New Rocky Face Ridge Park in Whitfield County offers it all
By MITCH TALLEY
Some 158 years ago, Col. Alexander McIlvain was the highest-ranking soldier killed during the Civil War fighting in the Dalton area.
On the afternoon of July 25, 2022, Scott McIlvain looked on as Whitfield County opened its newest park – Rocky Face Ridge Park off Crow Valley Road – on the same hallowed ground where his ancestor had given his life trying to rescue one of his men during a battle there in May 1864.
In less than five minutes, 88 of his Federal troops had already been shot down. Col. McIlvain heard one of those injured men crying out in pain and ordered Capt. Samuel Wolfe to send out a rescue detail. “No sir, I will not, sir, for it is certain death for any man to cross upon that space,” Wolfe answered, offering instead to go save the injured man himself. The colonel then replied, “Never mind, I will do it myself.”
That decision proved to be ill-fated.
“Col. McIlvain took a couple of steps forward and received a shot to the left breast where he was mortally wounded, and he died later that afternoon further up Rocky Face Ridge,” local historian Bob Jenkins told the large crowd that had gathered beneath the hot Georgia sun for the grand opening of Rocky Face Ridge Park in July.
Sherman’s March to the Sea that ultimately won the war for the North began at Rocky Face Ridge, making it a key site for history buffs interested in the Civil War. Some 12 historical markers tell the story of the battle, but there’s much more to the new park.
With 1,000 acres of land, soaring atop a mountain and resting down in a valley, with a pond thrown in for good measure, the park will offer something for everyone, says former Whitfield County Commission Chairman Mike Babb, who has championed the facility for the past 20 years. During Babb’s first tenure in office from 1997 to 2004, the county acquired about 600 acres on the western side of the ridge. During his second tenure from 2009 to 2016, the county acquired the 301-acre Grant Farm, the site of two Civil War battles in 1864 as well as Confederate encampments during the winter of 1863-64 after the Battle of Chattanooga. The parking lot and trailheads are located on the farm now.
“We’re conserving a piece of property that’s got some historical value to it,” Babb explained, “and will also have value in the future for people who are not interested in the Civil War but who like getting out and enjoying nature. They can hike on it, they can bike on it, they can picnic on it, so it’s probably the best value for the money as far as a park because it’s a conservation park. You don’t have to build community centers and ballfields, so you can get by for a lot less money.”
In fact, Whitfield County taxpayers have only about a $600,000 investment in the park, with about $3 million more coming from a wide range of grants, foundations, and public donations.
A sign near the pavilion where the July ceremony was held recognizes 17 donors, including (in alphabetical order) Albert H. Griffin Family, American Battlefield Trust, Carpet Capital Running Club, Northwest Georgia Community Foundation, Dalton Utilities, Georgia Piedmont Land Trust, Land and Water Conservation Fund, Lyndhurst Foundation, National Park Service, Northwest Georgia SORBA, Riverview Foundation, Rural Trails Program, Save the Dalton Battlefields, Whitfield County and City of Dalton Greenspace Funds, Whitfield County Board of Commissioners, Whitfield County Historic Preservation Commission, and Whitfield County SPLOST.
“This day is really about the partnership” between those organizations, Whitfield County Commission Chairman Jevin Jensen said. “If you’re being candid with yourself, you cannot get 1,000 acres of undeveloped land for $3.4 million. This is a tens of millions of dollars investment that is now a crown jewel for Whitfield County, and we hope we can share it not just with this generation but future generations to come.” Kathryn Sellers of the Whitfield County Historic Preservation Commission agreed. “Think of what we have here,” she said. “The assets are unbelievable. We have a beautiful valley, and we have a mountain on which you can see the whole Atlanta campaign from Lookout Mountain all the way to Kennesaw on a good day. We have a valley where children can play. We have a pond; I have a vision and I think others do too of having a fishing dock [where] children can fish. The history is wonderful, and the fact that we have all these other amenities while they still saved the breastworks and the earthworks on this mountain so that we can tell the story of the Civil War is just amazing.”
Sellers, who also works for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, called the park “such a great draw” for local, regional and even national visitors “because this is a very, very special historic place with a lot of other amenities,” including a hiking trail to the top of the ridge, a cross country trail around the park, and about 10 miles of a mountain bike trail that circles the ridge.
Jenkins, with Save the Dalton Battlefields, called the facility “a multi-use park” that is an example “of what can happen when people come together and work together.”
Among those partners was Northwest Georgia SORBA (Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association), invited by Chairman Babb at a time when it appeared enough donors might not be found to build the park. Instead, SORBA came in and paid for a concept plan in 2016 that demonstrated a sustainable mountain bike trail could be built without impacting the historic structures on the land. Later, SORBA helped design that trail, provided $75,000 for its construction and volunteered 1,000 hours of in-kind labor. A $200,000 grant from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division also helped with trail construction.
“If you’ve been around this parking lot today, you’ve seen cars from all over the Southeast,” Northwest Georgia SORBA President Gaye Rice said. “People have been riding this trail now for nearly two years, and the buzz is just over the top. Everyone is so positive. They’re telling their friends, and people are coming to ride.” The park and trail, she said, “will showcase the beauty of Whitfield County and bring tourism to this area. It’s a gem in our crown, and we’re so excited for this grand opening and to be able to share this park with its history and beauty.”
Jim Ogden, chief historian with Chattanooga and Chickamauga National Military Park, reminded visitors that the battle on this land marked the beginning of the Atlanta Campaign on May 8, 1864. “While there will be more and bigger battles to the south, the campaign that will allow [Union Gen. William T.] Sherman in early September  to communicate to [Union Gen.] Ulysses S. Grant and President Lincoln ‘Atlanta is ours and fairly won,’ that campaign began here. This story is one that can now be better told.”
Ogden said for years when he was leading tours of the battlefields in North Georgia, he has had to be content with interpreting it from passing by on Crow Valley Road or stopping at Poplar Springs Church. “But now there’s an opportunity to stand on the grounds,” Ogden said, “ and for those who are hearty, there will be opportunity to make your way to the top as Col. McIlvain’s descendant did stand literally on the ground where these events unfolded.”
Keynote speaker Chris Welton, a Board of Trustees member with the American Battlefield Trust, said his organization has made “a renewed emphasis on education, and the best way to educate people is not just to let them read a book but to be able to touch and feel and see what happened some place.” That is not always possible, he said, pointing out that the site of the Battle of Atlanta, for example, has since been razed and replaced by I-20.
While he called the Civil War “a tragedy” and “horrific,” an emotionally charged Welton said “it’s part of who we are,” recalling a quote: “When a society compulsively disrespects its historical accomplishments, when it obsessively seeks to turn a good thing into a bad thing, the outlook for that society is bleak.”
“So what you’ve done here by celebrating what happened here, as tragic as it was – and we don’t celebrate the death, we don’t celebrate the destruction, we certainly don’t celebrate slavery,” Welton said, “but we do celebrate the attitude of the people who fought and died here and what caused them to do that, and the sacrifices that they made. Everybody fighting thought they were doing the right thing.”
At the end of the ceremony, Chairman Jensen presented awards of appreciation to Jenkins for his service as “honorary historian” and to Babb for his vision of the past 20 years. In fact, he announced that a pavilion on the site is being named in Babb’s honor.
“I’m proud of my share,” Babb said, “but my share is very small compared to what a lot and lot of other people, organizations, and foundations have done for this. I look forward to bringing my family over here for a picnic.”