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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

The Silver Comet and Chief Ladiga Trails

With a combined distance of nearly 95 miles, the Silver Comet and Chief Ladiga Trails follow the former Seaboard Railroad’s Atlanta-Birmingham extension, linking the suburban sprawls of northwest Georgia to the tranquil east Alabama countryside. Beloved by locals, this recreational greenway attracts more than two million visitors per year, making it one of the most popular trail networks in the southeast.


The Seaboard rail system was originally chartered in 1832 as the Portsmouth & Roanoke (P&R) Railroad, which connected farming operations around Weldon, North Carolina, to major seaports in Hampton Roads, Virginia. While the P&R provided economical transportation for the Carolinian Piedmont, its holding company suffered considerable financial difficulties due to stiffening competition with rival firms from Richmond and Petersburg. The railroad entered receivership in October 1843 and was subsequently acquired by the Virginia Board of Public Works. The city of Portsmouth purchased the track in 1846 and reorganized it as the Seaboard and Roanoke (S&R) Railroad.



Company financiers expressed optimistic ambitions for the Seaboard and Roanoke, hoping to unify the South’s agricultural production with the North’s industrial prowess; however, the onset of the American Civil War squandered such prospects. When Confederate forces withdrew from Portsmouth in 1862, the line was abandoned—its rolling stock and iron beams transferred to the Roanoke Valley Railroad. The Seaboard & Roanoke returned to service shortly after the war’s end.


In 1867, John M. Robinson—chief executive of the Baltimore Steam Packet Company—became President of the rejuvenated Seaboard & Roanoke Railroad. Under Robinson’s leadership, the S&R experienced profound growth, acquiring smaller railroad companies and rights-of-way that extended its trackage further into the Carolinas. In 1873, Robinson purchased the Raleigh & Gaston Railroad and its complementary Raleigh & Augusta Air Line Railroad—the term “air line” referencing the shortest distance between two points—which provided a direct route to Georgia. In November 1881, the Seaboard & Roanoke assumed control of the Carolina Central Railroad, adding a major east-west route to its repertoire of railways. This predominant southern transportation alliance became collectively known as the Seaboard Air-Line (SAL) System.



In 1886, the Seaboard acquired the newly chartered Georgia, Carolina, & Northern Railroad, which connected Monroe, North Carolina, to Atlanta, Georgia upon its completion in 1892. Between 1897 and 1903, the Seaboard constructed its Atlanta-Birmingham Extension to connect western cities with its main north-south line.


As the 19th century concluded, the SAL System was purchased by a Richmond banking group led by John Skelton Williams. The new financiers subsequently acquired the 458-mile Georgia & Alabama Railway and 944-mile Florida Central & Peninsular Railroad—connecting Columbia, South Carolina, with Tampa, Florida—and reincorporated the locomotive network as the Seaboard Air Line Railway in April 1900. The new corporation touted over 4,500 miles of track by 1920 and advertised itself as “The Progressive Railway of the South.”


Affordable automobiles and sophisticated airplane travel supplanted the popularity of passenger trains during the 1920s. The Great Depression further facilitated the financial woes of railroads nationwide, including the Seaboard Air Line Railway. In December 1930, the corporation entered receivership under the United States District Court in Norfolk, Virginia.


The late 1930s witnessed a competitive resurgence of railroading with the development of streamliners—sleek, high-speed diesel locomotives that offered luxurious accommodations for interstate travel such as air conditioning, adjustable seats, and radios. Sleeper, dining, and observations cars were also available for passenger pleasure. In 1939, the Seaboard Railway—backed by federal loans from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation—developed its first streamliner, the Silver Meteor, which connected New York City to Miami, Florida. Though wildly popular with travelers, Seaboard was unable to develop any additional streamliners due to manufacturing delays caused by World War II. On May 31, 1945, the Seaboard Air Line Railway was sold at a foreclosure auction for $52 million and reorganized as the Seaboard Air Line Railroad in 1946.



