Depot, part of Tunnel Hill history, gets second life

File/Daily Citizen-News

Blake Griffin, Tunnel Hill's city administrator, points to where new mortar had to be placed in a wall of the 170-year-old railroad depot. Tunnel Hill was founded around the railroad tunnel, so "that depot is our history," Griffin said. 

Renovation of the Tunnel Hill railroad depot is nearly complete, a project crucial both because of the draw it will be for visitors as well as the fact it commemorates a pivotal piece of the city's heritage, according to the city's administrator.

Tunnel Hill was founded around that railroad tunnel more than 170 years ago, so "that depot is our history," Blake Griffin, who has been the city administrator for 18 years, told members of the Kiwanis Club of Dalton on Monday. "The depot is our biggest project, and we're going to be able to bring a lot of people to Whitfield County for (that) venue."

The 3,000-square-foot depot, located near the Tunnel Hill battlefield and the Clisby Austin House, a historic residence utilized by Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, among others, during the Civil War, Griffin said, will host weddings, concerts, parties and other events.

The renovation includes bathrooms, a prep kitchen and an area for individuals — like brides and bridesmaids — to change attire, said Debby Long, director of operations for the Dalton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "A lot of advanced thought was put into that."

The depot work began in 2019, and "you would not believe the transformation of the property," Griffin said. "It looks really nice, and it's going to look great" when finished, which could be as soon as April 1.

The depot dates to the start of the Western & Atlantic Railroad in 1850, and the stone walls are made from rocks quarried from the nearby Western & Atlantic Railroad tunnel as it was dug out of the Chetoogeta mountain, according to Griffin. The Western & Atlantic Railroad and its right of way are owned by the state of Georgia, and the state legislature deeded the property to the city in 2007.

The tunnel, which Western & Atlantic used for more than 75 years, was the first major railroad tunnel in the South and the first through the Appalachian Mountains, according to the Tunnel Hill Heritage Center and Museum. Nearly 1,500 feet long, it was the final step in rail connection between Atlanta and Chattanooga.

The tunnel has been renovated as a "historic attraction, and you can take tours through there," Griffin said. "There's a museum, too."

Because "we are very small," and Tunnel Hill levies no property taxes, "it takes a long time to do projects," he said. "Our annual budget is about $600,000," so the city has used $900,000 from a pair of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), as well as approximately $200,000 in donations, to do the depot work.

The city also added a 3,000-square-foot pavilion on the site, with a stage, he said. The pavilion can host similar events to the depot, like concerts.

"The pavilion was a very pleasant surprise to me," Long said. "Everyone is going to want to go out there."

Tunnel Hill is "very pastoral, so it'll be neat to be outside there" during events, and visitors will enjoy their time in a "welcoming" city, where numerous families trace their local lineage back several generations, Long added. "It's like Mayberry," the fictional home city of the popular "The Andy Griffith Show."

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