Walhalla, SC to Knoxville, TN

The Blue Ridge Railroad Project

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A view looking out of Stumphouse Tunnel. No trains ever ran through this tunnel as it was never completed. This tunnel was to become part of a route from Anderson, SC, to Knoxville, TN. The railroad made it as far as Walhalla. Visitors can now once again go into the tunnel! It is said that nearby Clemson University used to store cheese in the back of this tunnel... Photo by Mitch Bailey.

As early as 1836, even as the first American intercity steam powered railroads were being built and operated, schemes were being floated for building railroad links over the Appalachian Mountains between the ports of the southern Atlantic seaboard, and the communities inland around the Tennessee and Ohio valleys. The region of "Rabun Gap", a relatively low place through the Appalachian chain in northeast Georgia, attracted much attention as a potential route. The interest was heightened when gold was discovered at Dahlonega, GA, to the west.

In 1836, former vice president John C. Calhoun led a group of businessmen, (including prominent German immigrant and Charleston merchant J.A. Wagener whose son George would build the original Blackville to Seivern railroad line fifty years later) in plotting what they called the "Cincinnati, Louisville, and Charleston Railroad" that would ultimately link Charleston, SC, with Knoxville, TN and Cincinnati, OH.

Railroads from Charleston, SC to Anderson, SC, and from Knoxville, TN to Cincinnati were already in place by the time the group was ready to begin construction in 1854 (four years after Calhoun's death). The "Blue Ridge" project aimed to complete the connection by building through Rabun Gap and down the Little Tennessee River valley.

Construction began in 1854. Massive cyclopean piers and culverts of stone were installed in the rugged hills, as the railroad investors built for the ages with seemingly unlimited capital. No rickety wooden trusses for the Blue Ridge! The incredible Stumphouse Tunnel near Wahalla (unfortunately closed to visitor entry in recent years) remains to this day as a monument to their vision, as well as lesser works such as the Dick's Creek tunnel in Rabun County, Georgia. All this work, never forget, was done entirely by human labor using hand tools and a few draft animals.

The state of Georgia had meantime gotten into the act by chartering the "North Eastern Railroad" in 1854. It was intended to run out from Athens and join the proposed Blue Ridge line at Clayton. This would link Savannah and other Georgia cities to Knoxville and points beyond.

The railroad had only been completed from Anderson to Walhalla, SC (a town founded by J.A. Wagener), when work ceased due to the impending Civil War. Construction did not resume until 1869, and soon was abandoned again when bonds proved unsalable in the depressed postwar economy. At this point, the Blue Ridge Railroad project as originally planned seems basically to have been aborted.

A number of attempts were made to complete the line in the late 19th century but failed even though 80% of the grade was completed. (That other 20% must have been a real challenge!) Construction did commence on the "North Eastern Railroad" in 1871; this project eventually resulted in the Tallulah Falls Railroad, which took over unused Blue Ridge grade north of Clayton.

A number of schemes, involving the former Blue Ridge project and the "North Eastern Railroad" and its successors, to build rail connections to Knoxville and beyond, continued to be floated. "Black Diamond" was the name given in the 1890s to Col. Alfred E. Boone's multiple proposals that all involved Blue Ridge structures and ROW in some way. The "Black Diamond" schemes, and the Tallulah Falls line that was abandoned in 1961 as well, are both often confused with the much earlier Blue Ridge Railroad project.

The construction of the Fontana Dam, and the resultant flooding of much of the Little Tennessee Valley in the 1940s, decisively ended any lingering possibility of realizing the ambitious project proposed over a century earlier.

A number of relics remain to be seen, most notably the aforementioned Stumphouse Tunnel. A roadside park in Rabun County Ga. east of Clayton, the Warwoman Dell picnic area (originally a Civilian Conservation Corps project), contains some Blue Ridge roadbed and minor stonework. Other tunnels and structures are said to be visible in Rabun and Oconee Counties. Just north of Clayton, the Tallulah Falls Railway used "Blue Ridge" roadbed on its way to Franklin, NC.

References:

The Tallulah Falls Railroad: A Photographic Remembrance by Brian A. Boyd (1998, Fern Creek Press of Clayton, GA) includes a summary of the Blue Ridge and Black Diamond's history, and an intriguing 1854 photo of stonework in a bridge pier off Warwoman Dell that dwarfed the figure of the county surveyor at its base.

Myra Berthiaume, a descendant of John A. Wagener, was kind enough to provide the Stumphouse Tunnel photos and the connection her ancestor had with the project. She advised the author that the Stumphouse Tunnel had been closed, due to concerns about possible rockslides, in 1995. Thanks, Myra. It is now reported that the tunnel is open again (as of late 2002)!

Memories of a Mountain Shortline, edited by Kaye Carver and Myra Queen, 2001, Foxfire Fund and Fern Creek Press. (Reissue of a 1976 Foxfire title).

