Both the Seaboard Air Line and Atlantic Coast Line, though mighty railroads and direct competitors, were fledgling railroad companies by the turn of the 20th century. Both systems were basically complete by 1900 but there were gaps here and there. The main concern of the SAL at this time was finding a better way to move freight. While the ACL had a level route that passed through the coastal plain of North and South Carolina, the SAL was more inland and had hills and curves to deal with. (The idea to build a second mainline had actually surfaced a decade earlier just after John Skelton Williams organized the SAL.)
There was already a line in place from Hamlet to Charleston and it was reasoned that by constructing a connecting link south to Savannah, a totally new "low grade" route could be created for the bulk of SAL's freight. This second line was of such great importance that it received the green light almost from the moment it was conceived. Thus, what soon became the East Carolina Division was born!
Before construction had even begun on the new route, there was considerable business located on Hutchingson Island and in 1899 a new bridge was placed in service across the Savannah River to serve the industries there. This new bridge was a "swing bridge" and was not constructed for heavy use by SAL's predessors. As a result, SAL rebuilt this bridge into a new heavy duty bascule bridge just as construction started on the new route to Charleston.
In 1915, construction got underway, with three construction gangs starting work — two on either end of the line, and one in the middle. A little over half of the new line was to be built in the marshes of South Carolina Low Country, and numerous bridges would have to be built to cross the many rivers that spanned the 99 miles between the two cities. The largest bridge was located at the Broad River about halfway between Savannah and Charleston. Miles and miles of causeway had to be built across swamps and marshes and most of the fill material came from pits in the Charleston area and a few locations along the line where cuts were required. After just over two years and an untold amount of construction the new route opened on December 31, 1917. The entire route was less than 1% of 1% of a grade, and Seaboard quickly routed all of its through freight to this line. The SAL finally had a quicker line between the two cities than the ACL.
Numerous logging lines connected with the SAL out in the wilderness south of Charleston. The largest of these lines connected at Fenwick, SC, and ran to Bennett's Point. Another major line was located at Wiggens. It is reported that the line from Fenwick was a branch operated by SAL to the wharf there at Bennett's Point. Several other logging lines connected with the SAL in the Dale-Airey Hall area.
Traffic grew steady up until World War II, during which the SAL began installing Centralized Traffic Control on its mainlines as funds and equipment would allow; this was at the order of the government after a series of bad accidents along the line. The EC would have to wait for its CTC installation until 1949, since most of the line crossed rural territory and were without electricity at the time. But CTC was completed and with the help of a few well placed windmills SAL improved overall operations and made good on their promise of "Courteous Service in the South."
The next decade brought more growth, new cars, new locomotives, improved track, the introduction of continuous welded rail, FM radio communication, and one other innovation the Seaboard was famous for: the talking hotbox detector. The first hotbox detector was installed at Riceboro, Georgia, 30 miles south of Savannah, in 1960. Within 5 years these hotbox detectors would be located in strategic locations all along the SAL. The EC got two of these detectors before the merger with the ACL in 1967.
As the 1950s drew to a close, the ACL and SAL began merger talks. While lasting several years, the merger was finally approved by the Interstate Commerce Commission despite many heated court battles over various issues. On July 1, 1967 the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad was born. One of the many routes that had been proposed for abandonment in the merger talks was the EC and it was one of the first routes to get cut. However, the route could not be closed just yet. There was the many issues of the merger talks that needed to be addressed and it took several months to work out all the details. There were also all the hostile feelings that had to be dealt with between Seaboard men and Coastline men. This went on for years after the merger and to this day there are two sides when you mention the merger. Most former Seaboard men feel it was just a hostile takeover of their line. Almost instantly all through traffic was routed off the EC and rerouted onto the former ACL mainline that paralleled the EC. Some assignments were abolished but most were simply absorbed onto the ACL route. The first Savannah Division Timetable dated September 1, 1967 showed the EC still intact but no scheduled trains other than a local running between Savannah and Charleston. A month later though, the trackage was retired from just south of Charleston to Lobeco.
Several other key routes had been proposed for abandoment during the merger talks, all this to streamline the two companies into one. The EC was one of the routes to be eliminated but the new SCL had plans: part of the EC would be retained. Following the merger nothing happened for the fisrt few weeks but soon all through traffic was diverted off the EC and onto the parallel former ACL route. This became permanent on October 1, 1967 and the segment from Charleston to Lobeco was soon retired. However, a short section was retained from Dupont to Stono to serve some business there just south of Charleston. About the same time, connections were built at Coosaw to connect with the former Charleston & Western Carolina line and the diamond was removed. The line to the south remained in service while the segment from Coosaw to Lobeco was switched by the Port Royal Local for the industry located there. SCL needed the portion of the line to the south in place to use as a detour route north from Savannah (the lift bridge on the route had by this time been repaired from an earlier incident, more details below). This portion was re-designated as the Coosaw Subdivision; the CTC remained in service as well. SCL soon lengthened several sidings on the route at Boyed and Levy, SC to 150 cars. (They had been 90 cars long prior.) Also included was a temporary CTC installation from Coosaw on the C&WC route to Yemassee to connect back to the former ACL route. This was done to help the flow of trains that would shortly be coming to the route as a result of the detour — a move that would allow SCL to rebuild the Savannah River trestle south of Hardeeville on the former ACL route. Suddenly the lower portion of the EC was loaded with trains! The EC from Savannah north to Coosaw served as the temporary mainline while an ACL bridge received repairs. 20-30 trains daily used the single track route and this was one of the reasons SCL extended the sidings previously mentioned. Soon however work was completed on the former ACL bridge and all traffic returned to the correct mainline. This left nothing much to run on the EC, but SCL left it in service and routed some trains this way when there was congestion on the mainline.
