The History of Athens, Georgia


Athens has its origins as a trading village in the early 1800s, when the University of Georgia was established. The city was named after Athens, Greece, due to the university’s classical education focus.

Founding of Athens

Athens was founded in 1801 as the home of the University of Georgia (UGA), making it one of the earliest university towns in the United States. The location was chosen due to its central location in the state and the offer of 633 acres of land along the Oconee River by local leaders.

Early Growth

The town grew slowly initially, with cotton farms fueling early growth. Transportation infrastructure like railroads and highways later enabled Athens to develop into a small regional trade center. By 1860, Athens’ population was around 2,500 people.

Civil War Era

During the Civil War, Athens was occupied by Union forces under General Sherman. The town suffered damage, but the university was mostly spared. Post-war recovery was difficult, but Athens endured.

20th Century Development

After 1900, Athens began to grow more substantially as the university expanded and the population increased. Key events shaped the Athens we know today.

Establishment of Key Institutions

Several important institutions were founded in Athens in the early 20th century:

  • The U.S. Navy Supply Corps school (now Navy Supply Corps Museum) opened in 1902
  • The State Normal School, a teacher’s college, was established in 1908 (now UGA College of Education)
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Southeastern Fruit and Tree Nut Research Laboratory was founded in Byron, GA near Athens in 1913
  • The Athens YMCA opened in 1914

Post-WWII Growth Spurt

After WWII ended, Athens experienced a major growth spurt:

  • Over 16,000 veterans enrolled at UGA using the GI Bill in 1945, doubling enrollment
  • New hospitals opened, including Athens General in 1951
  • Highway and suburb growth led to urban sprawl
  • Malls and shops catered to the growing middle class

By 1970, Athens’ population exceeded 45,000 as it became a bustling college town and regional economic hub.

Music and Arts Heyday

The next major milestone was Athens’ rise as a seminal music and arts hub in the 1980s and 90s:

Birth of an Indie Music Mecca

Several major bands rose out of Athens’ burgeoning underground scene in this era:

  • R.E.M formed in 1980, bringing Athens indie music to global fame
  • The B-52’s also put Athens on the map with their New Wave hits
  • Other major bands included Love Tractor, Pylon, and Drive-By Truckers

Athens was a hotbed of musical experimentation and creativity, centered around local venues and record labels. This cemented the city’s artistic reputation.

Lasting Influence

Stars like R.E.M. and the B-52’s raised the city’s profile and influenced future generations. Music and arts remain integral to Athens’ culture today.


The music boom blended with existing outlets like the UGA Lamar Dodd School of Art to foster a vibrant local arts and performance community that continues to thrive.

Recent History

Athens retained its artistic spirit even as the college town continued urbanizing and expanding economically.

Development Continues

In recent decades, Athens has seen steady development:


  • The city’s economy diversified with growth in sectors like technology, healthcare, manufacturing, and sustainability sciences
  • Revitalization of downtown with new shops, restaurants and housing catering to a hip, artsy crowd


  • Expansions to the airport, medical centers, convention facilities, and local infrastructure
  • Public transportation improvements like issuance of the first multijurisdictional special purpose local option sales tax (TSPLOST) in 1987 used to fund road, sidewalk, and trail projects

As Athens grew, careful planning preserved its distinctive character while allowing managed expansion.

Looking to the Future

As Athens celebrates its bicentennial, it looks ahead to a bright future while retaining its artistic spirit.

Creative Economy

Athens continues prioritizing arts, music and culture through downtown investment, small business support, and events like the Athens Human Rights Festival.


The university and local government promote environmental sustainability and stewardship through green space conservation, plastic reduction campaigns, and solar energy projects.

Transportation Innovations

Initiatives like the Alternative Fueled Vehicle Rideshare Program typify Athens’ innovative and forward-thinking transportation improvements.

Athens’ rich history has informed its uniqueness as a haven for art, music, sustainability and non-conformist culture. The city has retained its distinctive identity while allowing thoughtful expansion, with an exciting path ahead.

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  • Head south on Prince Ave toward E Broad St/US-78 Trunk/GA-10 Loop. Continue to follow Prince Ave past GA-10 Loop/US-78 Trunk/N Lumpkin St. Turn left onto Smith St, then take the 1st right onto Roywood Dr. Make a slight left onto Prometheus Cir, then turn right. Turn left onto Smokey Rd/Woodstone Dr, then turn right to stay on Smokey Rd. Turn right onto Foundry St, then turn left at the 1st cross street onto Round Table Rd. The destination, 130 Round Table Rd, will be on the right.
  • rom the start point, take a left turn onto Franklin St. Turn left onto Dearing St, then continue onto Plaza Dr. Turn right onto Forest Hills Rd, then continue onto Smokey Rd. Turn right onto Foundry St, then turn left at the 1st cross street onto Round Table Rd. The destination, 130 Round Table Rd, will be on the right.
  • Take a left onto E Broad St/US-78 Trunk/GA-10 Loop and continue as it turns slightly right and becomes Gaines School Rd. Turn left onto Lexington Hwy/GA-10 Loop/GA-335/US-129/US-78, then take the 1st right onto Old Hull Rd. Take the 2nd left onto Smokey Rd, then turn right to stay on Smokey Rd. Turn right onto Foundry St, then turn left at the 1st cross street onto Round Table Rd. The final destination, 130 Round Table Rd, is on the right.