It was a weeknight in May 2014 when I was introduced to the Carnegie Trail. Since that evening trespassing signs have gone up and police will write tickets to trespassers. So if you head out there, just know you have been warned. We were lucky, able to walk and take pictures of this city-owned land in DeKalb County without the threat of fines.
My hiking companions from the Atlanta Preservation Center were still in office clothes. I felt prepared for the walk, wearing walking shoes and camouflage cargo shorts.
The APC-people performed well that evening, despite their business-casual attire. They never once slowed down. And while I was prepared for the hike, I did pull off two deer ticks from my legs later that night at home. I bet the long pants, such as those worn by the Preservation Center people, prevented the tick problem. So maybe I wasn’t prepared.
Killing those two blood-sucking critters was totally worth it. On the Carnegie Trail are pieces of the Carnegie Library, the old remains of Atlanta’s first public library. It’s like a small hidden sanctuary showing off some lost civilization, with cornices dropped here and pieces of columns scattered there. A hike worth at least six deer ticks and a patch of poison ivy.
And nobody really knows the name of the trail. I asked Joel Slaton what they call the trail, his reply was: “no name to speak of… Carnegie Trail?” So that’s the name: Carnegie Trail.
Do you know where to find the Carnegie Trail? It carries a warning, because of the trespassing signs. They will write a ticket to someone returning to a car from hiking the trail. Here is the map:
The Carnegie Trail starts where Fayetteville Road merges into Key Road in southeast Atlanta. The trail runs away from the roadway east into a little brush of woods, and you cross into a large field of high grass which quickly becomes overgrown in the summer.
To the south lies the “Virgil” decoration, while over to the east lies the “Poe” decoration (the light prevented a good picture).
While we were walking I noted depressions in the ground all around our trail, indicating something was buried in that spot. I was reminded by one of our guides that we were marching through the old dumping grounds for the City of Atlanta, and anything could be buried out there, including old Zoo animals.
That’s why what remains of the Carnegie Library can be found in these woods and fields: the area was once used as a dump for the City of Atlanta. While that might sound scary to some, for me it made for an awesome hike.
Behind the “Poe” decoration sits a small version of the Carnegie Library, with Orwell and other classics crammed into an over-sized sandwich bag, which is then crammed into a plastic newspaper box. We wrapped up our hike with a stroll by one of the two lakes that sits on the property.
A nice stroll with nice people, it did raise a few questions: Who is in control of what remains of the old Carnegie Library? Why are the decorations, columns, stones and other pieces sitting out in a field on a piece of DeKalb County land that’s owned by the City of Atlanta? What are the plans for these old biblio stones?
The History of the Carnegie Library in Atlanta
On February 8th, 1899 it was reported in the Atlanta Constitution that Andrew Carnegie would donate $100,000 to build a public library in Atlanta. On May 6th, 1899, Carnegie donated the $100,000 and by July the city government announced $5,000 per year would be put up to run the library, a requirement that came with Carnegie’s donation.
In September 1899 the Atlanta Constitution reported the Board of Trustees for the library voted to put up $34,000 for the land at the “corner of Forsyth and Church” worth $35,000. An Atlanta librarian convinced Carnegie to donate more cash ($25,000) in November of 1899, and then even more cash ($20,000) in March 1901. By the end Carnegie’s donation to Atlanta totaled out at $145,000.
The result was an impressive classic structure at 26 Carnegie Way (Church became Carnegie Way) in downtown Atlanta that was finished by 1902. The Carnegie Library in Atlanta was designed by New York architects Ackerman and Ross. Firm namesake Albert Randolph Ross designed many Carnegie libraries throughout the United States.
Before the Carnegie Library in Atlanta there was the Young Men’s Library Association. The name says it all – exclusion was the norm. While claiming to be open to the general public, only members of the Association were allowed to check out books. And membership was restricted to white men only. That changed in 1873, when white women were allowed to check out materials.
