Charleston's fortunes as a seaport had ups and downs throughout its history. During one of the earliest recessions experienced by the United States of America, in the 1820s, some merchants of Charleston faced the problem of getting more business to come through their port. They were limited by the relative isolation of Charleston from the rest of the mainland, a problem plaguing many other port cities at that time. Other than by sea, Charleston was accessible only by dirt roads through the swamps that were nearly impassible much of the year, and by silt-choked rivers and canals. It was often said that it was much easier to travel between Charleston and Philadelphia (or any other port), than between Charleston and upstate SC. It was also said that the port city needed the state's interior more than the interior needed the port, so to remain relevant and viable it was up to Charleston to overcome her limitations and market herself.
Charlestonians particularly coveted more business with the region of western SC and eastern Georgia surrounding Augusta, GA, where the somewhat more easily navigable Savannah River was used to trade through the rival seaport at Savannah, GA. The South Carolina Railroad & Canal Co was formed by a group of Charleston merchant investors in 1827 for the purpose of building a railroad (and/or canal, which never happened) from Charleston to the vicinity of Augusta. Its other terminus was Hamburg, a small Aiken County village just south of present-day North Augusta, across the Savannah River from Augusta's river port. Goods and passengers were originally ferried across the river to and from Augusta.
This was a spectacularly ambitious undertaking for the time. It was to be the first completely steam powered common carrier railroad in America, and would be by far the longest railroad in the world when completed. Other railroads of the time were mostly devoted to mining and quarrying. Some short line commercial roads in England were using steam power by 1825. In North America, the Baltimore & Ohio, and the Delaware & Hudson Canal RR, already existed, but used draft animals as revenue motive power. The B&O's experiments with the crude underpowered prototype Tom Thumb and the D&H's try with the massive imported 7 ton Stourbridge Lion did not result in revenue service at that time because in each case the track proved to be too light for the steam locomotives. The SCRR&C had its Best Friend making money on short runs out of Charleston six months before the B&O put a steam train into revenue service.
For 136 miles the builders pushed through swamps and over creeks in the South Carolina low country, reaching the rolling hills at the margin of the Piedmont where Augusta was located. The original proposal had been to have it pass through Barnwell, but a prominent plantation owner of that town adamantly opposed its presence, professing fear that the contraption would slaughter his poor field hands of African heritage, wholesale. The line was completed to Hamburg on Oct 3, 1833.
Horatio Allen, who had designed the Delaware and Hudson's railroad and conducted the Stourbridge Lion experiment, developed a revolutionary railroad construction for the Charleston-Hamburg line. It amounted to a series of low wooden trestles (presumably rot-resistant, such as cypress) that were later backfilled, while the standard crossties-on-the-ground method was used only in cuts. Flat steel bar on wooden rails on pilings were used on straight stretches, while expensive flanged rail was used in curves. The initial cost of building the road was $951,148 for Allen's trestle and pilings construction, and a similar amount again in 1834 to build the embankments and install improved steel rails. This durable roadbed withstood over 150 years of heavy traffic and at least one major hurricane. Nearly all the Charleston- Branchville section remains in service with Norfolk-Southern today.
Although horses and even wind were considered as sources of motive power, it was decided to rely solely on the newly developed steam-powered locomotive. The first locomotive used was a 3 ton 0-4-0 vertical-boiler engine generating less horsepower than most modern riding mowers, the famous Best Friend of Charleston. Contemporary accounts of the first passenger run gushed with enthusiasm - "...flew on the wings of wind at the speed of 15 to 25 miles per hour, annihilating time and space...leaving all the world behind." Such innovations as steel driving wheels (The Best Friend soon broke its original iron-tired wooden drivers on a curve), equalizing suspension and guide wheels on trucks, and reverser gear, still lay in the future.
A speed limit of ten MPH was soon found necessary to prevent derailments, as the rigid frame would readily let the wheels wobble right off the tracks at the slightest unevenness. The Best Friend never made it to Hamburg or even ten miles from Charleston; it exploded (due to inadequate training of the fireman, and a crude relief valve design that lent itself to being defeated) over a year before the line was completed. The pieces were recovered and remanufactured into a second engine, the Phoenix. By this time, additional engines were already being acquired.
The primitive railroad, in spite of its many faults, quickly proved a far preferable alternative to navigating the silty rivers to Charleston in flatboats or steamboats, never mind using the primitive roads. Lessons learned building and operating the pioneering SCRR&C and other early railroads led to rapid improvements in railroad technology, procedures, and capabilities, until railroads became the driving force in nineteenth century economic growth and industrialization.
A number of towns were established along the route, including Blackville and Aiken, named for officers of the railroad. A branch line (today still a main line of Norfolk-Southern) was added in 1842, turning out from Branchville to Orangeburg, St. Matthews and Columbia, to which another branch at Kingville to Camden was added in 1848. Branchville became the world's first railroad junction, although the town already had that name since colonial times for unrelated reasons.
The railroad improved the fortunes of Charleston, but to a lesser degree than hoped. Not to be so easily overcome, Savannah and other port cities soon upped the ante by developing their own rail connections to the interior, winning back market territory upon which Charleston had encroached. In 1852 the railroad got permission to cross the river into Augusta, a development that finally allowed it to prosper financially.
The SCRR&C dropped the never-used "canal" in a merger, and for long was known simply as the South Carolina Railroad. The trackage was rebuilt after the destruction by Sherman's forces and the earthquake of 1886. The railroad was reorganized and renamed a number of times over the 19th century, until Southern Railways acquired the Charleston-Augusta line in 1899, as part of the South Carolina and Georgia Railroad. Southern Railways negotiated a lease with the SC & Ga to operate their lines, which will expire in 2901.
For a century and a half, the line was regularly upgraded for modern rail traffic in more or less the same route the original SCC&RR traced out. It remained a major artery between the port of Charleston and the markets, industries, and rail junctions of Aiken and Augusta for decades.
A celebratory excursion using a replica Best Friend was run on the line in the early 1980s, disregarding the fact that its namesake never made it past Summerville. However, the Branchville-Aiken section was by this time no longer justifying its keep. In the mid 1980s, about the time the Norfolk-Southern merger was proceeding, the section between Branchville and the village of Oakwood, on the outskirts of Aiken, was abandoned. By the 1990s nearly all the track had been removed from this section. The remainder of the line from Augusta through Graniteville remains in use as part of the Columbia-Augusta main line, with a long spur still in use by Aiken area industries through Aiken down US 78 to its end in Oakwood.
The existence of the Columbia and Camden branches as of 1850 was indicated by an 1850 map of South Carolina.
The explanation for excluding Barnwell from the route was related by William Buchner in his History of Wagener volumes.
Much of the info regarding Horatio Allen and his design of the route and trackage come from Matt Conrad's Best Friend site, who credits The History of the First Locomotives in America by William H. Brown (1871).
Technical specs for the Best Friend come from Jay King's history pages at San Jose State University. The Best Friend developed 6 hp.
Corporate history, and years of mergers, and acquisitions, of Southern Railways and most of its forebears are nicely summarized at Tom Daspit's Southern Railfan site
The timeframe of the abandonment are based on the SC Trails listing taken from the 1994 SC Rail Plan, and the author's recollection that the line still ran through Blackville in 1982, and the Aiken end seemed to be abandoned by 1987.
Charleston Chapter, National Railway Historical Society web site
David D. Wallace's South Carolina: A Short History 1520-1648 (USC Press, 1951) provides some dates and dollar figures for the construction of the railroad.
Town of Branchville, SC history web pages
Thanks to Mitch Bailey for contributing information about this route.