Under clear Roman skies and 60-degree temperatures, the 24-year-old Rome native and her friend, Kathryn Thomas, 23, who both work at Heaven’s Attic Christian bookstore, spent their half-hour lunch break above the city on Myrtle Hill.
“You kinda feel like you’re spying on the town below, like you’re floating on a cloud over Rome,” Babel said.
“Hey, what a view. Right?” she asked.
Rome’s founders in 1834 thought so, too.
In May of that year, Zachariah B. Hargrove, Philip Walker Hemphill, William Smith, John H. Lumpkin and Daniel R. Mitchell drew names from a hat, each vying for a chance to name the would-be city. As luck would have it, Mitchell’s name was drawn and his suggestion for “Rome” was adopted. Other suggestions included Hillsboro, Hamburg, Warsaw and Pittsburgh.
But Mitchell thought the city’s topography mirrored that of ancient Rome and its seven hills: Palatine, Capitoline, Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, Caelian and Aventine.
Today, the modern “City of Seven Hills” includes Myrtle, Blossom, Clock Tower, Jackson, Lumpkin and Old Shorter hills and Mount Aventine. And all have evolved — in name, geology and mystique — through Rome’s fabled history.
After all, “anything of our history is who we are today,” Babel insisted.
Named for 600 crepe myrtle shrubs planted at the cemetery’s inception, Myrtle Hill became the city’s “new” cemetery in 1857, replacing Oak Hill, which had served Rome since 1837. Myrtle Hill is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But before it became a cemetery, Myrtle Hill, located in what was then Hillsboro, was called Fort Stovall, said Chip Tilly, archivist for the Rome Area History Museum.
Stovall’s vantage point was ideal for artillery position during the Civil War, Tilly said. The hill towers over the Etowah River near its confluence with the Oostanaula, where both rivers form the Coosa. Armament stockpiles once were kept inside a tunnel located at “Stovall’s” northern peak.
The tunnel, Tilly said, burrowed through Myrtle’s center, exiting at the cemetery’s southern slope, where Confederate and Union soldiers are now buried.
“Legend has it, the Battey vault was built where the tunnel’s opening once was,” Tilly speculated.
The vault, or mausoleum, holds the body of Dr. Robert Battey, a Rome surgeon recognized for performing the world’s first oophorectomy, or, surgical removal of the ovaries. The surgery took place in the Omberg House, which is still located at 615 W. First St. behind City Hall. Battey’s vault is the cemetery’s largest.
A black and white photo at the museum shows a cavern-like entranceway on Myrtle’s then barren peak, where the vault now stands.
Before refrigeration was invented, Romans, whose out-of-town relatives had died while visiting the city, asked for and were granted permission to store their loved ones’ bodies inside the vault.
More than 40 bodies were never claimed and remain there today, according to a Greater Rome Convention and Visitors Bureau leaflet.
Tilly said the tunnel was eventually imploded, destroying any evidence it ever existed.
But fact or fiction, Rome native Anne Culpepper considers Myrtle Hill her “25-acre classroom.”
The 1951 Rome High School graduate conducts tours there year-round.
“It’s just beautiful,” she said, delighting in Myrtle Hill’s terraced slopes, manicured landscape, hulking oak and magnolia trees and elaborate monuments.
Two of Rome’s founders are buried at Myrtle’s northern peak, Daniel Mitchell of Canton, who named and planned Rome, and Zachariah B. Hargrove of Cassville. A large marble slab marks Hargrove’s grave, but “there’s no actual record of him being buried there,” said Culpepper.
Other notable Roman’s interred in Myrtle Hill are Ellen Louise Axson Wilson, a Rome native and the first wife of Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of the United States, and Alfred Shorter, for whom Shorter College is named. He also sold the Myrtle Hill property to the city of Rome.
America’s Known Soldier, Charles Graves, is entombed in Myrtle Hill’s northeast corner. The South Broad Street Bridge, which serves as the cemetery’s access to central Rome, was named in Graves’ honor in 2000. He was among the last U.S. casualties during World War I.
It comes as no surprise, said Babel during her lunch break, that Romans would honor their dead atop Myrtle Hill’s lofty perch, or any hill in Rome for that matter.