One of the more troublesome spots along the line was the SAL lift brige over the Savannah River. Hit numerous times by maritime traffic along the river, it caused the closure of the line many times (for up to a year in once instance). However, it was repaired each time and service along the line was restored. Originally a bascule bridge, it was hit by a ship in 1951. The SAL rebuilt the bridge into a modern "lift bridge" and re-opened it in 1952. It is interesting to note that when the new Talmadge Bridge opened in 1954, it had the same vertical clearance as the SAL lift bridge, so it seemed that the new bridge was indeed the most modern on the entire SAL system! Then on October 31, 1966, a ship ran into the south tower of the bridge, which subsequently toppled into the river. It took nearly a year to repair the bridge during which time the SCL merger took place. When it re-opened in 1967, it was now part of the new SCL Railroad. Another hit on the bridge in 1968, and then another in 1969, were both minor; in both cases the bridge was quickly repaired and did not disrupt operations along the line.
However, on April 21, 1971, a ship, unable to see the bridge because of foggy conditions, struck the north tower of the bridge, once again sending the bridge into the river. The damage, much more severe than previous incidents, spelled the end for the EC as a through route. A newspaper reportedly described the bridge as the "most unlucky bridge anywhere", as it was struck 5 times during its 20-year existence. To address the problems with the bridge, Thomas Rice came to Savannah to meet with city officials. It was decided that the bridge would not be rebuilt. The EC now had no connection to the south and its fate was pretty much sealed due to the loss of the lift bridge. However, the line was not abandoned just yet: across the Savannah River from the destroyed SAL lift bridge was Hutchingson Island. SCL had a flat yard here and much business on the island to serve. SCL had no choice but to run a local train to serve this business south from Coosaw. Because the route was now ended at the Savannah River, the CTC was removed as well as the pole lines on either side of the right-of-way. Soon however, SCL built a new connection south of Hardeeville off the former ACL mainline to connect with the EC just south of Levy. This new line was completed late in 1977 and placed in service. The portion of the now unused EC from Coosaw south to Pritchard was torn up in 1978, thus spelling the end for this segment. From the junction point of the new connection north to Pritchard was left for car storage.
|This map is from the first timetable for the Savannah Division to be issued by the SCL on September 1, 1967. Notice it shows the entire EC still intact. Even so, all through traffic had already been routed to the A Line as preperations were underway to abandon the EC from Lobeco to Charleston. Only the local was still operating on the EC at this time.
||A map from the second timetable issued on December 15, 1967 shows the gap in the EC from Lobeco up to Charleston. A short segment was saved at Stono to serve a customer located there.
The last business, a carload of Tennis Court material was unloaded at Levy in 1980. The track sat unused for the next 2 years until SCL pulled the rails up in 1982. This last segment had been left in place for possible future growth in Southern Beaufort County but as nothing happened the railroad decided they didn't want to pay the taxes on this short stretch and it could not be saved. By the end of 1982 only the 5 miles coming north off Hutchingson Island to the junction with the new connection remained in use. This was re-designated the Hutchingson Island Subdivision and survived into CSX. Eventually, all of the business dried up on the island and in 1996 CSX sold most of the land they owned including the flat yard; today the land is now golf courses and race tracks and hotels. CSX did leave the track in place from South Hardeeville to Hutchingson Island though and plans for a new container port and industrial complex at Hardeeville along the out of service route may soon bring new life to the track, which is overgrown today. North of this area the old roadbed has been converted into a hiking trail called the New River Trail.
A note about the name "East Carolina Subdivision": This line was never officially named the "East Carolina" Subdivision by the SAL. It was part of the Carolina Division of the SAL and earned the nickname "EC" by the people who worked it and maintained it, due to its alignment on the east side of South Carolina. After the SCL merger, for a brief time (2 months), it was renamed the "Charleston Subdivision", and ultimately became part of the New Savannah Division. After the Lobeco-to-Charleston abandonment, the line south of Coosaw was renamed the Coosaw Subdivision.
Lots of evidence remains of the former SAL freight route. Several concrete signal bases are located near Pritchard and a few poles still stand in the swamp along the roadbed. The long trestle at the Broad River still stands although heavily damaged by fire. Several bridges to the north have been converted into fishing piers, the most recent one at Lobeco. Other traces remain here and there of the once proud freight route of the Seaboard Air Line. The EC may be gone, but it is not forgotten.
Thanks to Eugene Cain for contributing information about this route.