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The Railroad Man

By Bill Bell

On March 31, 1932 the front pages of the Atlanta newspapers told of how presidents of the prestigious Capital City Club and Oglethorpe University along with business leaders such as R. W. Woodruff gathered to pay their last respects to a man who found success in two widely different careers, E. Rivers.

Perhaps a good place to start would be in 1864 where 500 miles to the north, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, a confederate soldier, a private from Pike County, Georgia, fell in battle. Barely recovered from his wounds at Fisher's Hill, he now lay fallen at Cedar Creek with a fractured skull. He would be the father of Eretus Rivers.

E. "Petie" Rivers was born October 7th or 9th in 1872 in Pike County, Georgia, a son of Burrel Green Rivers and Leonora Cothran Rivers, both members of prominent southern families. Educated in the schools of Milner, Georgia, Eretus left school at the age of 14 "to become a railroad man, and got himself a job with the Central of Georgia." In 1886, he became an office boy for the railroad in Atlanta. In 1892, the Atlanta City Directory lists a clerk with the Central of Georgia Railway named Eretus Rivers, who boarded at 63 Pryor Street in the home of H. O. Aikens, a salesman. By 1894 the house was owned by Dr. Thomas Spencer Powell, a prominent local physician. At the time his attractive niece, Una Sperry, was boarding with Dr. Powell and his wife Jennie.

In 1897 at the age of 25, E. Rivers was promoted to the office of traffic manager of the Macon terminals and was the youngest railroad official in the United States. This feat led to his inclusion in the Cyclopedia of Georgia in 1906.

At 11 o'clock on September 12, 1900, Eretus Rivers and Una Sperry were married at the home of Una's parents at Bedford City, Virginia. Una had returned home to Virginia to mourn the death of her aunt Mrs. Jennie P. Powell, widow of Dr. Powell. Una had lived in Atlanta with the Powells almost since infancy. Mr. J. D. Massey traveled from Atlanta to be best man. After the wedding, Mr. and Mrs. Rivers traveled to Dr. and Mrs. Powell's old country estate on Roxboro Road near the Fulton and DeKalb County line.

In 1903, Eretus Rivers returned to Atlanta, not as a railroad manager, but as partner in a real estate firm, Robson and Rivers. By 1908, Eretus Rivers had established the E. Rivers Realty Company. He started his career as a developer by "purchasing several hundred acres of wooded, wild land" straddling Peachtree Road north of Peachtree Creek. So, in 1908 with Frank C. Owens, President of the Southern Land Company, Eretus Rivers planned the Peachtree Heights Subdivision. After the death of Eretus in 1932, Una Rivers declared the land for the duck pond to be a park for the general benefit of the residents of Peachtree Heights.

Eretus Rivers had other real estate interests within Peachtree Heights East. On October 15, 1909, he bought from Leontine Chisolm Andrews the property between what is today Brookwood Drive, East Wesley Road, the lots next to the east of Acorn Avenue, and Lindbergh Drive. The purchase price was $1,000 subject to $12,000 principle payment to Hugh Inman. In 1910 O. F. Hauffmann laid out the plat of the E. Rivers Subdivision in what is now the district of Peachtree Heights East.

Mr. Rivers was very active in community affairs. He helped organize the Atlanta Boys Club, which later merged with the YMCA. He also helped found Oglethorpe University and served on executive board. He served several years on the Fulton County School Board, and was Vice President and Business Manager of the Stone Mountain Confederate Monument. In addition to his real estate business, he became First Vice President of the Atlanta Joint Stock Land Bank and "a director in several enterprises." The elementary school E. Rivers bears his name, as does Rivers Road, which runs through the Peachtree Heights Park he helped develop with Walter P. Andrews around 1912.

In 1905 E. Rivers joined the Capital City Club and was active in the club for over twenty years. Known as "Petie", he started a tradition in the club in 1923 when he and Una held an annual barbecue for the governing committee at their estate on Roxboro Road. In 1927 he was elected president and was instrumental in erecting a new country club in Brookhaven in 1928. His name along with Una's are on the plaque commemorating the people responsible for the new building.

On that spring afternoon in 1932, the friends of E. "Petie" Rivers paid one last tribute to a leader who helped develop some of the most desirable and beautiful sections of Atlanta along Peachtree Road from Buckhead to Oglethorpe. As they left the funeral on their way to forging an international city, Mr. Rivers' body was carried to his final resting place in Salem, Virginia. Somewhere that night, a shrill whistle pierced the darkness as a big locomotive gave the railroad man his last ride.

Bill Bell is a Buckhead neighborhood historian and vice president of the Peachtree Heights East Neighborhood Association.

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