At the time of the accident, Atlanta was a small city in comparison to many other major metropolises in the U.S., measuring a quaint 35 square miles. Many of its leading citizens had moved from the city in the early 1900s to the unincorporated Fulton County area called Buckhead to avoid paying Atlanta property taxes. The growing popularity and availability of the automobile and a paved Peachtree Road made it easy for them to simply drive past Palisades Road and be free of the burden of city taxes.
The idea of expansion dated back to the 1930s. By the 1940s, indomitable Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield got behind it making it a priority of his administration. Hartsfield served as Atlanta’s mayor twice, from 1937 to 1941 and from 1942 to 1962.
Meanwhile Buckhead’s growth was stretching the services provided by Fulton to the point that the Buckhead 50 Club, a civic organization, brought together business leaders to solve issues as basic as street lights and garbage collection, to say nothing of police and fire.
The main opponent of annexation was R.E. “Red” Dorough, the unofficial mayor of Buckhead. So opposed was he to the idea that he orchestrated a mock funeral for Hartsfield, in which an empty coffin was carried down Peachtree to “bury” the idea of Buckhead becoming a part of the city. Dorough was communicating what many in Buckhead felt. A vast majority of the community was opposed to annexation. They may have said publicly that they supported the measure, but the old axiom that people vote with their wallets held true. A voter referendum in 1947 to increase the boundaries of the city of Atlanta to include Buckhead failed.
When a fire started by a janitor trying to destroy a wasps’ nest in 1948 burned Buckhead’s main elementary school to the ground, the stance began to soften. In the newspaper articles covering the fire, in which no one died or was injured, the conversation veered to the annexation of Buckhead. Even Dorough, the staunch opponent, used the blaze to say the city and the county needed to open discussions with residents to reach a solution.
Hartsfield was quoted in the paper blaming the 2-inch water pipes for allowing the fire to get of control. He even took aim at the residents themselves in his subtle way.
“Think of the protection some of the fine homes would get out here where the plugs are served by 2-inch mains. The fire trucks could park and watch the fire for all the good they would do,” Hartsfield said at the time.
In February 1951 an advisory voter referendum passed, which on Jan. 1, 1952 allowed the city of Atlanta to triple in size and grow its population by 100,000 residents. The northern boundary of Atlanta, previously Palisades Road near the Brookwood split, was now Brookhaven.
The city would have figured out a way to annex Buckhead eventually, but following the failed referendum in 1947, the E. Rivers fire of 1948 certainly sped up the process.
Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is a sixth-generation Atlantan and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.