In 1841, a mere eight years after its founding, the Georgia Railroad was completed from Augusta all the way to Athens. Horse-drawn carts lumbered along the route until 1847, but once locomotives were in use, the line provided previously unimaginable benefits, enabling the region to grow and diversify. Several little towns sprang to life along the Athens Branch, the 39-mile section between Union Point and Athens, and all benefited from regular railroad service for more than a century.
It’s been 35 years since a locomotive known as the “Firefly” ran along the Athens Branch, but recent months have brought renewed excitement up and down the former rail corridor. What was envisioned in the early 2000s as a rail-trail demonstration project between downtown Athens and the Perimeter has matured into a planned regional trail that is actually under construction, and not just here in Athens.
Firefly Trail, Inc. (FTI) President Mark Ralston recognizes this as a defining period for the ambitious, multi-county project. “From Union Point to Athens and all along the corridor in between, we are seeing support and enthusiasm skyrocket,” he says. “I’ve been involved in this effort for about 10 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Communities are really starting to see how the Firefly Trail can benefit health, safety, transportation and economic development—just as other rail-trails have done all across the country.”
Photo Credit: John Kissane
Firefly Trail’s first 0.8 miles, from the East Broad Street trailhead east to Old Winterville Road, opened in late 2017. This fall, the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission will select from among three designs for a bridge over Trail Creek in Dudley Park, with construction to begin in early 2020. Also beginning this winter will be work on the Winterville “Model Mile” between Five Points and the Oglethorpe County line. And a 1.8-mile trail segment from Old Winterville Road northeast to Hancock Road, including a bridge over the future Outer Loop 10 onramp coming off Lexington Highway, will get underway soon as well.
Among those eagerly awaiting the Winterville segment are pupils of Winterville Elementary art teacher Carlin Brownlee. Last fall, Brownlee gave her students some background on the Athens Branch and Firefly Trail and led discussions about the project’s likely impacts on the community. Students then drew pictures to illustrate their expectations, and Mayor Dodd Ferrelle’s wife, Cameron Bliss Ferrelle, guided other local artists in transposing the drawings of 56 students onto the east side of Front Porch Bookstore.
“Of course, no one can use their imagination the way a child does,” Brownlee says in recalling creation of the Firefly Trail Mural, celebrated in April. “They came up with their own interpretations of what they would see along the trail and how they might use it—taking walks with their families, riding bikes with their friends. It’s wonderful.”
A trio of events earlier this year netted close to $35,000 to benefit Firefly Trail. They included the eighth annual Ticket to Ride cycling event in March; the inaugural Firefly Trail Funfest, put on by Coldwell Banker Upchurch Realty in April; and the Maxeys in May 5K, which nearly doubled the town’s population as runners and walkers from 33 Georgia cities and four states descended on the Oglethorpe County community of 223. The event was so successful that planning is now underway for the 2020 Firefly Trail Race Series, to be composed of events in five communities along the corridor.
Two Maxeys residents with an extra stake in Firefly Trail are Edward Toledano and Cynzia Sanchez, owners of the Gillen House Bed and Breakfast that opened in late April. The couple relocated to Maxeys from Atlanta a year ago to be near their daughter and her fiancé, and talk of Firefly Trail immediately piqued their interest. They were among those most excited when construction of the Maxeys “Model Mile,” started in late June.
Photo Credit: John Kissane
“I grew up in Greenville [South Carolina] and have seen the Swamp Rabbit Trail make little Travelers Rest blossom,” Toledano says. “So, hearing plans for Firefly Trail really helped push us over the edge making the decision to open the Gillen House.” The B&B represents the region’s first new business closely associated with Firefly Trail.
And in Greene County, several years of hard work will soon pay off with design and engineering of the Union Point Model Mile. The City of Union Point was recently awarded a $15,000 Doppelt Family Trail Development Fund grant through the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. This grant and other funds raised by the Greene County Local Action Committee will go toward the required match for a $100,000 award from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Recreational Trails Program. As the southern terminus of Firefly Trail and in close proximity to I-20, Union Point is counting on an economic boost when folks from outside the area visit to take advantage of the new recreational opportunity.
“Firefly Trail will bring Union Point and the whole area benefits we really need,” says FTI board member Lisa Baynes, a Union Point native and local real estate agent. “Making it happen has been a lot of work that will continue for a number of years, but we’re seeing the results, and excitement is building.”
Want to get involved? Visit fireflytrail.com. You can also support the Union Point Model Mile by buying tickets to a concert by Beatles tribute band The Return, coming Aug. 16 at Festival Hall in Greensboro. Tickets are now on sale at firefly.ticketleap.com/the-return-beatles-tribute/.
John Kissane is the trail development coordinator for Firefly Trail, Inc.
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