South Carolina - Railroads

Click on the links below for maps showing how the railroads evolved each decade.




















Click on the links below for more informaton about the known railroads within South Carolina

Passenger & Freight Railroads

Street Railways

Industrial Railroads

State Documents Pertaining to Railroads

The concept of a "rail road" began in England in the 1750s, and the Middleton Railway claims to be the first in the world - operational in 1758. Over the next fifty years, steam-driven locomotives were improved and rail lines became somewhat useful, albeit that they continued to be rather crude and unreliable.

In 1826, the first line of rails in the United States is said to have been laid down at Quincy, Massachusetts, three miles in length and pulled by horses. In 1829, the first steam locomotive used in America, the English-built Stourbridge Lion, was put to work on the Delaware & Hudson. It was too heavy for the track (twice as heavy as had been promised by the builders), and was laid up next to the tracks as a stationary boiler. In 1829, Peter Cooper of New York built the Tom Thumb in a mere six weeks, a vertical boiler 1.4 hp locomotive, for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. It hauled thirty-six passengers at eighteen mph in August 1830. It had a revolving fan for draught, used gun barrels for boiler tubes, and weighed less than one ton.

In 1830, the Best Friend was built at the West Point Foundery at New York for the Charleston & Hamburgh Railroad. It was the first completely American-built steam engine to go into scheduled passenger service. It did excellent work until 1831 when the boiler exploded due to a reckless fireman, unexpectedly ending its, and his career.

In the 1820s, the city of Charleston, South Carolina was rapidly becoming "irrelevant" as a major city, a port, and as a commercial hub. Imports through the port of Charleston suffered a marked decline after "the panic" of 1819, and the subsequent decade brought a severe economic downturn in the price of cotton. But of greater importance was the decline of retail trade. A number of towns along the fall line sprang up and began taking the business of the Upcountry area, which had formerly been carried on in Charleston. The wagon trade was steadily decreasing thanks to five new Canals recently built to increase river trade - but these new canals were more than disappointing in getting goods to the coast - thanks to frequent delays, mishaps, and droughts.

The Piedmont was fast becoming the more prosperous section of South Carolina, and Charleston quickly realized that if it wanted to re-acquire her position of prominence within the state, it must do something to secure its share of the Piedmont's growth and output. Upcountry cotton needed to be routed through Charleston, and it needed to get to Charleston faster and cheaper - instead of going by wagons to Augusta then down the Savannah River by flatboats to the burgeoning port city of Savannah, Georgia.

In 1821, the citizens of Charleston proposed to build the town of Hamburgh, opposite Augusta along the Savannah River, to secure the business of South Carolina that was already going across the river and to redirect this business towards Charleston. However, the creation of the new town of Hamburgh failed to seriously cut into Augusta's control of the trade in the area.

The first suggestion of a railroad for Charleston was made in an article signed "H," which appeared in the City Gazette on November 22, 1821. The writer submitted a publication on "The Patent Railway," which suggested a railroad from Charleston to Augusta and a branch to Columbia. He pointed out the advantage of such a road in the transportation of cotton, among other Upcountry goods. The introduction to the article states:

"Mr. Editor: Having during an excursion to eh Eastward seen a specimen of the patent railway, I was led to believe that the plan would be useful in this State. The inclement weather to which our roads are subject must defy all attempts to render them good during some portions of the year. The soil on which they are made and the materials adjacent to some parts renders them liable to constant injury. The following publication may serve to direct public attention to the subject. It was made in relation to a more nothern climate and some of the inconveniences stated would not be felt here. The season fo discussing the great subject of Internal Improvements has arrived and this may add to the material."

The idea must have gained considerable acceptance, for in the early part of 1823 one of the Charleston newspapers carried an advertisement of a patent railway on exhibition in the city. Little was done, however, until 1827. On December 4, 1827, Alexander Black introduced "a bill to incorporate a company to establish a railway or railways between the City of Charleston and the towns of Hamburgh, Columbia, and Camden." The bill was passed and finally approved on December 19th. It authorized the organization of the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company, which was chartered to investigate the possibilities of digging a new canal between Charleston and Hamburgh, new canals elsewhere in the Lowcountry, and the building of a rail road.

