Down Under


I’ve heard about “underground viaducts” in Atlanta—where and what are they?

A viaduct is like an aqueduct (both are inheritances from the Roman Empire), only instead of water, it carries a via—a road or railway—over a valley, another road, or a body of water. As such, they’re almost always aboveground, like the eight in Atlanta. The Peachtree viaduct—the section that runs south from Five Points—and the Spring Street viaduct are two of the most prominent local examples.

What may perplex you, curious pleb, is that Atlanta’s viaducts created the area we now, somewhat deceptively, call “Underground.” In the early twentieth century, these viaducts raised certain street sections one story to span the mess of railroad tracks that turned Terminus into Hotlanta. At the time, more than 300 passenger trains, not to mention freight locomotives, earned Downtown the nickname of “smokey gulch.” As the number of railroads converging here grew—especially in the area just south of Decatur/Marietta Street—so did the need for viaduction (which should be a word). The result was a seemingly subterranean area, where many older buildings had their original, elaborate entrances. The lower level eventually morphed into the well-known entertainment district.

Rebecca Roberts of the Atlanta Preservation Center notes that during the early-twentieth-century City Beautiful movement, an architect named Haralson Bleckley suggested creating a park over the viaducts. Unfortunately, this never happened. Maybe Kasim Reed, taking a cue from old Appius Claudius Caecus (you know, Appian Way?), will become the Viaduct Mayor.

Illustration by Edwin Fotheringham

Got an Atlanta question? E-mail Charles Bethea at