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Old Trolley Rails Return Home to the Village

Atlanta metal worker Charles Calhoun has turned history on end in Emory Village. Literally and figuratively. The result is a 15-foot high gleaming white  white sculpture with arms that stretch to the sky in salute to both the past and the future.

The Druid Hills resident and owner of Calhoun Design and Metal Works was approached last year by Becky Evans, a board member of the Alliance to Improve Emory Village, for ideas on how to reclaim the rusted, pitted rails that had been unearthed during the village streetscape renovation project in 2010. The rails were part of a long defunct trolley line to Emory Village. Could they be repurposed in some form for the new park in the village that was created from land left over after shifting Oxford Road to make room for the roundabout?

Calhoun salvaged several of the rails, measured them, and came up with a design for a sculpture that now graces Emory Village Park’s new fountain. After Lithia Power Coating sandblasted and stripped off layers of thick flaking rust, Calhoun cut the three rails to sizes ranging from 13 feet to 15 feet and welded them to an inch-thick steel plate. The rails are coated with a durable baked on white finish that ties in with the stone panels of the Emory gates, the park fountain, and the Emory Village sign — a juxtaposition of history and progress in the neighborhood and by Emory.

Each rail weighs about 700 pounds; together they make a hefty ton. The sculpture is mounted on poured concrete with heavy steel bolts that plunge deep into the bottom of the fountain. It was engineered by Bill Thornton of Correct Measure Services. While AIEV paid for the sandblasting and powder coating, Calhoun donated his time and company resources to fabricate, design, and place the sculpture.

The Springdale Road resident says he loves history and often makes furniture out of old gates and other architectural elements, and found objects. “I loved this project,” he says. “It was exciting to repurpose these rails which are at least 100 years old and it was a way to give back to the community. The whole park and revitalization of Emory Village has been a collaborative and tireless effort by so many people. What I did is just a small piece.”

The trolley was a big piece of the history of Atlanta, Druid Hills, and the Olmstead parks. Druid Hills landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, considered by many as the father of landscape architecture, believed that the ideal suburb should have “good roads and walks, sewer, water and gas pipes, and sufficiently cheap, rapid, comfortable transportation to the center of the city. That vision included the Atlanta street car system, which dates back to 1871 horse-car drawn trolleys. The system originated downtown at the Butler Street Barn and by the mid-1920s extended 214 miles. A feeder bus route established in 1929 supplemented existing service to more suburban areas in and around Emory, Ponce/Druid Hills and Decatur.

The “girder rails” uncovered during the Emory Village streetscape project were part of the Emory Village line built between 1902 and 1912 when the Georgia Railway & Electric Co. (now Georgia Power) expanded the streetcar system, according to Patrick Sullivan architectural historian with New South Associates. It terminated in Emory Village where the new roundabout now sits.

The trolleys typically ran down the middle of roads, and often used used double-end cars, which were the same in the front and back. When the trolley reached Emory Village, the motorman would flip the seats back the other way and the trolley would retrace its route via Oxford Road, the Byway, and Briarcliff. In their heyday, the trolleys were heavily used, but the introduction of automobile, labor issues, and the high cost of maintenance and operations eventually led to dismantling of the system. The Emory line (Route 28), was discontinued on December 28, 1946, and was replaced by trackless trolley.

While many of the old lines were ripped up during World War II for the steel, those that survived were buried like the rails in Emory Village. New South recently mapped those buried rails for the Georgia Department of Transportation. GDOT historian Sharman Southall says the rails are considered archeological resources that provide insights into how the trolley lines worked and their influence on built environments. Read the report. The Atlanta Streetcar Geodatabase is available for download on the GA GIS Clearinghouse.

Calhoun suspects that most people won’t initially recognize the sculpture as trolley tracks. “But when you look close you can see that the rails are damaged and pitted –it’s part of their texture and the history of all the life that was formed by the rail cars.”