Atlanta, Georgia morphed into a thriving modern city despite the double whammy of destructive a civil war in 1864 and a great fire in the early 1900’s. What wasn’t destroyed in the war, was likely consumed by flames from the later fire. The lack of architecture from this time period haunts me, I like to embrace the past with my eyes, feel it with my fingertips, and it was in part the reason for my choosing to hike the Red Trail in Sweetwater Creek State Park last weekend, a vast wooded park located just west of downtown Atlanta, known for its civil war and Cherokee history. About a half mile into the hike, it was both exciting and sobering to find the towering civil war ruin from my research, nestled peacefully beneath the canopy of trees along the glistening white-water rapids of Sweetwater Creek, both rewarding my curiosity and offering a history lesson about a tranquil area belied by its violent past. My search for remains of civil war architecture brought me to the same sandy banks of the creek where the Union Calvary approached the New Manchester Factory textile mill during the 1864 campaign, ordered it closed, and burned it a week later along with the small surrounding town. The employees, all woman and children, faced a life of hardship when forced to leave and head north, many of them to fend for themselves in towns already crowded with refugees.
The site’s painful history was palpable, and with my mind buzzing I turned to explore further when suddenly the atmosphere shifted slightly, and in a ripple, rows of dull-eyed soldiers marched forward intently toward their destination in a haze of hot summer dust, brushing through me, invisible. The sound of their boots hitting the ground was lost in the laughter from children darting among the rocks, distant conversations lilting lightly in the wind, the muffled tap of my own shoes hitting the dusty, uneven path, until each step fractured the image into a dull melancholy shadow.
The remains of the five-story structure is now protected by a border of chain link fence, limiting access for safety and preservation, but also limiting angles to take pictures. In order to lighten my load for the hike I had switched my camera lens to a small portrait lens, which I enjoy for landscape photography. It captured the dreamy quality of this elegant structure that is slowly and inevitably being reclaimed by its woodland environment. Nature has a way of softening life’s hard edges, of soothing old wounds. I discovered that a hike in the midst of this process had become a compelling history lesson.