There is no reason to believe that the breed of horses will be materially improved, but the present breed of locomotives will furnish a power of which no one knows the limit.
-Horatio Allen, Chief Engineer, SCCRR Co
The SCRR came to Hamburg in 1833, following pretty closely the path of present day US 78. Its route though the old railroad towns such as Aiken, Williston, and Blackville is revealed by the esplanades in the main streets, frequently with elevated causeways. The main line was in service until about 2005.
Also called the Charleston to Hamburg Railroad, the South Carolina Railroad, or the Sola, this enterprise produced the first large scale steam railroad in the world. Its motivation was very similar to Hamburg’s: Charleston merchants were tired of seeing South Carolina cotton go down the river to Savannah, Georgia, and wanted to capture their share of the trade. Despite almost complete unfamiliarity with the technology, the directors courageously backed Horatio Allen’s recommendation for a steam powered rail road. Scoffers have played up sail powered railcars and horse powered treadmills run in public tests. But these trials humored local inventors satisfied public interest, and merely illustrate the general state of knowledge at the time. They give credit to the aggressive and proper decisions finally taken. By way of contrast, the Georgia Railroad of 1834 prominently featured a horse on its corporate seal, as if to assure investors it would not truck with newfangled inventions.
Completed in 1833, the new railroad’s flat strap rails were carried on continuous timber sills, and Allen’s design avoided labor intensive digging by carrying the line on a series of wooden piles. 1,317 constructors were at work in February 1832, many of whom were slaves. Landowners commonly supported the mutually beneficial project by donating right-of-way and timber, although never their scarce labor, and materials for later repairs were charged for. ‘Echoes of Pascalina’ by Hitt and Cannon gives many examples of contracts for materials and labor. Initial cost for the 136 mile line was $950,000 and reasonably close to original estimates. The business of running a railroad was learned the hard way. For example, only after a boiler explosion in the first six months of operation was a conductor put on to handle cars, switches, and passengers, allowing the engineer to remain on station at all times.
The directors envisaged capturing one-half of the 160,000 to 180,000 bales of cotton received at Hamburg and Augusta each year, for a down freight of 85,000 bales of 320 pounds each, or a total weight of 27,200,000 pounds. Up freight was estimated to be the same, giving a total return of $257,040 per annum, plus another $202,500 for one hundred passengers daily for the entire distance. They estimated a need for eighteen locomotives, one hundred and eight freight cars, and twelve passenger cars. By 1835 the line had purchased 23 engines and ran a train in each direction daily, at least according to the posted schedule.
Beginning in 1834 the piles, rotting quickly at the ground line, were abandoned in favor of earthen embankments at a cost of $463,132.58; and beginning in 1836, the inadequate flat strap rails were replaced by “T” rails, increasing the Sola’s capital investment by another $440,617.02. The first 120 miles from Charleston were an easy run, but at Aiken the Inclined Plane required lowering each car individually down a steep hill with a steam powered winch. This bottleneck hampered operations until 1852, when it was finally replaced by a rerouting and a modest cut. (The original route is still visible as the Park Street median and as bridle trails in Hitchcock Woods, southwest of town. The engine at the top of the Inclined Plane was located southwest of the intersection of Park and Laurens streets and is clearly shown on early town plats. The original path of the SCRR still dominates downtowns of the railroad towns that sprang up, such as Williston and Blackville.)
In its time the new railroad was certainly the longest and most important line in the United States, and was at least a modest success, paying a reasonable return on its investment. But it never became rich and was unable to expand beyond a branch line to Columbia. Unlike the Erie Canal, the archetype of American internal improvements, the SCRR did not exploit fresh territory. The bustling mart at Hamburg was a natural selection for the terminus of the new railroad, but this brought it into direct competition with steamboat service from both Hamburg and Augusta, and of course Augusta quickly responded with its own railroad projects. These options all played against each other to hold operating margins down. As proven by the failed Louisville, Cincinnati and Charleston RR, extension of the line across the Appalachians was beyond the capabilities of the day and eventually, Atlanta rose from nothing as the Atlantic and Western Railroad drove into the coveted overmountain country from behind.
Curiously, the SCRR was not completely welcome in Hamburg. Henry Shultz did donate land for a “depository” at the end of the line. But upland investors sat on their hands when books for stock subscription were opened in Hamburg and Columbia, and the company scraped by with Charleston support only. Shultz reacted against the railroad as an attempt by Charleston merchants to regain a commercial monopoly over his town, and with uncharacteristic lack of vision touted the advantages of steamboats over railroads. He might well have wondered why an expensive railroad when the river was already at hand. Hamburg merchants were more flexible and quickly saw advantages.
“Our merchants . . . are sending their cotton off by the Rail Road, and in a few hours it is sold in Charleston; and in a little while after they receive their money, in order to pay the cash for more cotton. . . .”
Of course, railroads must take some blame for the ultimate downfall of Hamburg. Certainly the end came quickly after the Greenville and Columbia Railroad wiped out a large portion of Hamburg’s cotton hinterland, and after the long-delayed extension of the South Carolina Railroad to Augusta eliminated Hamburg’s position as an important terminus.