On May 18, 1947, Seaboard launched the Silver Comet, which operated a twenty-three hour schedule between New York City and Birmingham, Alabama. Unfortunately, the resurrection of rail transit was short-lived. Dwindling passenger consumption forced the Seaboard to integrate the Silver Comet route with cargo transportation. Eventually, freight trains became exclusive to the line. The Silver Comet’s final passenger service to Birmingham ran on January 18, 1969.

In July 1967, the Seaboard Air Line Railroad and Atlantic Coast Line incorporated together as the Seaboard Coast Line (SCL). This organization later merged with the Chessie System in November 1980, forming today’s CSX Transportation.

The Silver Comet Trail


CSX abandoned much of the original Atlanta-Birmingham line in 1989. The Georgia Department of Transit retained the defunct railway until 1998, when it leased the route to Cobb, Paulding, and Polk Counties for nonmotorized utilization. After a decade of development, the 61.5-mile Silver Comet Rail Trail was officially completed in 2008, connecting Atlanta’s greater metropolitan region to the Alabama state line.


The Silver Comet’s eastern terminus is located at the Mavell Road trailhead in Smyrna, Georgia. In addition to numerous roadway crossings, the first several miles of trail are often congested with pedestrian and cyclist traffic, so please be attentive along this stretch. At Mile 3.8, the Silver Comet’s first historic points of interest can be viewed inside Heritage Park—the Concord Woolen Mill Ruins and Covered Bridge. The mill ruins are positioned along Nickajack Creek, just a quarter mile off the bike path. The former manufacturing complex was established by Martin Luker Ruff and Robert Daniel in the 1840s. It was torched by Union raiders during Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign of 1864. Though rebuilt several times, the mill was ultimately abandoned in 1916. Today, its stabilized stone facades are free to explore. Regarding the covered bridge, it is still an active motor vehicle crossing along Concord Road.



At Mile 22.9 stands the 750-foot-long Pumpkinvine Trestle. Originally constructed in 1901, this impressive structure towers 126 feet above Pumpkinvine Creek; however, its views have been sullied by new construction housing developments and overhead powerlines. As the Silver Comet Trail continues west, the exurban sprawl diffuses into the rustic woodlands and rural landscapes of Paulding Wildlife Management Area—one of the most remote places along the route. Amidst the isolation near Mile 31 lies Brushy Mountain Tunnel (c. 1912), which traverses eight hundred feet through rocky terrain.


At Mile 37, the Silver Comet Trail intersects Rockmart—a Reconstruction-era industrial settlement that prospered off of the region’s slate quarries. The bike path meanders around Simpson Creek and Riverwalk Park before exiting town, where an additional fourteen miles of backwoods seclusion await the westward traveler. This tedium, however, is abruptly shattered at Mile 46 by “Surprise Hill”—a steep and arduous ascent with sharp turns and rolling topography. Over the course of two miles, the total elevation gain is 180 feet with a maximum grade of 13.7 percent.


The Cedartown Historic Railroad Depot greets visitors at the 51.4 mile marker. Established in 1833 as “Cedar Town,” the settlement grew substantially during the antebellum years, becoming the seat of Polk County in 1851. Though badly damaged by General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick’s Union cavalry in November 1864, Cedartown experienced unprecedented development during Reconstruction. Railroads, textile mills, and iron manufacturers stimulated employment opportunities for the local population. However, Cedartown’s economic prosperity diminished during the mid-20th century, and today the pulse of the town is barely palpable. The city’s downtrodden state is further accentuated by its high poverty and crime rates. Trail-goers are periodically harassed by stray dogs and individuals loitering around the tracks west of the Depot. Use vigilance when passing through this area.


There is little to observe outside of Cedartown. The Silver Comet terminates ten miles away at State Line Gateway Park, where the adjoining Chief Ladiga Trail continues into Alabama.


