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Rearview Mirror Special: Hydrology of the Flats

Or, why Ángel Cabrera shouldn’t have a lake in his backyard right now.

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The Pickrick in its Ajax days.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (

For those who follow my schedule planning closely, you’ll notice that this was not this week’s original topic. For those that don’t well, cool, no sweat. As for the history of swimming, diving, and drownproofing on campus, that will hopefully be out on Thursday. This came up in the meantime and, as you’ll see, took some interesting turns. So, without further ado, let’s talk water.

Also, noting that we managed to talk about Bud Carson last week without even mentioning the murky origins of the Budweiser Song tradition - we were already over 3,000 words at the end of that, after all - I’d like to give a shoutout to Tori McElhaney at The Athletic with a serendipitously timed piece with some better interviews than I would have been able to get for those looking for info on that. She’s one of the best in the business, and it’s definitely worth your time and attention.

On September 28th, 1964, Lester Maddox shoved four young black ministers out of his Lester Maddox Cafeteria, a pseudo-replacement restaurant he hastily opened following a court order that he open his Pickrick Restaurant and not refuse service to all patrons, which he had famously done on July 3rd of that same. In that instance, the restauranteur had confronted three Atlanta Interdenominational Theological Seminary students intending to grab a meal at the establishment. The September confrontation made it all the way to the New York Times, showing how the string of sit-ins and reactions had etched their way into the national consciousness. Previously a failure at organized politics, Maddox rode the wave of notoriety from his racist, segregationist, and bogus defense of “private property rights” - he had built a large, white monument in front of his restaurant to this idea - to victory in the 1966 Georgia Gubernatorial Election. Leaving the rest to the New Georgia Encyclopedia,

“Riding a wave of reaction to the Civil Rights Act, Maddox entered Georgia’s 1966 gubernatorial contest and shocked many political observers by defeating the liberal former governor Ellis Arnall in the Democratic primary. This victory set the stage for a hard-fought campaign against textile heir Bo Callaway, the first credible Republican candidate for governor since Reconstruction. In a bizarre turn of events, Callaway won the popular vote, but because of a write-in campaign for Arnall, the Republican lacked a majority of votes. Following the Georgia constitution of the day, the legislature, controlled by Democrats, decided the election in favor of Maddox.”

We’ve talked about this in the past in this space, but, it all begs the question, what does this have to do with water?

You see, right now, Georgia Tech, unsurprisingly, is undertaking a lot of construction projects. We talked about many a few weeks back on Scions, but one of particular interest to the readership of this site stands out. No, not the baseball stadium. Okay, actually, that’s probably the one that stands out to you all. Anyways, I’m talking about the Georgia Tech Eco-Commons.

Of course, with the water main break this past Saturday, the first thing in the news is not going to be a note about Georgia Tech’s nearby eight acres of bright orange dirt. But, as was apparent when countless gallons of water streamed across the open ground, it all had to go somewhere. Sure, into our pipes and faucets would have been nice, but, well, it was too late for that. That’s actually more or less the point of the construction.

There’s plenty about Georgia Tech that is shiny and modern, just as there is plenty that is old. This campus is special for the things it has done and seen - the obvious one on our brains as a collective is usually something like the Cumberland Game of 1916 - but we have our share of non-Institute historical things, too. In 1864, when Sherman and McPherson - that’s right, Fort McPherson is named after one of the guys that toasted the infrastructure hub of the insolent insurrectionist Southerners - on the move in from Kennesaw Mountain alighted the path of the Western and Atlantic Railroad for Bald Hill in the east and Ezra Church in the west at the foot of the Atlanta Defensive Works, their foes were stretched more or less east-to-west down what is now the North Avenue Corridor. One hundred years later, a segregationist tossed some young men looking for justice and a hot lunch from his building that would go on to quietly serve as the Tech job placement center for several decades.

891 Hemphill hasn’t existed since it was torn down in 2009. With the Eco Commons development, low steel outlines of the space, with a lighter canopy in the middle, will provide a noticeable, subtle permanent reminder of the significance of the location.

The project as a whole also serves a functional purpose. In Atlanta, as the development grew, it also pushed extensive human geological engineering out from the city. The local network of streams and creeks was turned under for the sake of easing transportation. At roughly the corner of Fowler and Tenth, two streams joined together to flow north and west as the Tanyard Branch of Peachtree Creek, past Collier’s Mill and Howell Mill and on to the Chattahoochee River. The two streams ran west and south on campus, with the southbound one running between Techwood and Fowler, under a viaduct on North Avenue, with a headwaters somewhere under what is now the Georgia Aquarium. Fitting, I think. The ravine that North Avenue viaduct crossed was later flattened with convict labor, and when students constructed a wooden grandstand on the west side of the valley, it became home to a football gridiron still in use today. That land is more famously known as Bobby Dodd Stadium.

The westward creek flowed through what is now the Ken Byers Tennis Complex, between the BioTech Quad and the President’s House, across Hemphill, and up through the Burger Bowl past the Campus Recreation Center. An explicitly stated goal of this extensive landscaping project would return flowing storm water runoff to the surface in these 8 acres, as the Eco Commons sits roughly in the center of this watershed.

The latest edition of the Campus Master Plan is actually pretty explicit about these goals. Published in 2004 and updated in 2014, it states that it aims to “plan an integrated functional open space system that reduces stormwater discharge to the city system.” Easily put.

In practice, this includes unearthing ghostly remnants of streams from eras gone by. Nowadays, their legacies are the city’s network of storm sewers. Of course, one of the most infamous Georgia Tech legends related to said sewers is the Ramblin’ Reck Club dunking freshmen who violated RAT rules into them by their ankles, but that’s neither here nor there. Whereas the transmission water main that caused the flood that blanketed most of the north side of campus follows streets, namely Hemphill and its former corridor across campus, the water egress follows the Eco Commons project towards the President’s House. In the 2014 Landscape Master Plan, perhaps the closest planning parallel to modern day, there are several lakes and ponds suggested in the basin study. We could debate the merits and detractions of Peter’s Parking Deck for quite a while, but its suggested replacement, dropping a pond into the heart of the Greek Sector, is probably a terrible idea. However, swapping fleet services for open water behind the proposed second phase of the Engineered Biosystems Buildings, of which the first phase was already gorgeous, would have been of particular use this weekend as, interestingly, the recent flood plain parallels Basin A exactly.

Map of the flood extent, project extent, main water flow, Pickrick footrpint, and water main break source.
Google Earth, Jake Grant.
Tech Water Basins, 2004 Master Plan
Georgia Tech Capital Planning and Space Management
Eco Commons Plan, 2020
Georgia Tech Capital Planning and Space Management

It’s both ironic and unsurprising that the water followed the valley to the northeast after spilling into the Eco Commons, looking at the other maps. But I think the underlying significance of the development is interesting. In the end, the water main break was significant, but, eventually will dry up. The orange dirt will be evacuated from the flooded bottom of the Dalney Street Parking Deck. But the root causes, Atlanta’s underlying infrastructure and topography, are interesting. They drove the city’s growth, be it defensive fortifications or sewer lines, and continue to shape decisions today. The critical aspect of new development is bringing out the best in the land, from built infrastructure to utilities, and everywhere in between.

Not every piece of land needs a building on it, and not every rolling hill, landmark tree, or rocky ravine will stand forever, but some of the ones that used mark the landscape deserve to be remembered.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.

If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. For the upcoming plan, see the June 1, 2020 column here. The History of Swimming and Diving (and Drownproofing) is coming up next.