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No Railroad, No Aiken

A century ago there were many communities large and small that were known as railroad towns—communities that owed their existence to the building of a railroad or whose economy was dominated by the railroad industry. Atlanta, originally named Terminus, is a prime example of the first definition. Chicago is a famous model of the second definition. Aiken, however, qualifies under both meanings. It was created and molded by the “iron horse.”

Chartered in December 1835, as Aiken celebrated its 175th birthday last year, the city hosted a grand opening of the reconstructed 1899 Aiken Passenger Train Depot. The structure had been missing from the landscape since the 1950s, by which time apparently few cared about the old building. 

Located on its former site at the corner of Park Avenue and Union Street, a few blocks east of the city center, the new/old depot symbolizes Aiken in two ways: It represents the town’s raison d’etre, the railroad, and it is a reminder of the town’s legendary Winter Colony, whose members arrived by train (some in their own cars) and whose legacy continues to account for much of Aiken’s charm. In fact by 1899 the little town had greeted three distinct sets of railroad travelers: refugees from the Lowcountry’s sapping summer heat and mosquito-borne diseases, and two waves of winter visitors from the North, the first sickly, the second healthy, all arriving by train. 

While all three had a hand in shaping the town, the third was the most influential. The first group began arriving almost as soon as the rails were in place. Then, beginning in the 1840s, came Northerners who found their way to Aiken by taking a coastal ship to Charleston and then boarding a train.  (No network of railroads linking North and South yet existed.) Seeking a respite from pulmonary diseases that affected them mostly in winter, they filled the new hotels and boarding houses and strolled around coughing and breathing deeply of the pine-scented air.

After the Civil War, while some of these “health resort” folks resumed their migrations, a second wave of visitors from colder climes began to arrive at the depot. These “rich and famous” Yankee Winter Colonists were sports-minded men and women who built a golf course, polo fields, fox hunting trails and “cottages,” mostly large and grand by local standards. All of this, along with the social life they enjoyed, earned Aiken the label “the Newport of the South.” 

The economic impact of this group on Aiken was described by Realtor Eulalie Salley, who proposed catering to their needs. Before the 1950s when the “bomb plant” (SRS) came, she said, “We used to say we lived on Yankees in the winter and blackberries in the summer.” In time the Winter Colonists also established a private school and other institutions and improved the town in general. 

Aiken’s modern multi-million dollar horse industry may not have a direct link with these early millionaires, but the equine facilities it has built in recent years took their cue from the equestrian legacy of the Winter Colony, including Hitchcock Woods and its show ring, polo fields, the training track and the steeplechase course.

As important and fascinating as those early high society types are, it was events that began some 70 years before the 1899 depot was built that had the greatest impact on the city’s history. Because to put it succinctly, no railroad—no Aiken. 

Before 1833 when rails linked Charleston and Hamburg, opposite Augusta on the Savannah River, giving South Carolina the world’s longest railroad, Aiken’s landscape was mostly forests, farms and roads that were barely more than paths. There was Coker Spring, a watering place for horses that made the locale a rest-stop for travelers, and there was William Moseley’s store nearby. There was the Levels Baptist Church, where the Palmetto Golf Club is today, named for the topography of its site. Two impressive plantation homes—“Crossways” whose first owner is unknown, and the “Homestead” (now “Chinaberry”), William Williams’s place—pre-date the railroad and still stand today.

As important and fascinating as those early high society types are, it was events that began some 70 years before the 1899 depot was built that had the greatest impact on the city’s history. Because to put it succinctly, no railroad—no Aiken.

Then into this bucolic (to us anyway) setting came work crews, black and white, clearing the route, cutting timbers and laying the track, then nearing its destination 136 miles from Charleston. They probably received a mixed greeting, for landowners along the route were not of one mind about this newfangled monster.

But before exploring that sub-plot, to validate Aiken’s claim to be among the first of America’s “railroad towns,” a bit of background is called for. An Englishman, Richard Trevithick, built the world’s first steam-powered railroad train, which made its first run in 1804. Complexities both technological and financial delayed regular service until 1825, when England’s Stockton and Darlington Railroad punched its first ticket. America’s first passenger railway, the Baltimore and Ohio, began laying track on July 4, 1828. However,  obstacles of various kinds again delayed progress, and the line connecting Baltimore and Wheeling on the Ohio River some 280 miles away was not finished until 1853.

Twenty-five years earlier, a group of Charleston business and civil leaders were scratching their heads. The “holy city” had been among the country’s most prosperous for nearly a century, thanks to rice and cotton (and slaves).  But by the 1820s the city was slipping. No longer was it the unchallenged commercial hub of the South. Cotton growers in South Carolina’s upcountry where cotton was indeed “king” were looking to Henry Shultz’s new town of Hamburg to sell their crop. From there the bales were carried down the Savannah River. Charleston’s rival down the coast, Savannah, was taking a big bite of its pie. What to do?

