Get to Climax often? The town is so named because it’s the highest point on the railroad between Savannah and the Chattahoochee River, all the way across flat, extreme south Georgia, though the change in elevation is significant only to an engineer. Railroads hate hills and do everything they can to level them out, because trains are hauling great weight, and they don’t want gravity adding to the fuel costs. Railroads aren’t what they used to be, and by the turn of the last century a lot of tracks had been abandoned all over the country. There they sat: miles and miles of level paths, crossing rivers and gorges, tunneling through mountains, bypassing traffic-choked roads, connecting towns and driving into the hearts of cities. Naturally, it didn’t take long to realize what a bonanza these roadbeds were for cyclists, walkers, skaters and baby-carriage-pushers: an effortless, safe alternative to the mean streets. Many of the old road beds have been converted to rail-trail routes like the popular Silver Comet Trail that runs west of Atlanta over into Alabama and beyond.
You can see a potential rail-trail in microcosm by what’s left of the Georgia Railroad spur line that ran the 39 miles from Union Point through Winterville to Athens. Where the line comes into town it’s a level shot from the next phase of the park-and-ride lot at the bypass to the multi-modal center, and it took tall wood trestles to keep it on grade across streets and Trail Creek and a bridge to carry it across the North Oconee River. When the successor to the Georgia Railroad, CSX, abandoned the line, they offered it for sale to Athens-Clarke County, including the bridge and trestles. The county wasn’t interested, so CSX began dismantling their line. When they started ripping down the Trail Creek trestle, everybody suddenly woke up to the fact that, hey, that’s the Murmur Trestle, the one made famous on the back cover of the R.E.M. album of the same name. An outcry poured in from all over the world, from the same people who make pilgrimages to Athens to see the trestle and the steeple and other artifacts of R.E.M.’s long reign atop pop. The county ponied up $25,000 for the trestle, and CSX called off the bulldozers. The truncated trestle has sat there for 12 years since, neglected and slowly decaying while the city has fiddled around, showing a marked lack of enthusiasm for the whole idea of turning a rail bed into a trail, in spite of the influx of $11 million from federal funding and from two SPLOST referendums where citizens voted for using sales tax dollars to build the trail.
Now the county has concluded that when the trail is built, the trestle can’t be a part of it. All that neglect has paid off in an unsafe trestle. The Georgia Department of Transportation has studied the trestle and concludes that it can be repaired—in fact it is built so that its timbers can be continuously replaced as needed, like a giant Tinkertoy set. GDOT prefers replacing the wooden timbers with steel components, saving money in the long run, while preserving the look of the trestle.
Nah, the county says. Too expensive any way you look at it. The plan now is to let the trestle rot and route the trail down off its level track over there behind Mama’s Boy, bring it downhill (and uphill), crossing Poplar Street and Trail Creek down in the bottom and then climb back up through Dudley Park until you finally get back up to the trail level, where you can admire photographs of the former trestle—the very antithesis of using a level road bed for a trail.
But there’s hope. Don’t miss the next exciting Pub Notes installment on the Murmur Trestle.