African Americans were always excluded from the Carnegie Library in Atlanta. Carnegie did grant funds to build a black library, which didn’t happen until July 25th, 1921, when the Auburn Branch of the Carnegie Library of Atlanta opened at 333 Auburn Avenue.
But the Central Branch historically excluded minorities. That changed in 1959 when a library card was requested for Irene Dobbs Jackson, the eldest daughter of John Wesley Dobbs and the mother of Maynard Jackson. It was this action that made the library board grant access to all Atlanta citizens, including African Americans.
The library was remodeled in 1934 and renovated in 1950 and 1966 with funds from city bonds. In 1950 the name for the public library system was changed from the Carnegie Library to the Atlanta Public Library, and the downtown library became the Central Branch.
The Carnegie Library was torn down in 1977 and a replacement library, the structure we see today, was built on the grounds. That building wasn’t completed until 1980.
Who Owns the Carnegie Library Stones?
So who owns the remains of the Carnegie Library torn down in 1977? You would imagine it is the library system, which is controlled by Fulton County. But that’s not the case.
When the old library was torn down in 1977, the Central Branch (and other branches in Atlanta) made up the Atlanta Public Library system, which was governed by the City of Atlanta. But in 1983, six years after the Carnegie Library was torn down, the City of Atlanta’s ownership of the library system was transferred via constitutional amendment to Fulton County.
When they transferred ownership of the library system, it did not include the remnants of the Carnegie Library, which were deemed as high-end trash (they are sitting in an old city dump). So currently the library does not control them; they are owned by the City of Atlanta.
According to library officials, they recently searched their archives for information on the official disposition of the stonework facade at the time the old library was torn down, looking for anything that indicated the library still owned the stones. Their records failed to show how the stones came to be preserved on the Carnegie Trail, which at the time was a dumping ground for the city near the old Prison Farm.
Did you know the Carnegie Education Pavilion, that aging marble monument at Baker Street and Peachtree Street in Downtown Atlanta’s Hardy Ivy Park, is made from the remains of Atlanta’s first public library? The ones we explored during our hike off of Key Road are other pieces from that building.
In 1996 the Corporation for Olympic Development in Atlanta commissioned Henri Jova to use the materials to design the Carnegie Education Pavilion pictured above. The monument showcases four names: Carnegie, Asop, Dante and Milton, while the main inscription reads: “The Advancement of Learning”.
Library officials also tried to find out how permission was given for part of the stonework to be removed and used in 1997 for the Carnegie Education Pavilion at 310 Peachtree. But that trail ran cold because the person who led that effort has since died and his firm has closed.
What will happen to the Carnegie Library stones? Their fate is tied to the surrounding area, and what the City of Atlanta will decide to do with the more than 400 acres that includes the old Prison Farm. Max Blau from Creative Loafing recently wrote a story on the uncertain fate of the old Atlanta Prison Farm that indicates the city could sell the property, swap the land with DeKalb or even open a solar farm.
And Max Blau’s article also brought up the Save the Old Atlanta Prison Farm effort (the linked Facebook page has the names of local city officials you should contact). Several people from East Atlanta have started this movement to protect what they call the largest remaining green space inside the perimeter.
Recently dozens of the column stones were moved around by the city. Many were placed as barricades at the trail entrance. What is the city’s plan for the stones? Will they work with DeKalb to turn this area into a park? Will they move them, perhaps to a city park, before a land swap?
There have been rumblings that the stones on the Carnegie Trail and the Carnegie Education Pavilion could be used in a public park in Vine City. History Atlanta reached out to Billy Warren, Director, Facilities Management with the City of Atlanta, to see what the plans are for the remains of the Carnegie Library in Atlanta. As of publication time he hadn’t responded.
But Melissa Mullinax, Senior Communications Officer with the City of Atlanta did respond: “We are building a park in Vine City, in conjunction with the National Monuments Foundation [called] Mims Park,” wrote Ms. Mullinax in an email. “I don’t know if the stones will be used there, but I have made a few calls to see if others know.” We will update this story as reports and responses come in from city officials.