“Chester becomes an important railroad switching center in the mid 19th century.”
City Directories and History: In August of 1851, the first train came to Chester when the Charlotte
and South Carolina Railroad opened between Columbia, SC and Charlotte, NC. This was a significant stage in the opening of markets from and to Chester County and proved extremely
valuable to Chester’s commercial efforts. The railroad allowed individuals to travel easily to further destinations than ever before and merchants quickly used it as a means to ship agricultural products to market and have manufactured goods delivered to Chester.
Southern Railroad had two passenger trains through Chester. Number 31 stopped in Chester at 5:30 p.m. Passengers arrived in Washington, D.C. early the next morning. Number 32 stopped in Chester in early morning and proceeded to Augusta, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida. Each train had a mail car and mail service was excellent.
Chester County Heritage Book, Vol. I, Edt. by Collins – Knox, Published by the Chester Co Hist. Society – Jostens Printing, 1982
The Varina Davis Trail Stop #2
The Chester Depot was a very important stop for both Confederate passenger and military needs. It was here at the Chester’s Depot, that CSA First Lady, Varina Davis, came after crossing the Catawba River and disembarked her train on April 15, 1865. It also served as a major supply route for goods bound for the Confederacy. It was here that Mrs. Davis found fellow refugee, Mary B. Chesnut, with whom she may have briefly met.
The original depot at which CSA First Lady, Varina Davis would have arrived has been demolished. The depot building at this important site, one that witnessed her arrival and departure on her muddy travels across Chester, Fairfield and Newberry counties is gone. But many of the records and recollections of this period are recorded on R&R.
Yorkville Enquirer, September 23, 1863: Ladies Relief Association of Chester: The editor was in Chester on the railroad and noticed that women there constantly provided succor for weary troops passing through on the railroad. He challenged the women of York to do the same.
Yorkville Enquirer, Wednesday Eve June 22, 1864: Soldiers Relief: The ladies of Chester published, in the Chester Standard, a note of appreciation to the ladies of York. Daily and nightly trains from Charlotte came through Chester with wounded soldiers from Virginia. When ladies of York read of the need they immediately held “an informal meeting” and the ladies of York acted. “For a week past, a committee of six, loaded with substantial food and delicacies of all kinds have attended daily, and uniting with their sisters from Chester, have dispensed with joy and comfort to the returning heroes.”
Mrs. Mary B. Chesnut, at the time a refugee in Chester, wrote; “People sent me things for Mrs. Davis, as they did in Columbia for Mr. Davis. But shame on them. There were people here (Chester, S.C.), so base as to be afraid to befriend Mrs. Davis, thinking when the Yankees came they would take vengeance on them for it. …. Mrs. Brown prepared a dinner for her at the station. I went down with her. She left at five o’clock….. she was as calm and smiling as ever.” Source: Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, C. Vann Woodward, Yales Press, 1981, p. 785 ——– Another account, in April 1865, recorded by Felix Gregory DeFontaine, who had served with an S.C. company as a military correspondent with the rank of major, was in Chester. DeFontaine had returned to Charleston, found his family and brought them to Chester, where he managed to rent the attic of a country store. DeFontaine heard that a train had just arrived from Richmond. He hired a wagon and hurried to the depot. DeFontaine later said:“Soldiers and civilians were looting the place. Two or three men had been shot and their bodies tumbled out on the railroad track and all present, save a few helpless officers, were intent on securing their share of the plunder.” It is believed, it was indeed this train, that of Varina’s, that was carrying the family’s personal belonging and supplies, that couldn’t be hauled any further. Locals believe she spent the night in Chester, but her travel account, and that of Mary Chesnut’s, actually points to the fact that her visit there was very brief. She left late that afternoon for her first cross country destination, Woodward Baptist Church.
Abbeville County historian, Lowry Ware also found an account by Marcus Ammen, a midshipman with Parker, who confirmed that Mrs. Jefferson Davis took the same route later taken by Parker and all the Confederate specie and paper money. He also found an account by another midshipman, James Morris Morgan who thought Mary Chesnut was in Chester about an hour. In all probability Varina was at the depot some time before Mary Chesnut rescued her and fed her a good meal. She could not have stayed there long because she left the day she arrived and spent the night in the “wayside church.” (Courtesy of James Gettys Collection – 2019)
Note: The true value of the treasure that left Richmond—held under the guard of Confederate Navy Captain William H. Parker and the young midshipmen in his command—will likely never be known. In an account he made to a Richmond newspaper in 1893, Parker recalled that the government funds placed in his charge totaled only “about $500,000 in gold, silver and bullion.” Still, rumors of the millions persist. (Chasing the Myth of Confederate Gold – History Channel by Sarah Pruitt) R&R does suggest, William Parker was an unsung hero of Mrs. Davis’s travels across S.C. Not only was he guarding the treasury but the wife and family of the CSA President. He did a remarkable job of conducting himself professionally and insuring her welfare. Unfortunately, he was way to busy to leave an accurate account of times and dates.
THE CHESTER DEPOT – TOO
SIMPSONS AT THE DEPOT: Joe Wheeler’s free-wheeling cavalry threw open the doors of the Chester depot and Simpson was on hand to get “a sack of coffee, a large looking glass and the depot clock.” When a Confederate Commissary was abandoned he joined his neighbors in taking what he wanted. He obtained massive amounts of gunpowder, valuable metal and select wines. He rid himself of gunpowder out of fear rather than guilt. Union troops were approaching Chester and it would not suit for them to find large amounts of gunpowder in a private residence. He gave powder away to anyone who would take it, broadcast it on fields as if he were distributing manure and buried it in containers. Two ARP ministers visited him one day seeking testimony that might indict a third clergyman accused of swearing and intemperance. Simpson did not record his response, but did note that when the two departed he offered them some choice wine from the Commissary. He met an uncle in early February 1865 when there was “great excitement about the old men of 60 going to camp.” Simpson’s uncle declared he would never fight. On Valentine’s Day, 1865, rumors of the impending demise of Columbia by Sherman’s men caused him to record: “I hope that truth and right will prevail, whether Confederate or Federal.” In March he mused, “happy is the nation that has rest from war. May God soon deliver this country from a most desolating war.” He understood the implications of Confederate weakness in early 1865 and prepared himself for any eventuality. He began to question his faith, as his lack of attention to religious matters might indicate, but he eventually returned to the clergy. He married Elizabeth Moffatt of Chester County in 1866 and the next year was ordained as minister of the New Lebanon, West Virginia ARP church on October 24, 1867. They served that congregation for twenty-three years while rearing six children.Echoes of Mercy – Whispers of Love: Diaries of John Hemphill Simpson, 1861, 1862. 1863 and 1865 War Between the States (Greenville, South Carolina, Associate Reformed Presbyterian Foundation, Inc., 2001),
The Herald reported on Oct. 16, 1889 – “That improvements to the depot of the Richmond and Danville Railroad will provide additional room for freight storage.”
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