The Chief Ladiga Trail


The Chief Ladiga Trail spans 33 miles between the Georgia border and Anniston, Alabama, and briefly parallels the old Cherokee-Creek territorial border. The trail’s namesake, Chief Ladiga, was a Creek leader who signed the Treaty of Cusseta in 1832, effectively conceding all tribal landholdings east of the Mississippi River to the federal government. Cherokee territories north of this boundary were similarly relinquished following the Treaty of New Echota in December 1835. The conditions of these precursory treatises were fully implemented in 1838, when President Martin Van Buren ordered the removal of 17,000 Native Americans from their homelands to reservations in modern-day Oklahoma. This forced migration—known as the Trail of Tears—resulted in nearly six thousand Cherokee deaths.



The first thirteen miles of the Chief are flanked by the desolate boondocks of Talladega National Forest, but signs of civilization reemerge approaching Piedmont—a pleasant country town nestled in the foothills of Appalachia. The trail continues along AL-21 for another ten miles before entering Jacksonville. Known as the “Gem of the Hills,” this locality originally belonged to Chief Ladiga after signing the Cusseta Treaty in 1832; however, he sold his landholdings the following year to speculator Charles White Peters, who established the township.


Jacksonville has long been a center for southern education. Its first schoolhouse was founded in April 1834, followed by the progressive Jacksonville Male Academy two years later. In February 1883, the Jacksonville State Normal School was chartered by Governor Edward O’Neal and the Alabama State Legislature. The college persists today as Jacksonville State University. Part of the Chief Ladiga Trail passes through campus.


On the west side of town stands The Depot (c. 1860), which originally constructed by the Selma, Rome, & Dalton Railroad. It serviced the Confederate war effort through four years of conflict and was miraculously spared from destruction. Today, the structure has been renovated into a rest stop and event hall. The Chief Ladiga Trail continues another seven miles, through the municipality of Weaver, before terminating at Michael Tucker Park on the outskirts of Anniston, Alabama.


It took me an entire day to complete the 95-mile trail system. My legs were thanking me when I returned to Piedmont and settled into my overnight accommodations—the Roberts Home and “Night in the Museum” Hotel. Constructed in the early 1880s by Major Jacob Forney Dailey (Piedmont’s first mayor), the house was a wedding present for his daughter, Mary Katherine, and her husband, Alexander McCollister. The property changed hands several times over the ensuring decades until James Edward Roberts took possession in 1905. His descendants retained ownership of the home until August 1999. In 2015, the First Baptist Church of Piedmont voted to demolish this historic structure for a parking lot expansion project. The endangered property was quickly acquired by the Piedmont Historical Society and relocated to its current residence. Extensive restoration efforts commenced over the ensuing years. Today, the Roberts Home operates as the Piedmont History Museum and provides visitors with a uniquely immersive opportunity to stay overnight in an authentic Victorian Era homestead.



When considering their collective length, the Silver Comet and Chief Ladiga rail trails are overwhelmingly mundane. With the exception of a few outlying historic sites, sparsity predominates the former Seaboard route, making for a rather monotonous ride. There are also several sections of trail (particularly around Cedartown) that are begrimed with unsightly levels of pollution, further detracting from any scenic appeal. Safety is another major issue along this recreational route. In urban areas—especially between Smyrna and Powder Springs—heavy automobile traffic poses a hazard to unwary trail-goers. There have been countless injuries, and even some fatalities, caused by accidents at busy intersections, so to reiterate, exercise caution at all crosswalks and be mindful of others while on the trail. Further west, as the population density decreases, encounters with wildlife are more common. As previously mentioned, stray dogs tend to wander around the state line (I saw several packs, myself, between Cedartown and Piedmont). Reports of aggressive canine behavior have recently increased, and local authorities are encouraging pedestrians to carry mace as a prophylactic measure against attack. Some trail segments around these parts are cellular dead zones, which makes it all the more important to arrive prepared in case of an emergency. Personally, I would return to the following sections—Smyrna to Rockmart (38 miles) and Piedmont to Jacksonville (12 miles)—and avoid the rest all together.

Trail Rating: 5/10



Interested in railroad history? Check out Virginia Places, Carolana, NCPedia, American Rails, Trains.com, and the Concord Historic District

Contact Night in the Museum if you're considering an overnight stay along the trail!

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