Published Saturday, March 30, 2013
GAINESVILLE, Ga. (AP) – The steam-powered locomotives chugged 37 miles between Gainesville and Helen, helping to forge a connection and commerce among rural North Georgia communities in the early part of the 20th century.
But progress crept in, with the advent of the automobile and roads and highways to support them, leading to the abandonment of the railroad in 1934.
Today, nearly 80 years later, the iron rails and wooden ties are gone. Beaten-down pathways serve as the lone reminder of that era.
However, forces are at work to bring new life to the former Gainesville & Northwestern Railroad, with the concept forming to perhaps some day turn at least some of those stretches into bike and pedestrian trailways.
"This is an area that's big on tourism and outdoor recreation, so anything you can create that feeds into that is likely going to succeed," said Adam Hazell, planning director for the Gainesville-based Georgia Mountains Regional Commission.
"We think the idea of bona fide bikeways, preferably paved, would be very strong tourist draws."
Hazell and Sarah McQuade, regional planner for the GMRC, have both discussed the trail recently with committees in the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization, Hall's main transportation planning group.
Public officials and others point to Georgia's Silver Comet Trail as an example of a successful rails-to-trail project.
Traveling west through Cobb, Paulding and Polk counties, the 61 1/2-mile trail was built on abandoned railroad lines. It connects to the 33-mile long Chief Ladiga Trail, which travels into east Alabama.
Another popular destination is the 35-mile Virginia Creeper Trail, which runs along southern Virginia near the Tennessee and North Carolina borders.
The big challenge for the Gainesville-Helen route, as area officials and historians have pointed out, is that much of the old railway lies on private - albeit, in some cases, very scenic - property.
"It goes through mostly residential property in Clermont," said Sandra Cantrell, president of the Clermont Historical Society.
She noted that one of those properties belongs to her father. It goes through his backyard, she said.
"So, to do the project that has been proposed is not going to get done without a lot of hiccups along the way," Cantrell said.
Public officials acknowledge there's much work involved and nothing is near-term.
"It's a vision right now, but if you don't dream it, you can't do it," Hazell said.
Bill Huff, a Cleveland historian, said he believes that "eventually, we'll put together a trail system - and I'm talking long-range, maybe 20 years - from Helen to the White County line and possibly into Hall County."
He believes the endeavor should be pursued.
"We need more recreational trails in the area," Huff said.
The Gainesville & Northwestern ran roughly along much of what is now Clarks Bridge Road in Hall County, "after you leave downtown Gainesville and go up Limestone Parkway," McQuade said.
After traveling through Clermont, it continued largely along where U.S. 129 now runs, north to Helen, including through downtown Cleveland.
In its day, the line was used primarily for logging purposes.
By 1926, regularly scheduled freight service was discontinued and passenger service followed in 1931.
"Between 1931 and 1934, the rail was kept operational, chiefly to assist with moving road-building materials," according to a GMRC document on the rail line.
Huff said the reason that "Northwestern" was in the name "was that the owners had pipe dreams of extending the railroad to Hiawassee, Murphy, N.C., and then to the Tennessee Valley.
"The finances of the owners precluded that (from happening)," he said.
If Gainesville & Northwestern is restored, it can be designated as a "nationally significant historic linear resource" and qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the GMRC.
The project has caught big interest in White County.
As the county developed a bicycle and pedestrian plan a couple of years ago, the Gainesville & Northwestern "came to our attention," said Chris Ernst, GIS technician for the county.
Since then, the county has worked with the GMRC and local historians on the effort.
"We've been trying to inform the community of the potential of the route," he said.
Ernst said he believes the endeavor would benefit the area by "providing our population and visitors the opportunity to get out and enjoy White County ... and that has an economic development side to it."
Also, "the more of the trail that's developed for bicycle and pedestrian use, the more we're hoping to see folks using it as an alternative form of transportation."
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.