In the first-quarter of the nineteenth century, South Carolinians recognized a need for faster, more reliable transportation. This was driven largely by settlement of the backcountry. Traditionally, cotton, indigo, and other crops had to be shipped by river on boats and barges with shallow draughts. Roads were muddy almost impassable during the rainy seasons, not to mention dangerous to travel due to bandits and renegades. The South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company was chartered in 1827 to meet the growing demand, and tap new markets in an area once deemed wilderness.
The Port of Charleston was a focal point for exporting these raw materials. From here, they could be shipped to buyers in England or in the northern U.S., where they were turned into manufactured goods. Like so many previous ideas, the concept of a railway was borrowed from the UK and adapted here in America. Abundant timber from the vast pinelands was hewn into railroad ties and sills. Atop the sills were fastened long pieces of strap iron, and this constituted the “rail.” Iron spikes were hand-forged, and held everything together. Thus, from humble beginnings came the first commercial railroad in The Americas, which stretched from Charleston to Hamburg, South Carolina. Hamburg was a river port located on the Savannah River, near present-day Augusta. Horatio Allen, a distinguished civil engineer in 19th-century America, was the railroad’s chief engineer. The company president was William Aiken, for whom Aiken, South Carolina is named. Today, nothing remains of the antebellum town of Hamburg.
Prior to the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company, there was a settlement in the Orangeburg District simply known as “The Branch.” It was in 1832 that the rail line reached this area, and shortly after, it was aptly renamed “Branchville.” As construction continued towards the Savannah River port, Branchville, South Carolina became the world’s first railroad junction. Traditionally, railways ran between A-and-B points. Now, multiple stations and towns could be reached on the same rails. When completed in 1833, the Charleston-Hamburg route was the longest contemporary railroad in world; 136-miles. The first train to travel its entirety, led by the locomotive “The Best Friend of Charleston”, departed from the coast on Christmas Day of the same year.
Today, post-Interstate Highway, Branchville is a shadow of its former hub. Two important buildings still stand along the right-of-way; a freight depot which is unoccupied, and the passenger depot which functions as a museum and restaurant. It was from the freight depot platform that bales of cotton and crates of dried indigo dye were heaved into waiting boxcars. The American-bond masonry construction suggests, to curious onlookers, that the building is historic. The original platform and roof have long decayed into dust, and what is left from later renovations has been somewhat stabilized. The interior of the building does not have a floor, though peeking through the wall reveals an intact stove chimney and brick rubble. The platform fronting the railroad siding (for loading cargo) and the entryway stairs have since been removed. Sooty evidence of a fire-stain the exterior elevations in several areas. Old creosoted timber is notorious for burning hot, with thick black smoke, once ignited.
By contrast, the depot across the tracks is treasured by many visitors, inside and out. Built in 1877, it too has seen a lot of change. A branch line that once ran to Hampton exists only as a grassy right-of-way. The rails in front of the depot are still in place on that side of the building, however. Here, you’ll find several pieces of equipment, including an air “pump” from a steam locomotive, a motorcar, and a push car. There are also several heavy-duty carts on the sidewalk, once used for luggage-handling. Also on display prominently; a cardinal-red Southern Railway caboose. To get inside the museum, you must contact Mr. John “Johnny” Norris for an appointment.
John Norris is a Branchville native who deserves a museum all his own. At the onset of World War II, he and a childhood friend joined the Navy. He served as a Machinist Mate and made parts needed aboard ship while at sea. He was assigned to the USS Leo (AKA-60), an attack cargo vessel that could fill a wide variety of roles. As the classification implies, an attack cargo ship bristled with guns, primarily to fend off planes and smaller craft. During beach landings, the ship was in harm’s way sending vehicles and supplies ashore while simultaneously evacuating casualties. In the thick of battle, Johnny Norris saved a fellow shipmate after he had lost both hands. Post-war, no matter where they lived, the man would come visit John and catch-up. After several harrowing campaigns, including Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the war came to an abrupt end. While off the coast of Japan in August 1945, a shipmate yelled down below after seeing a distant bright flash of white light. “Brighter than the sun…” Mr. Norris remarked. As John came topside, he could feel the radiant heat. The U.S. had just detonated an atomic bomb, and this event would resonate throughout the world for decades to come. Johnny Norris witnessed the coming of the Atomic Age.
It wouldn’t be until 1947 that he returned home from the war. With encouragement from his mother, Johnny left Branchville to further his career and find a wife. He was called back to military service briefly, to help train sailors for Korea. The Navy brought many ships out of mothballs, and lacked crews with expertise. Afterwards, he began his legacy on the Southern Railway. With a 45-year railroad career, John Norris is an expert railroader. He started by being a lineman and climbing the sticky, creosote-soaked poles that lined the tracks. His tool belts and climbing spurs are on display inside the depot. Some of his career highlights include teaching communications to railroad employees, and even serving as the Southern Railway Superintendent of New Orleans and later Washington, DC. His career peaked when he was promoted to the coveted position of General Manager of Communications for Southern. In a way, it’s ironic that the caboose is on display, in that Mr. Norris helped invent the technology that replaced it. He, and four other men, hold the patent for the End-of-Train Device (ETD). This consists of a flashing red light powered by batteries as seen on the rear of modern trains.
As we entered the old telegraph office, Mr. Norris’ eyes lit up. At 92, he is as sharp as they come and quickly began rattling off messages on the old keyset. He shared stories of his experiences, former bosses, old friends, and some other interesting visitors that had set-foot in the museum. He talked about his former employers as relationships shaped by time and experience. A few, as he put it, “Were meaner than anything.” Though, there was still an element of respect and understanding common amongst all railroad men. One senior at Southern Railway fired him multiple times in one day. When John finally threatened to leave the company, and continue his own electronics and communications business, he superior caved-in. Instantly, he was a valued employee again, which is a testament to his service and ability to handle difficult people.
Mr. Norris also told me of an elderly German man who stood where I was at the desk, and broke down in tears. He solemnly explained that the man had dispatched trains with Jewish prisoners to the Concentration Camps, under Nazi orders.
As we left the office and entered the second waiting room, we examined a colonial map of South Carolina. We were descending chronologically. Outside, the telegraph office’s bay window opens onto the active Norfolk Southern line. Long trains roll by daily with hundreds of brand-new BMW’s headed for Charleston. At the back, hung on the wall, is a map that pre-dates the formation of the United States. A time when travel was dangerous and uncertain, not a luxurious convenience.
Contained within the museum’s glass cases are oil cans, hand tools, and rule-books that are part of this nation’s blood. The railroads form the veins of America, all of which emanate from a corridor in rural South Carolina. Like our meteoric entry into the Atomic Age, the Branchville junction marked the beginning of a new age in history. An age where distances seem to be spanned by technology and human ingenuity. An age of interconnectedness among people and products. The Branchville Railroad Museum & Shrine is a valuable educational tool, and provides a link to transportation and communication history, from South Carolina to the United States.
See additional information on Branchville at: Branchville Depot
Zach Liollio was born in Charleston, S.C. in 1993, and grew up across the river in West Ashley. After graduating from The College of Charleston in 2016, he started on a
Master’s of Science in Technical Project Management degree at The Citadel. He now works in the construction industry and runs a preservation consulting side-business, Z.P. Liollio & Co. As time permits he enjoys shaping steel as well as academic writing. Zach is a member of the Philip Simmons Guild, S.C.’s guild of artist blacksmiths, and volunteers at the Lexington County Museum where he demonstrated blacksmithing.
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Feature Article October, 2017