The original railroad was founded by a group that included members of the Wagener merchant family of Charleston. The Blackville, Alston, and Newberry road was originally intended to develop the open-pit kaolin clay mines in eastern Aiken County along the North Fork Edisto River. The railroad would allow the white clay, said to be of superior quality for porcelain and papermaking, to be connected at Blackville to the Charleston-Augusta line of the South Carolina and Georgia Railroad (SC&G), by which it could be marketed to the world through Charleston.
Construction started in Blackville about 1886, where it connected to the SC&G, and proceeded to the kaolin mines. The towns of Springfield and Salley were founded between Perry and Blackville. The new towns of Perry and Wagener (named for the major investors) were created along this section of the line. The village of Sievern near the mines (a.k.a. Seivern or Selvern) was named for the old hometown of the Charleston Wageners: Sievern in Saxony, Germany. The railroad originally ended at a turntable in Sievern.
The kaolin venture ran into some temporary difficulties soon after the railroad was completed to Sievern in 1888. Meantime, the railroad very quickly became a boon for the area's turpentine and pine lumber business, as well as crops such as cotton and asparagus, the town of Wagener's signature crop for many years. Watermelon, which grow particularly well in the Sandhill country, were another high quality crop for which Wagener became recognized well outside South Carolina. Wagener melons were said to be superior even to those grown elsewhere in the Sandhills region. They were shipped as far north as Rhode Island in open ventilated produce cars. The railroad made the hitherto sparsely populated region so prosperous that an unsuccessful movement to establish a separate "Batesburg County", in a region stretching from Batesburg to Blackville, flourished in the early 1890s. Another 1888 railroad venture, the Barnwell Railway, continued from the end of the BA&N in Blackville south to connect the county seat and agricultural center of Barnwell to the evolving system.
By the 1890s, the railroad, or the regular train it operated, came to be known locally as the "Swamp Rabbit". Some of the colorful history attached to the railroad included the October 1895 shooting in Sievern of a notorious criminal fugitive who had terrorized the area, by a pugnacious railroad conductor whom the outlaw was rumored to have threatened.
The railway was briefly reorganized in 1896 as the Greenwood, Anderson and Western Railroad, which, though financially unstable, is shown in the 1895 Rand-McNally atlas map of SC. In Blackville it linked to the SC&G and the Barnwell Railway. The GA&W intended to extend to Batesburg and the other named cities, but had barely begun construction before going bankrupt in 1897 due to uncollectible debts. The Perry-Sievern section of the railroad was purchased by a Saluda investor, Colonel Mike Brown, and reorganized as the Sievern & Knoxville Railroad. For a while, an irrational panic gripped some locals as an absurd rumor was circulated to the effect that Col. Brown, also an officer of the Carolina Midland Railway that had acquired the Perry-Blackville section and the Barnwell Railway, was scheming to "steal their railroad".
At Batesburg, at that time an important agricultural market town of the western midlands of South Carolina, the S&K connected to the major east-west Southern Railways line that was the former Charlotte, Columbia & Augusta line. To approach Batesburg and the Southern line, the railroad took advantage of a small creek at the eastern edge of town, almost at the former border between Batesburg and Leesville, to climb onto the ridge. When US Route 1 was routed through Batesburg in the late 1920s, a short concrete bridge was built on Columbia Avenue to cross that railroad and creek.
The reader might note the spirit of optimism and self-promotion that characterized the road's choices of name, a typical trait of 19th century railroad builders. The line was never continued northwest out of Batesburg to reach Greenwood or Anderson, just as it never approached Newberry or Alston, never mind Knoxville!
In 1899, the Carolina Midland Railway began construction of a branch line from Cayce across Lexington County to join the existing S&K line at Perry. The S&K line was apparently operated by the CMR by the time it reached Batesburg, since the CMR published tariffs for Batesburg and stations along the line. By 1900, Southern Railways had taken control of both the CMR and the S&K. The S&K corporation continued to exist, but a 1910 atlas indicates the Perry-Batesburg line as "Southern".
In the 1930s, presumably 1933 when the S&K corporation folded, the Perry-Batesburg section was abandoned. This section included the town of Wagener, and the villages of Sievern, Steedman, Samaria, and Kneece. The railroad was definitely gone from the local maps by 1940.
Considerable grade-level and raised roadbed can still be seen after nearly 70 years, especially in some parts of western Lexington County south of Batesburg-Leesville near Samaria community, and alongside the Seivern Road between Wagener and Seivern. Wagener still bears the imprint of the line in the form of a long linear "railroad park", which since that time has been developed with such amenities as a pavilion and a large concrete fountain, lying between two parallel streets that once bracketed the railroad downtown. The old Sievern station apparently still stands in the woods near the present Sievern Baptist church. The old Highway 1 bridge over the cut and creek in Batesburg-Leesville is still in use, although some houses were built on the ROW by the bridge soon after abandonment. A dirt lane in the western Lexington County community of Steedman, parallel to a barely discernable section of old roadbed, is named "Swamp Rabbit Road", apparently in memory of the long-gone railroad.
The author gratefully acknowledges:
- Helene Riley, a researcher interested in the Wagener family of Charleston, for her assistance and her information and photos.
- The late Reverend William J. Buchner, Sr., whose local history, including the four volume History of Wagener compilation and More About the Swamp Rabbit, were significant sources of information. Unfortunately, though Rev. Buchner's books include a fairly detailed timeline, the exact date of the railroad's abandonment was not stated. The town of Wagener did acquire the abandoned ROW in 1940.
- Woody and Johnson South Carolina Postcards Vol IV: Lexington County and Lake Murray (Arcadia Publishing, 2000) includes a 1940 highway map of western Lexington County that plainly indicates the railroad no longer passed through that area. Some Internet discussion indicated that the abandonment was remembered to have taken place in the 1930s.
- The 1895 Rand-McNally atlas of South Carolina that has been made available on the Internet. It plainly shows the GA&W extending from Blackville to Batesburg when in fact by this time the GA&W had gone bankrupt before it could construct road any distance north of Sievern. The Cayce-Perry branch, not begun until 1899, is of course absent. A possible cause for the variant spelling "Selvern", seen in more recent atlases and topo maps, becomes apparent in the 1895 atlas; the name "Seivern" is in typically rather blunt type; therefore the "i" might be readily mistaken for a lower-case "l".
Thanks to Mitch Bailey for contributing information about this route.