A Brief History
What is today known as the Silver Comet Trail, running from Smyrna, Georgia (just outside of Atlanta), to Esom Hill along the Alabama border, is named after a famous passenger train by the same name operated by the Seaboard Air Line (SAL), once one of the South’s largest railroads. The “Silver Comet,” which debuted on the SAL in the late 1940s, reached all the way to New York City via connections with other northern lines; its southern terminus was Birmingham, Alabama, which was also the SAL’s farthest reach to the West. This section of the SAL was one of the last added to its system during the early 20th century, achieved through a combination of purchasing a smaller line as well as building brand new railroad. During the 1960s, the Comet was scratched because of declining ridership; some 20 years later, successor CSX Transportation felt the corridor was superfluous and elected to abandon much of what is now the trail.
The Seaboard Air Line’s growth into one of the South’s premier railroads can be traced as far back as the Portsmouth & Roanoke Rail Road, which served southern Virginia. The company was later renamed as the Seaboard & Roanoke (S&R) in 1846. Another important component of the SAL would be the Raleigh & Gaston (R&G), completed in 1840 between its namesake cities. By 1853, the two roads were linked and offered through-service between Portsmouth, Virginia, and Raleigh, North Carolina. Following the Civil War, the S&R took control of the R&G in 1871, which also controlled the Raleigh & Augusta Air-Line Railroad that reached southward to Hamlet. All three railroads came under the control of John M. Robinson in 1875, who renamed them as the Seaboard Air Line System. During that era, the term “air line” meant a railroad that offered the shortest route between two points.
Rapid growth ensued for the SAL during the late 19th century when it reached southward into South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida by acquiring smaller lines, such as the Carolina Central, Georgia & Alabama, and the Florida Central & Peninsular. The company was able to reach Atlanta via its purchase of the Georgia, Carolina & Northern and building the Seaboard Air Line Belt Railroad in 1892 (essentially an extension of the GC&N). By the 1901 the SAL had formally became known as the Seaboard Air Line Railway and was a formidable southern system, stretching from Richmond, Virginia, to Jacksonville, Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Miami, Florida. One of its final extensions was building west from Atlanta and reaching Birmingham, Alabama, which is today part of the Silver Comet Trail. In 1902, the SAL acquired the small East & West Railroad (E&W), then a narrow-gauge property that dated to February 1882.
The E&W opened its first stretch of railroad in October 1882 between Broken Arrow, Alabama, and Esom Hill, Georgia, a distance of roughly 64 miles. The company’s eventual hope was to connect Gainesville (Georgia) with Birmingham. Unfortunately, receivership doomed any such plans in 1888. Before it encountered financial troubles, however, the E&W acquired the Cherokee Railroad and built an extension to Pell City. In total, the road stretched 117 miles from Cartersville to Pell City. The SAL saw the E&W as a key component in its attempts to reach Birmingham. While it did require updating the property to standard gauge (4 feet, 8 ½ inches), the Seaboard was not forced to construct brand new railroad to complete the link. The E&W became part of SAL subsidiary Atlanta & Birmingham Air Line (A&BAL) in 1903, and new railroad was built from Howells, Georgia (north of Atlanta), to connect to the E&W at Rockmart. Additionally, new tracks were extended west from Pell City to Birmingham. By 1904, the SAL had its much desired link to the city open for business.
During the 1930s, the streamliner craze hit the railroad industry, and shiny, fast, and sparkling trains began appearing from coast to coast. For the Seaboard, its first streamliner was the successful “Silver Meteor” of 1939, which connected New York and much of Florida; it was a direct competitor to nearby Atlantic Coast Line’s “Champion.” As a result of the success of this train, company officials began looking at other potential corridors and believed a route from Birmingham to the Big Apple would also draw much interest from the public. Focus on jumpstarting this train dated to 1939, but delays and the onset of World War II saw nearly a decade pass before it became reality.
The Silver Comet officially hit the rails on May 18, 1947, and was operated in conjunction with the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac (Washington, D.C.-Richmond) and Pennsylvania (Washington, D.C.-New York) railroads. Additional connections allowed passengers to reach Boston and Norfolk. The train was listed as #33 (southbound) and #34 (northbound) on the Seaboard and in RF&P timetables, while the PRR included it as #197 (southbound) and #198 (northbound). Powered by handsome Electro-Motive E7 diesels (and later E8 models), the streamliner featured all-fluted stainless-steel equipment from the Budd Company. Amenities included Pullman-service sleepers, lounges, and diners, as well as reclining-seat coaches and a 48-seat observation coach. The train typically averaged 48 mph during its journey and could complete the entire trip in just 23 hours.
While the Comet was marginally successful, it was launched years after rival Southern Railway’s “Southerner,”which served the same cities and also reached New Orleans. In summer of 1967, the SAL merged with longtime rival Atlantic Coast Line to form the Seaboard Coast Line (SCL). Unable to remain competitive and with the public’s general shift away from the rails during the 1950s and ‘60s, the Seaboard Air Line discontinued the Silver Comet in June 1969. At that time the only services the train still offered included a single coach, diner-lounge, and sleeper.
In 1980, it was announced the SCL (which a few years later was renamed the Seaboard System in conjunction with a few other allying roads) would merge with the Chessie System and other roads to form today’s CSX Transportation in 1987. In 1989, CSX informed Georgia that it would abandon much of the original SAL line to Birmingham in Paulding and Polk Counties. In 1992, the Georgia Department of Transportation purchased the right-of-way in hopes of turning it into a recreational corridor, with the first section of today’s Silver Comet Trail opening to the public in November 1998.
Railroad attractions include the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway in Blue Ridge, SAM Shortline in Cordele, Southeastern Railway Museum in Duluth, Southern Museum of Civil War & Locomotive History at Kennesaw, and the Stone Mountain Scenic Railroad in Stone Mountain.Do you have Historical Photos of the Silver Comet Trail?
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