Silence is golden on Chinnabee Silent Trail

Trail built by scouts from Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind 50 years ago

Terry Dahlgren was among those who helped built the Chinnabee Silent Trail. Photo by Cary Norton.

The legacy of the Chinnabee Silent Trail in Talladega National Forest can be found right there in the name. No, not the Chinnabee part. He was an 1800s Alabama Creek Indian chief who didn’t make much of a dent in the history books.

Rather, it is the “silent” portion of the trail’s moniker that still resonates today. For that word is there to honor the creators of this 6-mile pathway through the pines near Cheaha State Park — a determined group of Boy Scouts from Troop 29, who also were students at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.

In the mid-1970s, members of Troop 29 gathered in the woods nearly every weekend for two years to forge the trail, foot by foot over rocky ground that climbed 1,500 feet in elevation. Their equipment consisted primarily of pickaxes and hoes. Their basic uniform was T-shirts, shorts or jeans and tennis shoes.

And their common bond was their deafness, and their determination.

“None of us ever really argued at all while we were working,” recalls Terry Dahlgren, one of those Troop 29 Scouts. “We were so just encompassed with making that trail.”

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The end result is a trail that has become part of one of the more favored hiking routes in all of Alabama. The Silent Trail connects on one end with the Pinhoti National Recreation Trail and on the other end with the Skyway Trail, creating an 18-mile loop nicknamed the Pin-Chin-Sky.

“It’s a huge draw and a huge benefit for us,” says Rickey Gooden, who has worked as a recreation management specialist for the U.S. Forest Service at the Talladega Ranger District for the past 20 years. “It’s done a lot to create the use that we have in that area.”

Gooden says the first half-mile of the trail is particularly popular, because it is an easy hike that leads to a waterfall in the Chinnabee Recreation Area. Not long after that, however, the route becomes steeper and more difficult to navigate.

“You climb drastically to a ridge where it intersects with the Pinhoti Trail,” says Nathan Wright, president of the Alabama Hiking Trail Society and owner of the Pinhoti Outdoor Center. “It’s in the Cheaha Wilderness, so there are no structures or roads. It’s a beautiful area with some incredible views. But it’s a challenging hike.”

If it’s challenging now, imagine what it was like when there wasn’t any sort of trail there at all. That was the situation facing Troop 29 back in the 1970s.

“There was a lot of sweat involved,” says Dahlgren, a native of Mobile who has been completely deaf since he was 1 year old. “We had to pick up all the rocks. There were so many of them. And we had to be careful not to damage the soil so it wouldn’t erode.

“We were going up a slope, and we had to make that slope smooth, then make a bit of a ditch on either side so water wouldn’t erode everything. I wouldn’t say it was engineering, but there was more to it than just clearing stuff. There was a science to it.”

Scouting has been a fixture at AIDB since the 1930s. In 1962, Troop 29 began assisting the U.S. Forest Service with trail maintenance in the area. Those efforts were led by Scoutmaster Moran Colburn, an AIDB graduate who spent nearly a half-century working at the school.

According to a story on written by Alabama author and historian Joe Cuhaj, Colburn decided that instead of merely assisting the Forest Service on existing trails, he wanted Troop 29 to build its own new trail. In 1973, he reached an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service allowing for the creation of the Chinnabee Silent Trail.

As the trail progressed, Dahlgren says the students usually camped out on Friday night so they could start work first thing Saturday morning. This schedule was maintained during the fall, even though a number of the students played in Friday night games for the AIDB Silent Warriors football team.

“We averaged anywhere from 60 to 80 Scouts working on the trail each weekend, with about 30 of us diehards who were out there every time,” Dahlgren says. “This was the ’70s, so of course we didn’t have any protective or safety gear. No goggles or gloves. But I don’t remember us ever having any injuries.”

The trail was completed in 1976 and officially dedicated the following year with a marker at the trailhead recognizing Troops 29’s accomplishment. They also were honored by both the national Boy Scouts of America and the U.S. Forest Service. In 1989, AIDB received a “Take Pride in America” award, which was presented to Colburn by President George H.W. Bush.

Over the years, Gooden says the Silent Trail and the Pin-Chin-Sky loop have become primary outdoor-recreation attractions in the Talladega National Forest.

“When the weather is nice, it can be hard to get a parking spot (near the trailhead off State Highway 281),” Gooden says. “People who go there also visit other parts of the forest and Cheaha State Park. Then they go to Oxford or the Talladega area for hotels and a place to eat. That trail definitely makes an impact for us.”

Wright agrees. “We do shuttles for hikers, and we’ve seen a sharp rise in activity on the trails over the past five years,” he says. “Especially since Covid, people want to get outside. Even though there’s no cost to hike, there is definitely an economic impact for some of these cities like Heflin, Sylacauga and Piedmont.”

As for Dahlgren, who now lives in Gardendale, he continues to visit the trail periodically to provide maintenance along with a handful of other former Troop 29 Scouts. He says the group already is looking forward to a big 50th-anniversary celebration in 2026.

“We’ll be out there working on the trail, and people will pass by and ask about it,” Dahlgren says. “I love telling them that I was part of that group that built the trail. We all just felt a sense of pride and accomplishment for doing that.”

Cary Estes and Cary Norton are Birmingham-based freelance contributors to Business Alabama.

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