By Dudley Salley
Good that the recent T-SPLOST referendum got all Georgians thinking about transportation. Management gurus often encourage us to think outside the box – that is, to have broader vision. In this case of transportation, the box is Georgia.
A satellite view of the entire eastern U.S. gives us a bigger picture of how geography channels transportation that builds great cities. The Appalachian Mountains stretch from Maine to Georgia as an inland barrier. So colonial trade was waterborne and coastal cities like Boston, Baltimore, Charleston, and Savannah grew rapidly. By 1790-1800 Philadelphia, at the head of Delaware Bay became the leading city of North America. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed there.
But by the 1840s, New York rose to eclipse them all. Why? Agribusiness: the Ohio Valley opened up the new frontier with bountiful wheat production. Europe had great need for the produce, but wheat had to be transported to the ports. The mountains stood in the way. Some saw it was easier to distill the wheat into whiskey and roll the barrels over the high passes! Remember the Whiskey Rebellion when George Washington attempted to tax wheat? New York’s governor devised the lasting solution—the Erie Canal built through a pass in the Appalachians connecting Ohio wheat with the Hudson River and New York, which quickly became the leading U.S. city.
While Boston and Philadelphia faded, the success story was Baltimore. There, civic leadership built the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O on monopoly boards) connecting their port with the Ohio River at Wheeling. New York and Baltimore became the new leading cities as a result of concerted local entrepreneurial action.
Moving down the coast, the mountains and transportation are paramount. City development occurred along the fall line of the Appalachian chain, where wagon loads of produce are reloaded onto river transportation. There is Washington on the Potomac River; Richmond on the James River; Raleigh/Durham and Columbia; Augusta, Georgia, and the fall line continues to Macon, Columbus and Montgomery.
Why did Atlanta become the leading city during the 19th century? Atlanta is where the mountains end. Remember the folk song, “She’ll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes?” Any railway or road going from New York to New Orleans or from Chicago to Jacksonville had to cross in Atlanta. By virtue of its location at the foot of the mountains, Atlanta became the leading city of the southeastern U.S. Economic development then swung westward from Alabama to Louisiana, and cotton opened up as the South’s major export.
Looking beyond the narrow box of our local commute from home to work, the transportation lesson critical to Georgia’s economic growth is keeping these interstate paths flowing smoothly. Interstates75, 85, 20, 16, the rail lines and Hartsfield/Jackson are America’s Main Street. The right of way should go to the trucks and railcar loads and air cargo that give us our jobs in warehouses, agriculture, distribution, banking, insurance and almost all we do in Georgia.