What's In A Name? | Castleberry Hill

Jul 19, 2018

Atlanta's Castleberry Hill neighborhood is so hot, rapper 2 Chainz opened a restaurant there. 

You may know the neighborhood west of downtown for its funky creatives and hipster lunch spots, but in the 1800s, it was a red-light district and home to Atlanta’s Snake Nation.   

 

The Snake Nation was a ragtag group of bootleggers, gamblers, prostitutes and literal snake oil peddlers. According to Atlanta Magazine, these wild characters ran the city's sketchiest streets. They lived in an Atlanta far different from the genteel Southern city you might imagine.

Marthasville, as Atlanta was previously known, was more Wild West than Southern charm. The railroad town was home to just 2,500 people, but by 1850 it had more than 40 saloons. That would all change the next year, with the infamous mayoral election of 1851.

An artistic representation of the wild days of the Snake Nation
Credit Zohar Lazar

At the time, Atlanta voters fell into two political parties: the Moral Party and the Free and Rowdy Party. Unsurprisingly, much of the Free and Rowdy Party's support came from the Snake Nation. They earned it by hanging out in saloons and picking up bar tabs. The Moral Party campaign was much more wholesome: they handed out apples and candy.

Until what one historian deemed "the most lawless year in Atlanta's history," the so-called "Rowdies" dominated Atlanta politics. Atlanta was truly a rowdy city from the start: its first three mayors (Moses Formwalt, Benjamin Bomar and Willis Buell) had all been Rowdy candidates.

Jonathan Norcross, the Moral candidate, was a stranger to the South. In 1844, the New England merchant had opened a small sawmill here. He quickly amassed wealth thanks to one crucial customer: the Georgia Railroad. Norcross grew to prominence in the merchant class, eventually helping Atlanta obtain a city charter. After three Rowdy mayors, Norcross had had enough — he wanted a moral society for Atlanta.

When Norcross (who has a metro Atlanta town named after him) won on the Moral Party's ticket in 1851, he effectively ended the Rowdy dynasty. The Snake Nation went crazy. The following weeks brought violent riots and protests against the new mayor's office. Local jails became filled with Rowdies and Snake Nation members.

But true to their party's name, the Rowdies couldn't be contained long. Jails were far from secure and prisoners were determined to run free. The Snake Nation helped orchestrate massive prison outbreaks. In one legendary escape, rebels lifted a log stockade off of the ground so prisoners could crawl out. The new mayor's term was off to a chaotic start.

The streets of Castleberry Hill (mid 20th century)
Credit Georgia State University

Eventually, Mayor Norcross cracked down on the red-light district. Under hooded disguises, the Moral Party burned the Snake Nation's neighborhood to the ground. Buildings were torched, women kidnapped and men brutally attacked in one fateful night. The once-bustling seedy streets were reduced to ash and dust.

Years later, another merchant came swooping in to resurrect the community. Under the guidance of traders like young Daniel Castleberry, the neighborhood quickly industrialized. Its railroads and warehouses supported much of the city's growth after the Civil War.

A mural honoring Castleberry Hill's rich history
Credit Jonathan Phillips, Curbed Atlanta

Now, more than a hundred years later, Castleberry Hill honors its rags-to-riches past. The National Park Service acknowledged it as Atlanta’s most complete surviving warehouse district. Many of those warehouses have become gathering spaces for a diverse and creative community.

During the neighborhood’s monthly Art Stroll, shops, galleries and bars host a festival to showcase their work. Everything from graphic design studios and karaoke bars to spas and urban farms join in on the celebration. Residents can stop to sample soul food at Atlanta icon Paschal’s or enjoy a signature cocktail at 2 Chainz' restaurant Escobar.

The Snake Nation remains in the heart of Castleberry Hill today; it's now a creative community co-op. Its members still live by the original group’s rules: Live Free. Die Rowdy.