From there, they’re closer to God, “but God is everywhere, vertically speaking,” she added.
And hills protect the buried from floods, which were a frequent occurrence before the levee system was built around the city’s central business district in the late 1930s, Culpepper said.
Thus, two more hills in Rome also serve as hallowed ground: Mount Aventine and Lumpkin Hill.
Named after ancient Rome’s Mount Aventine, this 4-acre enclave sits between South Broad Street and the Etowah River. It was developed in 1875, said Paula Blaylock, an interior designer, who as president of the Mount Aventine Community Association raised money to build a marker commemorating Aventine’s inception, “Est. 1875.” The iron and stone marker stands in the center of the neighborhood along Lookout Circle.
In the mid 1800s, workers at the Noble Foundry, an armament manufacturer located at East First Avenue where Southeastern Mills now sits, test-fired cannons across the Etowah River into Aventine’s northern ridge.
In Roger Aycock’s book, “All Roads to Rome,” the former Rome News-Tribune reporter and local historian wrote: “Rusted relics of Civil War days, these balls once whistled daily across the river when each newly made cannon was test-fired to prove its accuracy.”
Apart from those rusted relics, Aventine’s hidden treasure is a Jewish cemetery dating back to the early 1800s. It is located at the hill’s highest point, Culpepper said, and is a couple hundred feet from her childhood home.
“Isn’t it magnificent?” she asked, pulling open an iron gate at the cemetery’s stone entrance. Culpepper strolled past each headstone, reciting on-cue biographies of the interred, as though they whispered them in her ear.
Tracey Chesser, 35, and her husband, Joe, have called Aventine home since they relocated to Rome from Memphis about three years ago.
“There was a lot of history attached to the neighborhood,” said Chesser. “I’ve always been drawn toward older neighborhoods.”
“It’s a good view, when the leaves are off the trees, and when its cold, the sunlight just twinkles,” Blaylock said.
Looking north from Mount Aventine toward Eighth Avenue and Riverside Parkway, Oak Hill Cemetery, central Rome’s third hilltop respite, lies in the distance.
Though highway workers during Turner McCall Boulevard’s construction in 1956 leveled Lumpkin’s peak, the cemetery remains intact.
A stone wall boundary lines Riverside Parkway across from the Rome-Floyd County Library, behind T.J. Applebee’s restaurant and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Oak Hill’s first interments were Rebecca Wright Mann and James McIntee.
John H. Lumpkin, one of Rome’s founders — born June 13, 1813, and died, July 10, 1860 — also is buried there. A monument, about 20 feet tall, stands over his plot.
After Lumpkin Hill was dismantled by workers, its dirt was used to reinforce a foundation for the Holiday Inn, now the Ramada Inn, across Turner McCall Boulevard, said Shirley Kinney, a genealogist. It also helped fortify the levee along the Oostanaula at the Kirkland Bridge.
Although three of Rome’s seven hills provide safe havens for Rome’s deceased, three more have provided life to a thriving mountain metropolis.
Clock Tower Hill and Jackson Hill both have supported Rome’s water reserves in the past.
And today, Blossom Hill’s Bruce Hamler Water Treatment Plant, named for a former city manager, handles about 10 million gallons per day from the Oostanaula and Etowah rivers, giving thirsty Romans a safe and ample supply, said Joe Finger, the plant’s superintendent for 21 years.
The hill, which adjoins Jackson Hill from the north, overlooks the city’s public works complex on Vaughn Road.
The Hamler plant was built in 1939, Finger said, and was upgraded in 1955.
George MacGruder Battey Jr., a descendent of Dr. Robert Battey, wrote in his “A History of Rome and Floyd County”:
“Many years ago, Blossom Hill was founded by Mrs. Mary Shephard, a former slave, and her daughter, Maggie. The exact year is not known.”
Battey continues, “after emancipation, Mary and Maggie were wandering in search of shelter and food. The stopped at a house in North Rome and asked for food. It was the home of Judge J. Reece.”
The judge and his wife, wrote Battey, gave the mother and daughter food and jobs as maids. While Mary and her daughter lived with the judge, they would pick blossoms from trees on a nearby hill. Mary named it “Blossom Hill.”
