Aiken and the Railroad

Thomas Jefferson’s ideal society was a thin carpet of independent landholders, masters of their own domains where all needs were satisfied by their land, their family, and the fruits of their labor. What impulse could turn men away from this ideal society, to collect at a common point, a town?

The South Carolina Railroad produced a series of impulses that resulted in railroad towns along the line like beads on a string. Maintenance stations set up at 16 mile intervals became Aiken, Williston, Blackville, Branchville and others. The question is, how did Aiken come to surpass all of these other places?

In the 1840s, the French legislature considered a railroad from Paris to Madrid. A legislator proposed breaking the line at Bordeaux, “for if goods and passengers are forced to stop at that town, profits will accrue to bargemen, pedlars, commissionaires, hotel-keepers, etc.”, giving a boost to the local economy.

If they had only known, a real live example of this largesse was going down in Aiken, South Carolina. Until 1852 the railroad had a peculiar feature called the Inclined Plane. Cars were unhooked from the engines and winched down a steep hill. Delays in all this mechanical happening caused traffic jams in Aiken that frequently forced passengers to spend the night, or even the weekend due to public disgust for “Sunday Traveling”.

Winch at the Aiken Inclined Plane

Winch at the Aiken Inclined Plane

Aiken very likely profited by this bounty, and quite possibly so would have Bordeaux in 1854. What actually happened in France?

The French economist Frederic Bastiat exploded that whole idea, stating “If Bordeaux has a right to profit by a gap in the railway… then Angouleme, Poitiers, Tours, Orleans, nay, more, all the intermediate places, Ruffec, Chatellerault, etc., should also demand gaps, as being for the general interest, and, of course, for the interest of national industry; for the more these breaks in the line are multiplied, the greater will be the increase of consignments, commissions, transshipments, etc., along the whole extent of the railway. In this way, we shall succeed in having a line of railway composed of continuous gaps, and which may be denominated a Negative Railway.”

But Aiken did get its gap, and profited from all the getting off and getting back on – at least until 1852 when the Inclined Plane was done away with.

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