by Larry UpthegroveAlfred Austell was born in Jefferson County, Tenn., near Dandridge, on Jan. 14, 1814, one week after the War of 1812’s Battle of New Orleans. He grew up in lush foothills, in the shadow of the Great Smokey Mountains, where his father worked him on the farm until he was 16.
At 16, young Alfred sought greener pastures by riding across the mountains to Spartanburg, S.C., to seek employment with his older brother, William W. Austell, an established merchant there.
In addition to his store, William was also heavily invested in cotton when the price bottom fell out and left him facing a $20,000 debt that threatened to bankrupt him. In a time when the average yearly income was $832, the debt was a staggering amount. However, working together, the brothers managed to hang on to and improve the business until the price of cotton increased, enabling them to slowly climb out of the hole. Hard determination and good business acumen prevailed under very adverse circumstances, with Alfred displaying both characteristics at an early adult age.
Alfred next ventured to the big city of New York, where he spent the winter of 1835 fascinated by the business atmosphere. The next year, being country boys at heart, Alfred and his brother moved their business to a “country city” on the Chattahoochee River, Campbellton, Ga., which happened to be the county seat of Campbell County.
There, with enough capital and accumulated business knowledge, the brothers soon became the leading merchants in the area. By November 1842, William fell ill and eventually died, leaving his wife and children in Alfred’s care. The young man shouldered and carried the load without complaint. William Austell was buried in the now mostly abandoned Old Baptist Cemetery, about a half block from the Old Campbell County courthouse site in Campbellton.
Alfred had more money than he needed to run his business because it had already expanded to the maximum demand. Therefore, he began to invest in land and cotton crops. It was good timing, and he did very well. So well, in fact, that as the nearby city of Atlanta grew, he was able to heavily invest his capital in properties and businesses there. In 1853, he married Miss Francina Cameron of La Grange, Ga., and began his family.
The next year, the Atlanta and La Grange Railroad was completed, ignoring Campbellton and establishing a depot in Fairburn, Ga., also in Campbell County. The presence of the railroad in that town was very attractive to businesses in Campbellton, and they began a slow migration that was sure to doom the city on the river – the county seat even moved to Fairburn in 1870.
Instead of following the other merchants to Fairburn, Alfred closed his holdings in Campbellton and relocated to Atlanta, where he was quickly one of the new city’s leaders, especially in financial circles. In 1857, the year of his arrival, Alfred and E.W. Holland bought the newly-organized Bank of Fulton, with Holland becoming the president and Austell the cashier. They, together with Jared Whitaker, became the directorate. The bank was located on the south side of Alabama Street between Whitehall and Pryor, and did a very prosperous business until the arrival of the Union Army in September 1864, which put it out of business for good.
Austell was completely opposed to secession, but once the die was cast, he served the state well. He was too old for marching in an army, but his commercial and financial service was valuable. During the battles around Atlanta, he was temporarily in active service as a member of the Home Guards under Colonel Z.A. Rice.
After the war was over, Alfred was invited to Washington, D.C., to meet with his friend, president Andrew Johnson (Editor’s Note: Jackson and Austell grew up within 30 miles of each other in Tennessee, but it is not clear if that was the source of their friendship). Johnson wanted him to accept the role of Provisional Governor of Georgia, but Austell declined the position, not wanting to stir the ire of his fellow southerners by serving in a Republican administration. Also, Alfred had important work to be done in Atlanta.
On June 3, 1865 the Act of Congress to incorporate national banking associations was passed. It was under these provisions that the Atlanta National Bank was organized on Sept. 2 of the same year, which coincided with the one-year anniversary of the surrender of the city to members of Union Gen. Slocum’s staff. The organization meeting was held in New York City, with representatives from New York, Charleston, Chester, S.C., and Atlanta. They opened for business, the first National Bank in the South, with a capital stock of $100,000.
Until a suitable banking house could be completed, they operated at Austell’s home, originally built by Judge Reuben Cone, on the south side of Marietta Street, next door to the Presbyterian Church. In a few months, the new bank had a building on the south side of Alabama Street (just east of Whitehall Street), housing the commercial catalyst that helped to bring our city out of the ashes and into the prosperity that has blessed it ever since.
Next, in a few years, Alfred turned his energies toward railroad development. With Alfred and Col. Buford of Richmond leading the way, stalwart citizens of the city developed the Atlanta and Charlotte Airline Railroad, later called the Southern Railroad. Col. Buford was president and Alfred served as vice president. He also became an active director and large stockholder in the Georgia-Pacific running from Birmingham to Atlanta, and in the east Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia, running from Atlanta to Rome. The small station 18 miles from Atlanta, which is the junction of these two lines, was named in his honor, Austell, which became Austell, GA.
From the close of the Civil War until his death, Alfred Austell was one of the most important financial stanchions in the south. His integrity and business acumen was unchallenged and an asset to his family and to his city. When he died of a paralytic stroke on Dec. 6, 1881, Henry Grady wrote of him in The Atlanta Constitution:
“Wise, prudent, and sagacious, he carried the enterprises of which he was the head through storm and sunshine, amassing fortunes for those who were connected with him, standing as a bulwark of Atlanta finances. Better than all this, general Austell died in the fullness of integrity, without a blot on his career, leaving to his children the legacy of an honest and stainless name.”