Bob Cunningham drove to Atlanta recently to take a bicycle ride he wishes he could have taken closer to home.
Cunningham, a retired St. Simons Island lawyer and devoted bicyclist, rode a section of the Silver Comet Trail, a former railroad bed converted into a multi-use path 13 miles north of Atlanta. The trail runs 61.5 miles through Paulding, Polk and Cobb counties.
“I’ve never done that,’’ he said of riding the Silver Comet.
He worked for years on the Georgia Coast Rail Trail committee, a group that worked to convert a former CSX railroad bed to a 50-mile multi use trail that would have run from Riceboro to Kingsland passing through western Glynn County on the way. It would be nice to say they met some headwinds but the more apt description of the Glynn County opposition was a solid rock wall, Cunningham said.
With only about 3½ miles complete in and near Woodbine, the committee decided in 2019 to “fold the tent,’’ he said.
Committee members had a lot of examples where rail-to-trail projects brought prosperity. The Swamp Rabbit Trail that runs from Reedy River Falls Park in downtown Greenville, S.C., north through Travelers Rest draws thousands of riders a year and businesses from bicycle shops to restaurants to craft breweries have flourished alongside it.
The Silver Comet is so popular that real estate ads boast proximity to the trail, and the Virginia Creeper Trail, which runs from Abingdon, Va., to Whiteside Mountain Recreation Area with Damascus as its midpoint is immensely popular. It crosses numerous converted trestles over creeks, a lake and intersects frequently with the Appalachian Trail. People travel to Abingdon just to ride the Virginia Creeper and they stay in motels and dine at local restaurants not to mention the businesses along the trail offering shuttle services, snacks, bicycle pumps and other wares.
There are plenty of others, and Cunningham rides a lot of them. He went to Tallahassee to ride a 16-mile trail from there to St. Marks, an old port on the Gulf of Mexico. Indeed, the old railroad had hauled farm yields to St. Marks for shipment. He rode an eight-mile trail at Milton near Pensacola.
“Both of these were 12-feet wide, with bathrooms now and then and benches along the way,’’ Cunningham said.
When Ben Slade retired as executive director of the Land Trust after securing what is now the Guale Preserve, he took on establishing a series of trails in Glynn County, including the rail-to-trail project.
“I just always felt they were the best thing you could do for a community,’’ he said.
He is encouraged by what he sees lately on the Coastal Greenway. Glynn County has put money into the project and has asked the state to include bike lanes when it widens U.S. 17 north of Brunswick.
But when he explored the rail-to-trail project, he ran into strong opposition especially around Altamaha Park and from some powerful locals who worried their hunting leases would be endangered.
Opponents at Altamaha Park said, in effect, “There ain’t no way you’re bringing a bunch of hippies into our campground.”
Fred Hay, who manages the Department of Natural Resources operations on Sapelo Island, was on the same committee as Cunningham and Ron Sadowski, who is retired from the state.
“It’s been heartbreaking,’’ he said. “That rail trail from Kingsland to Riceboro makes so much sense,’’ Hay said.
There was wide support all along the trail except for areas on both sides of the critical Altamaha River crossing.
“We needed Glynn County’s support, and it just didn’t care. In fact, we got active opposition,’’ Hay said.
Glynn County Commissioner Mike Browning freely acknowledges his opposition.
“I’m not against it. I’m strongly against it,’’ Browning said.
He cited a number of problems, including CSX’s promise to tear out all the trestles that cross swamps and streams because of the liability, Browning said. Without those trestles there would be water gaps in the trail that would be expensive to bridge, he said.
Also, much of the roadbed between U.S. 341 and Georgia 32 is in private hands. The owner of a lot of timber land bought the roadbed as an access for his logging trucks and heavy equipment, Browning said.
Because the railroad bed was elevated, the new owner found it better than the roads he could build, and it lifted a burden for the railroad, Browning said.
The railroad was eager to divest itself of the liability, Browning said, and “He took over the liability when he bought it.”
Also, there were about 30 hunting clubs along the length of the railroad bed whose members didn’t want bicyclists in the woods when they were hunting.
“A lot of deer hunters came out against it,’’ he said.
Among the biggest obstacles, however, is the steel trestle over the river at Altamaha Park that is now swung into the open position, Browning said.
Because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the Altamaha is a navigable waterway, there can be no obstructions including any that would impede barges like those that ferried the reactors during the construction of Plant Hatch upstream near Baxley.
The railroad offered the trestle to Glynn County, but the county declined, saying it didn’t want to take on the maintenance of the mechanical crossing.
Because he rides a bicycle himself, Browning said he knows it would be good for cyclists.
“I know it would be a scenic ride,’’ he said, but there are too many negatives to the conversion to a trail, he said.
It was that sort of opposition and the lack of progress that prompted the committee to fold last year and pass any resources to Terry Landreth, a committee member who runs a bicycle shop in Camden County where bicycle paths are very popular.
“The potential is still there, but there’s nobody there working to make this happen,’’ Hay said. “I didn’t feel like I was being effective. We weren’t getting anywhere.”
Should anyone “pick up the mantle,’’ Hay said, “I’ll be there to give my support.”
Perhaps no one knows what Glynn County is missing more than Sadowski.
“I pretty much walked the entire length,’’ he said.
Asked what he saw, Sadowski said, “Pristine, untouched nature. Everything from tidal marsh to pine forest.”
Anyone who thinks bicycling isn’t popular in the area need only look at the heavy use of the trails on St. Simons and Jekyll Island. During the worst of the coronavirus shutdown, bicycles seemed as common as vehicles at times on St. Simons.
Sadowski said he expects Camden County will have its trail funded, including a stretch from Kingsland to St. Marys, well before “Glynn and McIntosh figure out what gravy it is.”
He said the arguments from hunters and oft repeated fear of the trail attracting “riff raff” were totally unfounded.
“We were willing to close the trail during hunting seasons’’ three times a year, but the opponents wouldn’t budge, Sadowski said.
“We learned they only wanted what they’d always had from when they were kids,’’ he said.
Cunningham, Landreth and Hay are frequent riders who know the kind of people who like bike paths and they scoff at them being dismissed as riff-raff.
Hay recently had lunch with a bicyclist who had ridden from Hinesville to Darien.
“This riff-raff rode his $3,000 bike to Darien for lunch and he was going to ride back,’’ he said.