Powered by electricity rather than steam, interurbans facilitated commuter traffic in South Carolina’s upcountry and nationally until the coming of the automobile.
More complex than street railways yet smaller than interstate railroads, interurbans occupied a brief position in South Carolina’s transportation history. Powered by electricity rather than steam, interurbans facilitated commuter traffic in South Carolina’s upcountry and nationally until the coming of the automobile. Running trains by electric power in this country did not receive serious consideration until the end of the nineteenth century. Frank Sprague developed a method of mounting the electric motor in a way that would not subject it to undue shocks. He demonstrated it in 1888 in Virginia, and the invention was an immediate success. The electric-powered railway was clearly technologically superior to previous means of transportation, the horse-drawn streetcar and the cable car. In 1890 seventy percent of American street railways were powered by animals; by 1902 only three percent of street railways were not powered by electricity. By 1895 people had begun to recognize the utility of electric railways for traffic between cities.
Few of these lines operated in the South, but one of the most significant lines in the country was South Carolina’s Piedmont and Northern. Developed between 1910 and 1916, eighty-nine miles of track connected Spartanburg, Greenville, and Greenwood, with a spur to Anderson. In addition to the more successful Piedmont and Northern, South Carolina had two other interurban lines. The Augusta-Aiken Railway ran for twenty-six miles between those two cities. The road was operated by the Georgia-Carolina Power Company and opened for business on September 8, 1902, under the name of the Augusta and Columbia Railway Company. Its name changed to Augusta-Aiken after 1911, and the line was abandoned in 1929. The other line was in the lowcountry: the Charleston-Isle of Palms Traction Company, which began operation in August 1898. A ferry took passengers from Charleston to Mount Pleasant, where they boarded the train for a ten-mile ride to the Isle of Palms. The road was originally operated by the Charleston Consolidated Railway, Gas, and Electric Company. The railway entered receivership in 1924 and was abandoned the following year.
Although the Piedmont and Northern remained in operation until 1969, the decline of the Augusta-Aiken and Charleston-Isle of Palms Traction Company mirrored national events. The automobile became affordable and popular in the 1910s, and trucks began to eat away at freight business done by interurban lines. By the 1920s it was clear that automobiles were not a passing fad, and interurbans were abandoned across the country. The Great Depression made a revival of the interurban unlikely, and this once-popular transportation option passed from the landscape.
Fetters, Thomas T., and Peter W. Swanson, Jr. Piedmont and Northern: The Great Electric System of the South. San Marino, Calif.: Golden West, 1974. Hilton, George W., and John F. Due. The Electric Interurban Railways in America. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1960.