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The New ‘Murmur Trestle’ Along Firefly Trail Is Now Open

Mayor Kelly Girtz (center) and other Athens-Clarke County officials cut the ribbon on the bridge over Trail Creek Apr. 20. Credit: Blake Aued

Hundreds of Athenians got high on 4/20—high above Trail Creek, that is.

Almost 25 years in the making, Athens-Clarke County officials opened a new 525-foot, $6 million bridge along the Firefly Trail, spanning Trail Creek in Dudley Park and Peter Street and filling in another gap in the project. The bridge replaces a railroad trestle made famous by Sandra Lee Phillips’ photograph on the back cover of R.E.M.’s debut album Murmur (which, incidentally, was released 40 years ago last week).

Appropriately, Murmur was playing over the loudspeakers before Mayor Kelly Girtz and other local officials cut the ribbon on the bridge Apr. 20. When CSX Transportation abandoned the railroad in 1998 and began tearing down the trestle—built in 1883 to bring the railroad downtown—it sparked an outcry from R.E.M. fans around the world. Under former mayor Doc Eldridge, the county commission voted in 2000 to purchase what was left of the structure and the rest of the railway, despite many critics labeling it as “Eldridge’s Folly.” A year later, ACC established the Rails to Trails Committee to study the feasibility of turning the abandoned railbed into a walking and biking corridor connecting Winterville and downtown Athens. The committee wrote SPLOST and TSPLOST proposals, identified land to acquire and set about deciding what to do with the half-demolished and increasingly unstable trestle, which became a controversy in and of itself. 

Blake Aued Bikers and pedestrians cross the newly opened Firefly Trail bridge over Trail Creek for the first time.

Later, the nonprofit Firefly Trail Inc. was established with the goal of extending the trail even farther—39 miles through Oglethorpe and Greene counties. About four miles in Clarke County have been completed so far on the downtown and Winterville sides, with a three-mile gap in the middle. Despite resistance from some homeowners along that gap, Girtz said he expected it to be completed “within the next couple of years.” Stretches have also been built in the towns of Union Point and Maxeys, with another segment set to open this summer in Greene County.

If and when it’s finished, boosters expect the longer trail to become a tourist attraction like the Silver Comet Trail that similarly runs along an abandoned railroad from Atlanta to Anniston, AL. Even if that vision is never realized, the Clarke County portion alone will provide a safe and level path for people of all ages to do anything from getting some exercise to commuting to and from work. In particular, the completed trail will pass by a couple of mobile home communities and other lower-income areas, Girtz noted.

Before any of that happened, though, a decision had to be made on the Murmur Trestle. When the first portion opened in 2017, ACC initially bypassed the old trestle with switchbacks down into the creek valley and back up, but that defeated the purpose of having a flat, easy-to-ride path. Engineers determined that the trestle was not structurally sound and would have to be replaced plank by plank like Theseus’ ship. After much public debate, officials settled on a design that honored the original bridge in the middle, with modern steel arches on either side. 

“I’m not a cyclist, but I love this trail,” said former commissioner Andy Herod, who chaired the Rails to Trails committee during the Heidi Davison administration. “I think it’s a really great thing for our community,” 

Blake Aued

The bridge was designed by Kimley-Horn & Associates and built by the contractor Astra Group. In addition to the span itself, the project includes a grassy lawn, restrooms and a sunflower sculpture by Rick Herzog. On the Athens side, the trail can be accessed via a trailhead off East Broad Street down the hill from the Classic Center, the Dudley Park parking lot or the park-and-ride lot at the Loop’s Oconee Street interchange.