The Charleston commercial elite decided to explore the still experimental technology of adapting a steam-driven engine to a vehicle running on rails. Their hope was to link Charleston to Hamburg and steer the cotton to their port. Thus, in 1827 the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company was chartered with William Aiken as president. Canals had been big during previous decades (think Erie) and some still thought they could do wonders, but the other part of the company’s name was to put that dream to rest.

On Christmas day in 1830, the first passengers traveled six miles at speeds exceeding 20 miles per hour behind a locomotive and survived. Three years later, after the route was chosen, right-of-way obtained and construction complete at the cost of just under one million dollars, the track to Hamburg was finished. As a result, the possibility of one-day journeys across the state introduced a new era in American travel and commerce.

Initially many were frightened by the dangers of overturned cars, elevated tracks and fires, or worried about the risk to unfenced livestock along the route. But experience and improvements soon overcame such concerns. Others wondered about whether such a smoke-belching, ear-piercing monster was in accord with the divine plan. One area pastor answered them by quoting from Isaiah: “The crooked places shall be made strait and the rough places smooth.”

The route chosen for this 136-mile wonder raised a question. The land directly between Charleston and Hamburg involved a gentle climb of less than 400 feet and a descent of less than half of that into the Savannah River Valley.  So a straight route would seem logical.  Yet, despite the pleadings of some commercially-minded residents of the town of Barnwell, which lay in that path, the route chosen followed a ridge west of the Edisto River, taking trains farther north than seemingly necessary. It then turned southwest for its descent to Hamburg, which added miles to the project.

It also created a seemingly avoidable problem for the trains: Aiken sits at the northernmost point on the route, and, at 515 feet, it is the highest point as well. The engineers who chose the route, Andrew Dexter and Cyril Pascalis, had to know the drop into Horse Creek Valley from that high point was significant, but may not have realized it would be too much for the engines of the time to manage.  They solved the problem by building an inclined plane and installing a stationary steam engine to raise and lower the cars. That engine stood where Aiken’s Highland Park Avenue begins.

A conclusive answer to the route location may never be found. An authority on early commerce in Edgefield and Barnwell districts (Aiken sat on the line between them until it got its own county in 1871) says several factors influenced the route, including “economic, technological, political and personalities.”  Aiken lore provides a more charming answer, which may have played a role. P. F. Henderson’s Short History of Aiken and Aiken County (1951) quotes an unnamed wag: “The crossties of love became interwoven with the lines of the survey.” A plausible translation could be this: Civil engineer Alfred Andrew Dexter, who was surveying possible routes for the rails, fell in love with Sara, the daughter of planter William Williams, owner of the Homestead, and asked him for her hand in marriage. The supposed reply, “No railroad for me, young man, no girl for you.”

It is a matter of record that the two were married and soon moved to Montgomery, Ala., where young Dexter made his mark. What is also known is that Williams had no qualms about the railroad traversing his land. In fact, he speculated in the venture by agreeing with the SCC&RR to an equal division of a 350-acre tract surrounding the stationary engine, a few hundred yards from his house. The partners then proceeded to lay off wide streets, which made possible Aiken’s distinctive downtown parkways, and residential lots, which they offered for sale. 

Thus, a town, soon to be named Aiken after the company’s first president, began to take shape. Did the romance give Williams the leverage he needed to seal that deal? The answer could be approached by finding the date of both transactions, the land agreement and the wedding, but even that could leave room for doubt. For the legend leaves unanswered the question, how did Dexter meet Williams’s daughter in the first place? The logical answer is that he was scouting the railroad’s route. It was likely Williams’s land offer that provided the key incentive to route the tracks a bit northward, although the romance couldn’t have hurt matters.

In any case, Aiken had several assets in its quest to be more than a name on maps. Until stronger locomotives and a “railroad cut” eliminated the need for it, the inclined plane required the trains to stop and gave passengers time to stretch their legs and perhaps look for a place to spend a dollar. The town’s elevation was, for a couple of decades, the highest Lowcountry residents could get to by train in their effort to escape the deadly summers. Its sandy soil drained so fast that a heavy rain left no trace after a few hours, which made it hard for malaria-carrying mosquitoes to thrive. Its pine-scented air and relatively mild winters made it a popular winter destination for Northerners, both sickly and vigorous.

By 1837, four years after seeing its first train, Aiken had four small hotels, two churches, an academy, a bank and “a goodly number of stores and houses.” While the surrounding area would remain as poor as its soil, and Aiken never rivaled Hamburg as the main cotton market east of the Savannah, the town would soon welcome those visitors who stepped off the trains at the depot and find its meal ticket and its identity.

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