Georgia’s 15-mile claim in Tennessee

The Georgia General Assembly again wants to slake metro Atlanta’s thirst with water from the mighty Tennessee River. It’s passed a resolution seeking negotiations – at the threat of a lawsuit – with the state of Tennessee to acquire just enough land to run a pipeline to the river’s Nickajack Lake, west of Chattanooga.

The land measures only 1.5 square miles, but it might as well be the moon as it’s somebody else’s state. Georgia’s asked Tennessee to give us territory in the past – something to do with an old land survey being off by a mile or so – but those Volunteers just laughed at us. Maybe they’re unaware that 165 years ago, they let us have a chunk of their state, and Georgia still owns it.

The claim is about 15 miles long by 66 feet wide. It begins at the state line north of Graysville in Catoosa County, curves around Missionary Ridge on the Tennessee side and ends deep inside Chattanooga. It’s the Western & Atlantic, the 138-mile-long railroad built by the state of Georgia before the Civil War.

Surveyors started the “State Road” in a middle-of-nowhere place they called Terminus. Today, it’s 55 Lower Wall St. in downtown Atlanta. They put the north end at a lonely spot on the Tennessee River called Ross’s Landing – today, Chattanooga.

So eager was Tennessee to get a hook-up for its own railroad building south from Nashville, that the state’s legislature in February 1848 passed a bill granting Georgia “the privilege of making every necessary recognizance and survey for the purpose of ascertaining the most eligible route for the extension of her Western & Atlantic Railroad from the Georgia line to some point on the eastern margin of the Tennessee River.” Not only that, but Georgia was “allowed the right of way for the extension and construction of her said railroad, from the Georgia line to the Tennessee River.”

Too bad Georgia no longer controls the riverfront real estate. Not only could we be collecting rent from the Tennessee Aquarium, our riparian rights would be without question. But in a fit of pique over trains running up what is now Broad Street, about 1870, Chattanooga’s city fathers tore up the rails between 9th Street and the waterfront.

An official history of the W&A in the collection of the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw shows Chattanooga and Georgia were still feuding in 1927. That year – in an indication of the importance the state assigned to the W&A – Georgia convened a special commission involving the governor, PSC chairman and members of the state Senate and House to investigate an incursion of city streets into the railroad’s right-of-way near Chattanooga Union Station.

That depot (not to be confused with the former Terminal Station, now the “Choo Choo”) has been gone since 1973, but Georgia still owns the Western & Atlantic. CSX Transportation leases the line and last year paid the state $8.1 million rent to run its trains over it, according to the Georgia State Properties Commission.

Now, as we seek Tennessee’s permission to put a big straw in their river, our neighbors to the north ought to remember there’s already a piece of Georgia sticking 15 miles into their body politic. It may be too early to say if this ancient land holding gives Georgia leverage in negotiations, but it certainly could liven up the discussion.

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David Ibata is assistant editorial editor for the AJC and serves on the Kennesaw Museum Foundation board of the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History.