The history of South Carolina railroads first dates back to the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company (SCCRR) which was formed back in 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 Hamburg, Columbia, and Camden." The bill was passed and finally approved on December 19, 1827. It authorized the organization of the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company.
The stockholders officially formed the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road company on May 12, 1828. It was the second railroad company in the US. Surveys were then conducted to determine the best route from Charleston to Hamburg - near present day North Augusta, SC.
A local businessman E. L. Miller provided $4,000.00 to purchase the first locomotive for the Charleston Hamburg Railroad. It was called “The Best Friend of Charleston” and was the first practical working steam locomotive built in America. It was first built in New York, then disassembled and transported down the Atlantic coast by ship. The locomotive arrived in Charleston on October 23, 1830. The locomotive weighed about 4½ tons and produced only six horsepower.
In January of 1830, construction of the railroad tracks began. The tracks started in Charleston and reached San Souci area by December of that year. On Christmas Day, 1830, 141 passengers rode in two passenger cars up to San Souci, traveling at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour. That first trip of “The Best Friend of Charleston” was reported around the world. This was the first regularly scheduled passenger train to operate in America.
The railroad experienced several problems during 1831. These included train derailments and the burning of a freight car by hot ashes from the locomotive. The biggest setback was the explosion of the iron boiler that exploded, killing the fireman and destroying “The Best Friend of Charleston.” The death of the fireman was the first fatality on an American railroad. Parts were salvaged from the wreckage and another engine was built and named “The Phoenix”.
By the end of 1831, the railroad was eighteen miles long and reached the area of Woodstock. The tracks reached Summerville in the summer of 1832. On October 3, 1832, the company started running two daily passenger trains from Charleston to Summerville. The railroad kept slowly expanding across South Carolina. The Charleston Hamburg Railroad also became the first railroad to carry the US mail. Many towns along the train route were named for railroad people. For example, the town of Aiken was named for William Aiken, the first president of the railroad.
The train finally reached Hamburg, SC, on October 2, 1833. The Charleston Hamburg Railroad was the longest railroad in the world at that time. The track was 126 miles long from beginning to end. The train reportedly could run between 15 and 25 miles an hour, but had to stop every 10 miles for fuel and water. By October 1833 the railroad had completed its entire line, a massive system for its time easily making it the largest such company in operation.
The cost of building the railroad was just under $1 million. Elias Horry was president of the Charleston Hamburg Railroad company from 1831 to 1834. On December 28, 1837 the Louisville, Cincinnati, and Charleston Railroad purchased the South Carolina Canal and Railroad company for $2,400,000.
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.
At the start of the U.S. Civil War, there were thirteen railroads with over 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.
After the Civil War, South Carolinians quickly repaired its railroads and by 1870 had added another 300 miles of new track. By the end of the century, South Carolina had over 2,800 miles of railroad tracks, criss-crossing every county within the state. The end of the century also brought the merger of many railroad companies into large "conglomerates".
The railroad transformed the state of South Carolina like nothing had before. 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.
Railroads reached their peak in South Carolina around 1920, with over 3,800 miles of track in operation. However, with the coming of the automobile and the freight trucking lines, highways began to assume dominance over the railroads. When the US Interstate Highways came along in the 1950s and 1960s, many railroad lines became unprofitable and were ultimately abandoned. Many "railroad towns" also began to fade away. Quite a few did not survive into the twenty-first century.
At its peak, South Carolina had almost 4,000 miles of track.Today, South Carolina's rail network includes nearly 2,300 miles of track. Expect the network to begin growing again as high speed rail systems and intermodal freight trains gain traction over the coming decade.
SC State Rail System Today
Class I Railroads
Class III Railroads
* Make sure you visit the web site on History of Railroads & Rail Workers