The possibilities of new canals were quickly shown to be too costly and too difficult for the Lowcountry. The rest, as they say, is history. In 1828, surveys were made to determine the best route, and by 1830, the Charleston & Hamburgh Railroad was laid, the locomotive was built, and the line was opened for business on December 25, 1830. At that point in time, it was the longest railroad in the world. (more info on this historic line is included herein)

Early railroads were problematic, to say the least. Tracks were made of wood with a strip of iron/steel secured on top. Ties were not always evenly spaced, and the roadbed was seldom improved much beyond the natural ground along the path. Locomotives and cars were still in their infancy, and many lasted for less than a year before they had to be replaced or significantly upgraded. The flanged "T-rail" was invented in 1831 by American Robert L. Stevens, but it could only be produced by steelmakers in England for quite a few years. It was not adopted by most U.S. railroads until the 1840s and by some until the 1850s.

In 1839, a French observer noted that "Americans exhibit a perfect mania... on the subject of railroads." This was also true of South Carolinians. By 1840, the South Carolina town of Branchville asserted that it was the "first railroad junction" in the world, and the Branchville & Columbia Railroad was well into its construction (completed 1842). The Camden & Branchville Railroad was completed in 1848. And at the start of the U.S. Civil War, there were thirteen railroads with over nine-hundred and eighty-five (985) miles of track laid within the state of South Carolina.

Railroads played a significant role during the Civil War with troop movement, but their greatest use was for transporting goods and material to aid in the war effort. Many miles of track were destroyed by General Sherman on his march through South Carolina, but many miles were also torn up by locals to be used on more important lines across the state and the Confederacy.

After the war, South Carolinians made quick repairs and by 1870 had added another three hundred (300) miles of new track. By the end of the century, South Carolina was proud to have over twenty-eight hundred (2,800) miles of railroads, criss-crossing every county within the state. The end of the century also brought the many railroad mergers and the "conglomerates" that continued to dominate the twentieth century.

It is rather an understatement to say that the railroad transformed the state of South Carolina like nothing had before - or perhaps, will again. The U.S. Highways and Interstates of the twentieth century come very close, but even these are directly linked to the railroads of the nineteenth century. In the 1840s, the first "railroad towns" began to emerge along the snaking steel rails where farmland once held firm. Thousands of little depots, hamlets, and thriving cities began to evolve along the railroad well into the early twentieth century. Many have since faded away into oblivion.

Interestingly, many existing towns did not want the railroad to even come near them. Few of these visionless towns continue to this day, although some do thanks to other valuable assets.

Railroading peaked in South Carolina around 1920, with over thirty-eight hundred (3,800) miles of track in operation. The coming of the automobile and the freight trucking lines, highways began to assume dominance over the railroads - and this fate was sealed when the U.S. Interstate Highways came along in the 1950s and 1960s. Many railroad lines began to be non-profitable, so these were soon abandoned. Many local communities and counties quickly realized that a good part of their "history" was evaporating, so many abandoned lines were re-acquired by local interests and made operational once again in the 1980s and 1990s.

Needless to say, with the many mergers of the early twentieth century and the consolidation of lines as well as the elimination of unprofitable lines by the bigger companies, many "railroad towns" began to fade away. They either found some other reason to exist or they too were abandoned. Quite a few did not survive to the twenty-first century.

Railroads not only transported goods and materials from one location to another, they brought new jobs and careers to hundreds of thousands of South Carolinians across the decades. Many dreamed of being engineers or conductors. More realistically, most worked in the railroad offices - calculating freight bills, calculating routes, invoicing shippers, processing payments, and even making coffee for the boss. Many more maintained the tracks, the stations, and the equipment. As these were upgraded to better and better standards it took less people for the maintenance and operations efforts, but many continue to keep the railroads running to this day.

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