The McQueens Island Historic Trail offers beautiful seaside and marsh views of coastal Georgia. Located east of Savannah, this recreational corridor hugs the banks of the Savannah River much of the way toward the coast, following the former right-of-way of the tiny Savannah & Tybee Railroad. This little system was developed during the late 19th century primarily to serve resorts and transport vacationers flocking to the beach community of Tybee Island. After a few reorganizations, it was finally acquired by the Central of Georgia, a fairly large railroad that served its home state as well as parts of Alabama. Because the Savannah & Tybee predominately relied on passenger traffic, it fell victim to the automobile and lean times brought on by the Great Depression, resulting in its abandonment during the early 1930s.
The building of the Savannah & Tybee Railroad was the vision of Captain Daniel G. Purse, a Savannah entrepreneur who believed that a sturdy rail bed could be constructed across the sandy marshes to Tybee Island. Railroad engineer Captain John Postell helped with that vision. Purse had been involved with other associates in the Tybee Improvement Company in an attempt to open the coastal area to tourists and vacationers. However, at the time, there was no quick and efficient means of transportation to the island except by steamboat. Further, because of the wet, marshy terrain, a railroad was believed impractical. After Purse was able to convince other financial backers of his right-of-way concept (many of whom had been involved in the Tybee Improvement Company), the Savannah & Tybee Railroad was chartered in November 1885. In all, the system stretched 17.7 miles along a gorgeous right-of-way of white sand, palm trees, open marshes, and coastal views.
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Construction and groundbreaking of the railroad began on August 9, 1886, at a location “…three yards southeast of the mansion on Deptford Plantation…,” according to “A History of Tybee Island, Georgia, and a Sketch of the Savannah & Tybee Railroad,” by B.H. Richardson. Work on the line proceeded quickly, and by early 1887, the route was opened. The new railroad cut travel time to the beach in half and had intermediate stops along the way at Estill Station, Fort Screven Station, Lovell Station, Atlantic Club Station, 11th Street Station, Dixon Station, Tybee Station, and Inlet Station. Interestingly, an actual town on the island was not established until late 1887, first called Ocean City and then changed to Tybee a year later. The opening of the Savannah & Tybee created a rush in tourism, and resorts and cottages soon sprang up. An article published on September 6, 1888, in the Savannah Morning News captured the scene:
The number of visitors these last four months is estimated at eighty thousand…A continuous stream of visitors from the city as well as the interior poured into Tybee, far exceeding capacity of the hotels and boarding houses to entertain them. Excursions, particularly from Augusta, were very frequent, and all pronounced the beach-surf bathing equal to any from Narragansett Bay to the capes of Florida. It is understood that several parties in the latter city invested in Tybee lots, with the view of erecting sea side cottages for the occupation of their families during the summer…Since the last season, considerable improvements have been made on the island, and the accommodations more than doubled. Besides the Ocean House, we now have Furber’s Point House, Mrs. Lee’s Seaside Pavilion, and the Ocean View Hotel.
The railroad, however, was not without setback. It fell into receivership in November 1888, was sold, and reemerged as the Savannah, Tybee & Atlantic Railway in March 1890. Later that year it was renamed again as the Savannah & Atlantic Railroad; soon after, the Central of Georgia Railway (CoG) acquired it. The CoG grew into a sizeable southern system serving Augusta, Savannah, Atlanta, Columbus, and Albany in Georgia. It also had extensions reaching Chattanooga, Tennessee, as well as Birmingham, Montgomery, and other points in Alabama. Interestingly, under CoG ownership (the line was known as the Tybee Branch), the railroad worked hard to keep the route viable and trains full with beach vacationers. As resorts continued to open the railroad regularly promoted Tybee Island in its brochures. An 1897 write-up included this:
From May first to September the finest surf bathing along the Southern Atlantic coast is enjoyed at this popular seashore resort. The people of Savannah, eighteen miles away, together with hundreds who take advantage of the cheap excursion rates offered via the Central of Georgia Railway from interior Georgia, Alabama and other Southern points, daily visit Tybee and are refreshed and invigorated from the summer sun by the salt surf baths and the cool ocean breezes. The beach during the bathing hours presents a lively appearance. Bright bathing costumes, laughing and playing children, gaily attired men and women offer to the eye a pleasing picture. This beach is of pure white sand, with a gradual slope of 100 feet or more into the ocean. The various hostelries at Tybee have all the modern conveniences and ample accommodations. This is Georgia’s greatest seaside resort. Connected with Savannah by perfect train service of the Central of Georgia Railway.
During nearly 50 years of operation, the railroad had service interrupted only once when a category 3 hurricane hit the Georgia coastline in August 1893. The storm washed away sections of the right-of-way and damaged other infrastructure, but the railroad was rebuilt in time for the 1894 tourist season. In 1900, to continue drawing in vacationers, the Central of Georgia constructed a large dancing and entertainment pavilion known as the Tybrisa. The depot in Tybee even announced itself as “the entrance to the ocean.” During the next 20 years, more new resorts, restaurants, and other attractions were added. While the beach town flourished throughout the 1920s, the new Tybee Road (officially opened on June 21, 1923) spelled doom for the railroad since vacationers could now simply travel by automobile to the island whenever they wished. This development, along with the Great Depression of 1929, prompted the Central of Georgia to abandon its Tybee Branch in 1933. The last train used the line on July 31, 1933, and on September 18 that same year, rail removal began.
Railroad attractions in Georgia include the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway in Blue Ridge; Roundhouse Railroad Museum in Savannah; SAM Shortline in Cordele; Southeastern Railway Museum in Duluth; Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw; and the Stone Mountain Scenic Railroad in Stone Mountain.