HOW THE WEST WAS WON

Joe Anderson

Joe Anderson poured his heart and soul into connecting the Comet between Rockmart and Cedartown.

It has been ten years since we launched an effort to close the eleven mile gap in the Silver Comet Trail between Rockmart and Cedartown. We had completed the trail from Smyrna to Rockmart and the nine mile segment from Cedartown to the Alabama state line utilizing the Seaboard Air Line Railroad abandoned corridor. CSX still operated trains between Rockmart and Cedartown so our task to complete the Silver Comet between those towns would be a tad more challenging. One of the most engaged advocates for completing the trail through Polk County was an attorney named Joe Anderson. Joe lead the Georgia Rails Into Trails Society (GRITS) in Cedartown and, more importantly, knew almost everyone in the county.
He was the perfect partner to have as I launched my new career as right-of-way acquisition specialist.

In our first strategy meeting, we decided we would make one last attempt to get CSX Transportation to suspend service to their one Cedartown customer and abandon the Rockmart-Cedartown line. We reasoned it was costing CSX more to maintain eleven miles of track that they were making from one customer in Cedartown. We spent two months corresponding with CSX and the CEO of the customer, assessing the likelihood that an abandonment was likely any time soon. Building the Comet on the abandoned rail bed would be quicker and much less expensive than any other option.

Two months later, we decided the railroad would be operating for a while (it still is), and we were anxious to get our trail finished, so we moved to plan B. Our plan B involved inventorying property owners adjacent to both sides of the rail line and assessing the number and familiarity of the owners.  We reasoned that our best chance for assemblage would be adjacent to the railroad since any new development would shy away from the track. Joe brought tax maps with names and telephone numbers to our second major strategy meeting and we established our game plan.

There were 33 property owners on one side of the track and 40 on the other. Since CSX would never let us cross their track at-grade, any crossing from one side of the track to the other would have to be at existing road crossings. This meant we would have to assemble the corridor on one side of the railroad or the other between crossings. Joe knew some of the folks we had to approach and knew people who knew most of the remaining owners. Joe talked his way into a few appointments and we hit the back roads to sell the Silver Comet.

sct-ga-grady-train-ridersbright

Silver Comet trail adjacent to CSX active line.

Our first visits were near Rockmart where the Comet leaves US 278 and joins the rail corridor. Joe and I were in oxford shirts and khakis, just two bow ties away from being vacuum cleaner salesmen. We pulled up to the trailer and reached behind the front porch refrigerator to push the bell. We were warmly
greeted by a middle-aged woman who escorted us to the living room, where her husband was seated. “I’ll just tell you now, I’m agin it,” he said. “ I don’t want my kids playing next to the goings-on on the trail.” Joe and I concluded we would have to move across the tracks and hope the reception was better. We
graciously ended the discussion after ten or fifteen minutes and drove across the tracks to a country farm house adjacent to a pasture full of cattle. An elderly woman invited us into the living room to join her brother and her husband.

Joe and I gave our spiel about the importance of having the trail connected and the prospects of higher land values if the trail went through. After our earlier encounter, we were expecting the worst. What a surprise! The husband told us a story of how his granddaughter had been driving to Rockmart two or three times a week to use the trail. He said ‘It seems to bring her joy and excitement. It must be pretty special.” He said he would donate the easement if we could figure out how to get his cattle across the trail without getting out of the pasture. I told him we could build a bridge over a cattle shoot that would also have room for his pickup to pass underneath. After visiting with his neighbors and convincing them to sell land for the trail, we signed them all up. We were on a roll!

As we proceeded across the county that summer, we encountered everything from crack houses to stately mansions. The people’s reaction to our proposal ranged from “if you ever show up here again, I’ll swear out a warrant,” to “finally I can get my wife out of the house to exercise,” and everything in-between. Our trek was obviously the topic of discussion on the internet. The naysayers poisoned the water in some cases and the proponents paved the way in others. It was an adventure every time we rang a doorbell but before a year had past we put the entire eleven miles together. It was an incredible experience I will always remember.

The last piece of the puzzle was a horse farm not too far from Cedartown. We had been advised the County would not condemn any property for the trail. No one knew that for sure except for Joe and me. The owners of the farm were luke warm about giving up twenty-five feet of their pasture. We had to have it to finish our mission. I had offered to build them a new fence and drain a beaver pond as a bonus to paying them more than fair market value for the land. They wanted to think about it and call me later. I said “If I have to turn this over to the county to acquire, they will only pay fair market value and the fence and beaver pond removal will go away.” They signed up the next day.

So the next time you are riding the Comet between Rockmart and Cedartown, you’ll better understand why it crosses back and forth across the tracks and has so many right-angle turns. You’ll know the story behind the little wooden bridge in mile 42. Hopefully it will bring you a little joy knowing the story of two old guys, totally out of their element, selling their passion to fulfill their dream. Joe and I are very proud of our stint as right-of-way guys for the Silver Comet Trail.