John Garrett of Rome, an artifact collector with an extensive collection of Civil War relics, said Battey’s account makes sense. In the early 1800s, both Blossom and Jackson hills were covered with peach orchards.
Jackson Hill encompasses about 50 acres around Reservoir Street and Dogwood Drive in East Rome, situated on the south end of Blossom Hill.
Before the Rome Convention and Visitors Bureau and Coosa Valley Regional Development Center located there in the late 1970s, the hill held Fort Norton from 1863-1864, according to a city sponsored development plan.
Fort Norton was named for Charles B. Norton, according to Gilbert Smith’s “Historical Narrative of Fort Norton/Jackson.” Norton was killed at the first battle of Manassas during the Civil War. Smith also wrote that a Jackson family owned most of the surrounding property, hence the name “Jackson Hill.”
Its wooded peaks shelter entrenchments and earthworks left from Confederate soldiers who fought approaching Union troops during the Civil War.
Jim Dixon, Rome’s assistant city manager, said plans to develop the hill into a park and nature preserve are ongoing .
He also said the city hopes to develop theme trails highlighting the area’s history: the Civil War, Works Progress Administration during the great depression and the site of Rome’s waterworks.
The Jackson Hill waterworks opened March 24, 1894. It replaced a reservoir housed in Rome’s Clock Tower. Jackson was abandoned in 1967 but remnants of the old structure still remain.
The Rome Civic Center also is located on Jackson Hill. Its stone facade reflects an architectural era made popular by the Works Progress Administration during the depression, said Anne Culpepper. Several historic markers can be found outside the visitors center.
Old Shorter Hill
What began as the Cherokee Baptist Female College in 1843 was renamed Shorter Female College in 1877.
Alfred Shorter of Washington, Ga., moved to Rome with his wife, Martha, in 1837. He was a successful businessman, according to historical records, and he contributed $6,000 toward construction for First Baptist Church in Rome. As a result, the female college, which eventually became Shorter, was founded in the church’s basement.
Shorter College was located in downtown Rome, in the Between the Rivers District between Third and College avenues.
The president’s house, Bellevue, is all that’s left of the original campus. It is now the home of Dr. Hugh H. Hanson, a retired physician and his wife, Ann, a Rome native. They restored the Victorian-style house in 1985. Most of its original hardware, including glass paned windows and a twist-style brass doorbell are still in use.
Hanson said the original Shorter College was eventually demolished on site and buried in the hill.
Shorter’s gymnasium once stood in the middle of Hanson’s cul-de-sac, he said. The school’s top floors burned in a fire and the building eventually outlived its usefulness, Hanson said, so the high school was moved down the street.
Fortress-like stone walls left from the college line Third Avenue today. Wrought iron gates and a three-tiered steel stairwell that once led to the school now lead to the new neighborhood.
Clock Tower Hill
Rome’s Clock Tower is the city’s most recognized landmark. And Clock Tower Hill is Rome’s most visible, said Anne Culpepper during a guided tour.
In 1872, James Noble’s Foundry built Rome’s first centrally located waterworks systems — the same foundry that fired cannonballs into Mount Aventine— on the hill.
When the waterworks moved to Jackson Hill, a 250,000 gallon, 63-foot-tall tank left behind provided an ideal base for the clock’s brick decagon superstructure.
The inside of the tower has since been turned into a museum and features a painted mural. A spiral staircase, totaling 107 steps, winds around the tank’s outer wall to an observation deck.
The tower, which includes the clock works and four faces, is 104 feet tall.
“Guess who was up here the when the clock struck midnight in 1999?” asked Culpepper, winking.
Rome is replete with history. It’s where the rivers meet and the mountains begin, And its hills offer a glimpse into an intriguing past and a promising future.
Montgomery M. Folsom, in his poem “Rome,” wrote:
“Pictured plains and verdant valleys
Flushed with glorious harvest hopes,
Blithe the balmy breeze that dallies
On thy bloom-embroidered slopes;
Opulent with promise springing
From the freshly-furrowed loam,
Jubilant the joy bells ringing
On thy hills, resplendent Rome!