looking over it, we notice just the right amount of light shining down to mimic ancient ruins. A rumbling noise strikes in the distance, and a train lumbers across an archway in our cave. Morrison points out that these tracks are the same that make up the Gulch.

Through the archway, under the train, and out along service roads into yet another parking lot, we enter the Gulch. Morrison points out the scars left in the asphalt from siding tracks that once held freight cars. Up Alabama Street, we continue on back to the Five Points MARTA station. Here, I’m sorry to say that I’ve never previously noticed the beautiful Eiseman Building façade on the north end of the mezzanine. Long ago it was part of a building on the true surface of Peachtree Street.

The last leg of our tour goes through Underground Atlanta. With a newfound understanding of the architectural wonder around us and the historical significance surrounding it, we walked through the mall, gazing not at the shops but at the bridgework used to create the roof and the artificial street surface above.

Through Morrison’s tour, we learned several truths about Atlanta. First, this has always been, and shall continue to be, a transit town. From the terminus of trains, to the arterial roads of the automobile, and on to the logistical marvel that is Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Atlanta is a town on the move. That brings us to the second take-away, that the city’s always growing and changing. This rapid movement has lead to some downright interesting hidden locations and architectural curiosities. At other times, progress has cost us a bit of our collective soul. Still, the burial of Atlanta’s original street level was born out of necessity, and future projects will march under the banner of convenience. When history repeats itself, we should expect more bypasses and burials in the name of progress. This isn’t all bad, however. Honestly, I’ll be the first with a shovel if we ever cap the Connector . . . unless it’s with another parking lot.

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