Although South Carolina never developed a railroad network comparable to those in most northern states, it nevertheless gained recognition as a railroad pioneer in the United States. Chartered in 1827, the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company (SCC&RR) ran its first train on Christmas Day in 1830, the initial railroad line in the South. When its 136-mile line between Charleston and Hamburg was completed in 1833, it was the longest continuous railroad line under single management in the world. Although not an immediate success, the SCC&RR (later reorganized as the South Carolina Railroad) touched off a railroad mania in antebellum South Carolina. Several new railroads were chartered by the General Assembly, including the ambitious Louisville, Cincinnati, and Charleston Railroad, but a chronic lack of investment capital and a generally stagnant economy dampened most railroad efforts in South Carolina throughout most of the 1830s and 1840s.
To stimulate additional railroad development, in 1847 the General Assembly established a revolving fund to provide state aid to railroad construction. This aid, coupled with a revived economy, created a railroad boom in South Carolina in the 1850s, with railroad mileage increasing during the decade from 289 to 973, representing a capital investment of more than $22 million in public and private funds. By 1860 there were eleven railroads operating in the state, including two major arteries: the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad, which connected Columbia with Charlotte, North Carolina; and the Greenville and Columbia Railroad. Railroads, and the accompanying economic boom of the 1850s, helped transform the state’s upcountry. Existing towns along the railroads grew, and new towns, such as Rock Hill and Belton, came into existence. With a vastly improved transportation system, commerce and cotton production in the upstate soared.
The Civil War seriously damaged railroads. Hundreds of miles of track were worn out or destroyed by Union forces, as were engines and rolling stock. New construction all but ceased during the war. Antebellum railroad companies emerged from the war deeply in debt, with most either failing or consolidating in the ensuing years. Reconstruction-era legislatures eagerly used the credit of the state to put South Carolina’s railroads back in order, which also created a series of postwar scandals involving railroad managers and corrupt legislators who bilked the state treasury of millions of dollars. Nevertheless, by 1877 more than 350 miles of new track had been added to prewar totals.
The last decades of the nineteenth century saw considerable railroad development. By the end of the century, South Carolina boasted nearly four thousand miles of track. These new lines, which reached every county, resulted from several railroad-building strategies. Interstate “system building,” which swept the region in the 1880s and 1890s, became the most important. Three outside companies, the result of an array of corporate mergers, leases, and construction, became dominant: Atlantic Coast Line (ACL), Seaboard Air Line (SAL), and Southern (SRR). By World War I the ACL covered the lowcountry, with its main line connecting Wilmington, North Carolina, with Savannah, Georgia, and serving Charleston and Florence. The SAL operated its principal stem between Hamlet, North Carolina, and Savannah, which served Columbia. This busy artery, made possible by the construction of ninety-one miles of new track between Cheraw and Columbia in 1900, largely superseded the earlier SAL route via Charleston. The main line of the Southern between Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia, sliced through the upstate with major facilities at Greenville and Spartanburg. But the SRR controlled a web of additional track that included the South Carolina Railroad and a Charlotte-Savannah line via Columbia.
Even though system building dominated, some earlier and even later short-lines remained outside the orbits of the “Big Three.” The Pickens Railroad, for example, chartered in 1892 to build a nineteen-mile road between Easley and Olenoy Gap via Pickens, in 1898 completed only a ten-mile segment between Pickens and Easley, where it connected with the SRR. The Pickens remains an independent short-line. Another illustration is the Lancaster & Chester Railway. This twenty-nine-mile short-line, which still served the communities of its corporate name as of the early twenty-first century, began in 1873 as the Cheraw & Chester Railway, one of only three narrow-gauge common carriers built in South Carolina. Although planned as a fifty-five-mile route between Lancaster and Cheraw, the company, like the Pickens Railroad, failed to realize its intended goals. After it was reorganized in 1896 as the Lancaster & Chester Railway, its owners wisely converted their property to standard gauge six years later and benefited from traffic generated from local cotton mills.
South Carolina experienced another type of short-line, the “tap” road. These pikes were usually not common carriers but were affiliates of a single industrial operation, likely associated with timber or turpentine production. Examples abound. In order to serve its mill in Summerville, the D. W. Taylor Lumber Company in 1880 built a fourteen-mile private railroad to reach stands of trees in the Wassamassaw Swamp of Berkeley County. Until abandonment in mid-1920s, this tap road expanded and contracted under various corporate banners.
The “Railway Age” in South Carolina lasted until after World War I. With greater usage of automobiles, buses, and trucks, which traveled over ever-improving public roads, the need for freight and passenger trains diminished. Yet, mileage did not shrink dramatically until the 1960s, eventually declining to fewer than 2,400 miles. The difficulty of winning regulatory permission to abandon lessened with the Transportation Act of 1958 and other legislative measures. Moreover, appendages and even secondary and main lines became less desired by major carriers as a result of corporate mergers, which affected every one of the state’s three primary railroads. In 1967 the ACL and SAL combined to form the Seaboard Coast Line (SCL), and in 1980 SCL joined with the Chesapeake & Ohio system to create CSX. Then in 1982 the Southern merged with Norfolk & Southern, producing Norfolk Southern (NS). With development of two dominant carriers in South Carolina, CSX and NS, hundreds of unwanted miles were either abandoned or sold to existing or new short-line operators. The Waccamaw Coast Line Railroad is an example. In 1984 CSX wished to dispose of its fourteen-mile branch between Conway and Myrtle Beach. In order to continue movement of forest products and other bulk commodities, Horry County bought the line and leased it to the newly formed Horry County Railroad. Three years later the county leased the property to the Waccamaw Coast Line.
In the twenty-first century, railroads in South Carolina remained vital arteries of freight transport. The few remaining passenger trains, operated by the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak), created in 1971, served principal stations along the former ACL, SCL, and SRR.
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Hilton, George W. American Narrow Gauge Railroads. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990.
Lewis, Edward A. American Shortline Railway Guide. 5th ed. Waukesha, Wis.: Kalmbach, 1996.
Nelson, Scott. Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
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Vivian, Daniel J. “Railroad Development and Community Change in the New South: A Social History of the Seaboard Air Line Railway in the South Carolina Midlands, 1898–1915.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1997.