Thanks to Mitch Bailey for contributing information about this route.

The unintended terminus of the Blue Ridge Railroad was West Union, S.C., when construction west through the Blue Ridge from West Union was suspended by both a shortage of funds and the onset of the War Between the States. The original Walhalla depot had been at West Union, and it was only through the efforts of the Walhalla Town Council and local citizens that the line was extended into the town proper, the first train arriving November 14, 1877. Work beyond the town was never resumed, and the later Southern Railway branch would be truncated again in the 1990s at West Union when the last commercial user of railroad service in Walhalla ceased operation.

Mark Sublette
Clemson, SC
9/30/2010

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I have been trying to locate the location of the West Union Depot before it was moved to Walhalla. I have information that at this location still exists the turntable that turned the engine and then the train backed into Walhalla before heading back to Seneca and the main line. I would love to talk to Mark Sublette, but have been unable to find contact info for you. If you read this, I'm in the Seneca phone book.

Kevin

Kevin Harbin
Seneca, SC
11/9/2010

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My great-grandfather, James W. Brewer, was a section boss on the Blue Ridge Railroad at West Union, SC. back in the 1800's. It may have been the Carolina & Northwestern line from Walhalla to Columbia. His nickname was "Railroad Jim" because there were also "Mill Jim" and "Crippled Jim" in the family. James W. was born May 14, 1858 and died April 30, 1918.

How can I find out exactly when he worked for the Blue Ridge Railroad? I would like to document it and locate any other information that might be found in the records.

Beverly Brewer Herriman
Memphis, TN
7/27/2012

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We went to the Stumphouse Tunnel (and Isaqueena Falls) for the first time yesterday and had a blast. It's also been fun to look up information on the tunnel and come across this web site. Great to see that is is open again,

Joe Hinson
Columbia, SC
4/8/2013

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An interesting side note about the Stumphouse Tunnel is that it was used by Clemson University as a facility for aging cheese. I do not know for how long, when it was used for this purpose or what type of cheeses were aged there. Wish I knew more. Rj

FREDERICK JACKSON
LONG CREEK, SC
8/13/2013

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See also --

http://bridgehunter.com/sc/oconee/stumphouse-tunnel/

for more on Clemson's bleu cheese.

Joe H.
Columbia, SC
8/13/2013

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Thanks Joe H.; Great link, answered my questions. Sub-links to Clemson U provided even more info. Looks as if they are still making cheese on campus. Tried to find an outlet for their packaged cheese, without success. Rj

FREDERICK JACKSON
LONG CREEK, SC
8/13/2013

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I would like to meet Kevin Harbin. I had heard several people comment that he is well informed on railroad history in our area. I have been digging for years for info on this railroad project. I am a member of the Central Railway Model and Historical Association. I love this kind of thing. Can't get enough of it.

As for the turntable info in West Union, some folks in West Union once had an issue with railroad right of way and found their info at Pickens County Court House records.

That area was once Pickens County I was told. I have always had a feeling that they used a Y to turn around. If you turn right toward the Timken plant one block approx. down from main street, there was a saw mill that had a spur track off the blue ridge track it used for years. At that point you can see the old road bed going up to Stump House out through the woods. It looked very narrow. To the left is the roadbed to downtown Walhalla. That would or could have been used as a Y. Pendleton Historical in Pendleton has a lot of old news paper and info about this railroad too. TIES railroad magazine had a map of the tracks in downtown Seneca but only section 106 was shown starting at the depot and going toward East Main Street. I think the rest of the maps are in Kennesaw, GA in a railroad museum. I want to see them very much. A have a picture that Jerry Alexander brought me of the first Seneca depot. It is unlike the others I had seen. It seems to be in the area of the curve behind Redmond's Produce. There is a hole there and some of the early depots had a basement under them where valuables were kept. You can see the line from Anderson on one side and the Atlanta, Richmond Airline tracks on the other side curving toward East Main Street. I think the two parking lots in downtown Seneca were to be a rail yard in the beginning. I want to find the first roadbed leaving Seneca toward Westminster. I know that they ran side by side from the old Lowry Oil building along side West North 1st Street until they separated in front of Big Lots. In 1917 when the new double track was finished they let the Blue Ridge train have their better track where it is now. You can see the old roadbed behind the old Lindsey Oil building. One is higher than the other. Going back to downtown, their is evidence that their was a rail bed that crossed the road between Kings Laundry and Oglesby Funeral Home. The town of Seneca workers said they had dug there and found rail road spikes under the area. Also below their at the former Adams Tractor location I was told that it shows railroad tracks went across that land. I would like to hear from anyone with more info than me. I can be reached at Crenshaw Signs 864-882-7375 or email.

Chevis Crenshaw
Seneca, SC
11/1/2013

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