White and Hall counties are in need of more safe bike trails, and a 100-year-old railbed could be the answer.
The Gainesville & Northwestern Railroad connected Helen and Gainesville during a time of bustling rural commerce in the early 20th century. Partly dependent on the logging industry in Helen, the railroad failed and was later abandoned when the trees stopped falling in 1931.
Now it is largely forgotten, but members of the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission want to bring people back to that railroad by building a public pedestrian and bicycle trail, an idea that has generated support among bicycle enthusiasts.
“Most of the hiking trails in White County are mountainous,” said Chris Ernst, GIS mapping technician for White County. “So they are challenging for many of the folks who want to get out and be active.
“That’s what is good about old railbeds — the grading is gentle.”
Many area cyclists are frustrated with the lack of safe places to ride. They are mostly confined to strenuous mountain trails or to riding on the side of the road, a dangerous activity in the heavy traffic of Gainesville or on the winding roads north of Helen.
Though still in the early stages, the proposed trail comes as a sign of relief to many.
“Georgia is not a terribly bike-friendly state, with the exception of a few cities and the Silver Comet Trail (in northwest Georgia),” said Joe Elam, owner of Habersham Bicycles in Gainesville and Alto.
“We always want safer alternatives, and from a business standpoint, it would be a very influential benefit for the community and businesses like us.”
In White County the sentiment is much of the same.
“Currently you put your life in your own hands riding into Robertstown,” said Woody Wood, owner of Woody’s Mountain Bikes in Helen. “A trail would make some areas more accessible and bring more tourists to Helen, which already benefits from their business.”
The railroad ran near what is now Clarks Bridge Road until it reached Clermont where it went farther north, along what is now U.S. 129, through Cleveland and on to Helen. If the entire length of the railbed was successfully converted, the trail would connect cyclists and hikers from near Gainesville to the Unicoi State Park trail system north of Helen and vice versa.
“I personally would use it to commute to Cleveland and even Gainesville for weekday errands,” said Star Bridges, an avid cyclist in White County. “There are a few, I’m sure, who would start commuting daily to Gainesville from White County. It would be less than an hour ride one way with a good road bike.”
In a 2006 study, the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization determined that people between ages 10 and 20 and those older than 65 are the most likely to use public pedestrian and bike trails. Based on the 2000 census, the population of these two groups in Hall County was 35,321 people, 25.4 percent of the population. Elam believes that due to higher gas prices and rates of obesity, the demand for an extensive bike trail system has only increased.
The success of the Silver Comet Trail, a 61-mile paved trail that was built on an abandoned railbed, prompted many of the rails-to-trails projects in Georgia. The trail starts in Smyrna and ends at the Georgia-Alabama state line, where it connects to the Chief Ladiga Trail. The combined trails provide approximately 94 miles of paved trailway from Smyrna to Anniston, Ala.
It was built over a 10-year period that ended in 2008 and served as part of the inspiration behind the Gainesville & Northwestern project.
“The Silver Comet Trail has been a blessing to us because it has attracted so many people,” said Rusty Simpson, the natural resource manager for Cobb County Parks and Recreations.
“I get calls all the time from people out of state who want to ride the trail. I think it would be a great idea to see a connected Georgia trail system.”
The GMRC is currently studying the feasibility of the Gainesville & Northwestern project. The exact route of the railbed is partially unknown due to inaccurate maps from the period. Though much of it is on land owned by the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Department of Natural Resources, some does go through private property.
“If we can get local support, it is much more likely that the different local governments will support it and help the project progress,” GMRC Regional Planner Sarah McQuade said.
The GMRC has held four meetings since October with various organizations to educate them on the project and gain support.
Meanwhile, other projects are setting the stage. The White County chapter of the Southern Off-Road Bicycling Association has been working with the YMCA and local volunteers to build a perimeter trail that would partially use the railbed. The roughly 1.5-mile-long trail is under construction off of Asbestos Road north of Cleveland and will be entirely built by volunteers.
Ernst, a member of the chapter, hopes that this can be a precursor to further public support for bike trails.