Athens History

Athens Past Built a Solid Foundation for the Present

Cradled in the ancient Blue Ridge Mountains near the North and Middle Oconee Rivers lies Athens, Georgia, a flourishing city of unparalleled beauty and culture. Habitation of the site dates back to an ancient Cherokee settlement at Cedar Shoals on the Oconee River.

Athens is in Clarke County, which was founded on December 5, 1801, and named for heroic Elijah Clarke. Clarke County originally included parts of both Madison and Green counties in addition to present-day Oconee County.

The county’s namesake, Elijah Clarke, is most known for his influence and efforts to form treaties between settlers and the Cherokee and Creek Indian tribes. Clarke first traveled to Georgia from North Carolina in 1774 to act as a mediator between the new settlers and the native tribes in the area, eventually suspending hostilities with treaties with the Creek in 1782 and the Cherokee in 1792.

The City of Athens was incorporated on December 8, 1806. The University of Georgia had commenced classes in 1801, and the city was respectfully named in honor of the center of intellectual wealth that had been the heart of classical Greece. Elegant homes quickly sprang up around the new campus and the cultural and social life surrounding the college began to attract families of prosperity and national stature. At that time, industry rapidly grew, primarily that of cotton, brickworks, textile mills, and railroad transportation.

In the midst of this cultural renaissance came the devastation of the Civil War. Mercantile production suffered greatly, while more than 300 brave men and boys perished in battle. Fortunately, Athens escaped physical destruction because Sherman did not include the area in his legendary march to the sea.

When the war concluded, the Reconstruction period wrought even more havoc on the South. Athens was again spared much of the confusion, economic despair, and chaos that beset portions of the South during this time. Under the steady leadership of UGA and such men as Benjamin Harvey Hill, Howell Cobb, and Joseph Henry Lumpkin, Athens maintained its strong persona, its guiding vision for the future, and its extraordinary forward-moving impetus. Textile factories and related businesses expanded at an unprecedented rate, resulting in a phenomenal level of growth in the New South.

The burgeoning economic prosperity was echoed by the community. The Lucy Cobb Institute (with a reputation as one of the preeminent girls’ schools in the nation) and mansions of stunning opulence marked the Victorian period. The Athens Street Railway Company was founded in 1870. The year 1871 marked the time in which the seat of Clarke County was moved from Watkinsville to Athens.

The final quarter of the 20th century brought about an emphasis on historical preservation. The citizens of Athens dedicated themselves to the safeguarding of the city’s rich architectural heritage. Additionally, saving taxpayer money by eliminating duplication of services sparked the movement to consolidate city and county government services. The school systems of the city and county consolidated in 1955, and the municipal and county governments followed suit on August 7, 1990, after several attempts over a 20-year span.

The protection of a revered history, the commitment to maintaining the highest standards of living, and a clear and dynamic vision of a shared future are the guiding forces behind the ongoing success story of our city – Athens, Georgia.