“You can leave St. Marys, but St. Marys never leaves you.”
These words were spoken by Doug Vaught over the click-clack of rail cars. Vaught is station master and was acting as tour guide, train conductor, circus ringleader and party host as a train filled with a hundred-plus happy passengers rattled along through the historic old seaside village in coastal Georgia.
It was easy to see what he meant. The late autumn sunshine filled the spaces between clean wooden buildings and whispering palmetto trees, and it seemed that everyone you met was glad you were in town for the visit. We were riding on the historic St. Marys Railroad and taking a journey into the past while enjoying a glorious day in the present.
The St. Marys Railroad is a hidden gem just two hours from Bluffton and promises an easy day of fun and enjoyment for visitors of all ages.
From as far back as 1865, a rail line has run from the small coastal fishing village of St. Marys into the interior of the state. The line transported goods from the sea and resources such as timber and fertilizer from the heart of southern Georgia. Just 11 miles long where it connects with larger lines, the track ownership changed hands many times over the years before finally landing with people who found a way to combine love of old time rail travel with good and simple entertainment.
The old rail depot – an art-deco utilitarian building – was converted into a museum and a local theater, and both soon became popular with visitors. Locomotives and other train cars were procured, and the St. Marys Express was formed to offer regular train rides as well as seasonally themed experiences to visitors.
Today, passengers can obtain tickets and ride about a 5-mile stretch of the old St. Marys Railroad line enjoying marsh views, quiet woodlands and lots of fun and entertainment.
Your journey will begin at the St. Marys Railroad Museum and the theater. The small museum contains railroad artifacts as well as several working model railroads that captivate the imagination and reflect the enthusiasm of the supporters of this effort.
The St. Marys Railroad owns several diesel locomotives. It offers steam train rides, too. Custom-built passenger cars provide open seating that allows commanding views of the little town and local scenery. Volunteers and actors from the little theater troupe take part in these excursions with music, dancing and posing as historic or literary characters.
As you ride through the coastal landscape, you will be inundated with the sights and sounds of nature as well as the clank and roll of old-time rail travel. Car passengers honk and wave at crossings, the engineer yells commands, children laugh and music fills the air as a few hours seem to slide by and you find yourself back where you started.
The St. Marys Railroad Express hosts many seasonally themed train rides tuned to the holidays that add a little extra excitement to an already enjoyable journey.
My family and I recently rode the rails with the St. Marys Railroad Express and made new friends along the way. After our train ride, the small town of St. Marys provided an adventure for the rest of the day as we explored the neat shops, museums and restaurants and walked in the waterfront park.
St. Marys is the gateway of Cumberland Island National Seashore and the departure point of the ferry to that wild place. There is a museum and visitors center for the National Seashore as well as a submarine museum dedicated to those who have served in the “Silent Service” through our nation’s history.
Bluffton resident Matt Richardson enjoys taking day trips with his family and exploring the Lowcountry. To see more pictures from his adventures, go to www.Flickr.com and search on the username “greenkayak73.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The St. Marys Railroad and the town of St. Marys is an easy drive south down I-95 and just two hours from Bluffton.
The St. Marys Railroad Express departure point is located 8 miles east of I-95 Ga. Exit 3. Turn left after exiting the interstate and continue until you reach Theatre by the Trax on the left (1000 Osborne Road). You can also take Exit 1 and follow signs to Historic St. Marys. The Jacksonville International Airport is just 25 minutes away.
While visiting, allow time to explore the charming waterfront village of St. Marys. And if you’re from out of the area, you might consider staying at one of the bed and breakfasts inns or hotels.
For more information, visit www.visitstmarys.com for area opportunities and information.