The old saying is "All roads lead to Rome," but I'm more concerned with the roads that lead to Dalton. That old expression came about because as center of an empire, Rome was the hub of many spokes of roads that came to it. In actuality you could say "All roads lead FROM Rome." The Romans built their famous, well-built roads with some sections still surviving today so that they could make the trade they needed to remain a big city easier. And let's not forget about their armies marching out to conquer new lands; those roads made it a lot easier to get the legions where they needed to be in record time.
If you're familiar with Paris you'll know their wide, straight boulevards with chic shops and monuments. But did you know those big, wide streets were put in so that the army could move around town and the cannons could get a clear shot from a mile away in case there were revolts?
Maybe you've seen a film, TV or play version of "Les Miserables." The old Paris had mazes of medieval buildings and twisting, narrow streets that made it easy for rebels to barricade themselves in. In the 1850s and 1860s changes were made and the wide boulevards were bulldozed through.
Roads closer to home
Even Atlanta's neighborhoods have been cut in half by the coming of the interstates. I-75 and I-85 meet in downtown and there is a gash of roadway that cuts right through even separating Georgia Tech students from The Varsity hot dogs. Dalton's been fortunate in most cases as the interstate went through the far west side of town at the bottom of Mt. Sinai instead of through town. We have a few major thoroughfares but for the most part they have been existing roads that have grown wider as they've grown more important. I'll rephrase the old maxim and say for our interests, all roads lead to Dalton.
We live in a valley in the mountains of northwest Georgia and so the geography around us has a lot to say about how the roads go. Most of the roads here go north and south running along the valleys that traverse in the same orientation. But that same geography that sometimes limits us has also been a boon to us in that both the interstate and, before that the railroad, found its way through our valley as they cut their way cross-country to bring business to us and through us.
In a previous Town Crier I looked into the founding of Georgia as a British colony. I was surprised to find out that when Europeans first came here there were bison in Georgia. We usually think of them as in movies like "Dances With Wolves" where the buffalo are roaming out in the western plains, but turns out Georgia was also where the bison roamed. I found out that the American bison would reuse the same trails and so there were rudimentary roads here back before colonization. These bison trails, which the bison hooves packed hard, were then used by the Indians.
Dalton's first name before it became a town was Cross Plains, with the name signifying the plains-type area between us and the foot of Fort and Grassy mountains and the generally flat land that extended up toward Cleveland, Tennessee. The "Cross" part of the name came from the trails and rudimentary roads that passed through here, many of them Indian roads/trails, with some of them having started out as animal trails. Of course, local travel back then would also follow waterways, whether they were rivers like the Conasauga or creeks like Mill Creek and even smaller streams. Where the creeks passed between the ridges would have been important travel ways even before railroads and highways. And of course the Mill Creek Gap at Rocky Face is a key passage in our area.
The first major road through our area was the Old Federal Road which connected south Georgia with the river port of Ross's Landing, which would grow to become Chattanooga. The road split east of here to also go to Knoxville. The old Federal Road went through the northern part of the county passing through Varnell and moving up to Ringgold and through the Taylor Ridge Gap, another narrow valley key to getting through the area. The Old Federal Road was a rugged frontier road, dirt and mud and tough going all the way. Stage coaches traveled it as well as wagons loaded with goods. It was slow slogging along the way. But then came the railroad.
The railroad, then the automobile change things
The railroad is the real reason we went from being a crossroads to a real city. The surveyors saw that the pass at Rocky Face and then at Ringgold made good sense for the iron horse that was coming. It needed the tunnel at Tunnel Hill, a major bit of engineering for the day, but the way was clear and so with the coming of the rails came Dalton. Now it was a place of some importance and the town grew accordingly. The railroad brought jobs, commerce and people to Dalton and this was really the most important road here up to that time. The country remained pretty rural outside the major cities in the decades after the Civil War and so the roads into the countryside remained tough going. The rails ruled the ways of travel. But then came the car.
The advent of automobiles really put the pressure on road building and road improvement. In the early decades of the last century (the 1900s), organizations were formed to support road and highway development. This is the period when the roads around Dalton really took shape and grew in importance. And of course the biggie was Highway 41, the Old Dixie Highway. It really shows the growing importance of autos and trucks when you see that the big highway of the day ran the route of the railroad. Part of the reason was to connect the towns that had grown up every so many miles along the railroads. Part of it was that this was a good and proven roadbed for modes of travel. Even before paving you could get your wagon from Dalton to Chattanooga or to Atlanta, it might take a week or two for the trip, but with cars and roadways, the trip was reduced to hours or less.
The other surrounding towns got routes of their own to connect with us. In Europe all roads may lead to Rome but in Dalton the road that leads to Rome runs through Calhoun. There was always a road from Dalton to Spring Place, and then when the railroad gave birth to Chatsworth the road was extended. There are Highways 76 and 52 that intertwine and zig and zag east on their way to Chatsworth and beyond that to Ellijay and the mountains. Highway 76 was the older road, I believe, and Highway 52 the newer route over the mountain. Because of the ridge to the west of town, horses had to drag the wagons up and over Dug Gap to get to the valley beyond, but really the main travel route is to go up beyond Rocky Face and then head west. You get over to a parallel valley where Highway 27 runs north/south and mimics Highway 41, but they didn't get the railroad and so there's not so much growth over there. There's just not as much west of interest unless you're an Alabama or Auburn fan.
Keep in mind that north/south routes have odd numbers (I-75 /Highway 41) and east/west routes have even numbers (I-20 in Atlanta and Highway 52 to Chatsworth). Another important route is the road to Cleveland, Tennessee. It's Highway 71 and it's been a real go-getter in recent decades. The traffic on it has become legendary for our area and part of it is from the folks that live north of Dalton, up to Cleveland and maybe as far away as Benton, Tennessee, that drive back and forth to Dalton to work in the carpet industry. Another reason for its growth recently is that the big rig trucks have figured out that cutting through to Highway 71 avoids Chattanooga traffic and road construction.
And when it comes to trucks, we're lucky to have a bypass around Dalton. It helps the trucks to miss downtown and get to the carpet mills around the area the back way. I'm old enough to remember big rigs going to some of the downtown mills using Highway 41 as the way in and seeing them crossing the railroad tracks downtown at all times of day. Even the widening and improvements of roads like Highway 71, Cleveland Highway, Glenwood and Abutment roads have made the transportation needs of industry here better.
And before we go we better talk about Walnut Avenue. There was no western part of Walnut Avenue until the interstate came. With Walnut came Walnut Square Mall and the section of Murray Avenue that used to be the way to Chatsworth was remade into a local street instead of a main through-way. Walnut near I-75 is basically a second downtown for Dalton, leading to the growth of Dalton State College, and the Dalton Convention Center while heading in the eastern direction is the gateway to the mountains.
Geography and needs influence roads and then roads influence needs and geography. I call it progress through paving!
Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.