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(rshsdepot) Summerville, SC

Town planned with railroad in mind
The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)

The idea of a resurgence of a commuter train between Summerville and
Charleston has ebbed and flowed like the coastal tides for years. Whether
this notion has an economically feasible future is still debatable, but
history makes it clear that trains, including the commuter variety, had a
vital past here.

In fact, it is believed that Summerville could be called the oldest town in
the world to have been planned with an eye toward utilizing fully the
transportation advantages that came with the birth of railroads.

The key was the linking of a farseeing railroad company, the South Carolina
Canal and Railroad Company, with C.E. Detmold, one of its most creative

Specialized transportation led to the first surge of growth in Summerville.

In 1831 the railroad purchased a large tract of land adjacent to what is now
called "Old Summerville," the area of the first settlement of the village
where planters had their summer residences.

According to the Charleston Courier of Aug. 20, 1831, the railroad purchased
about 1,500 acres at 37 cents an acre.

The idea was to lay out a town with wide streets crossing each other at
right angles, making squares of 4 acres each. Each of these squares was
divided into lots of 1 acre each. An open area, facing the track, was left
for a town square. Town halls since 1892 have faced this square.

The initial offering was 300 acres in lots. At that first public sale the
second week in August, the railroad auctioned off 130 1-acre lots for

The grand success of this railroad's plan to induce settlement here was the
beginning of Summerville's sustained growth.

It was noted that the company had made a good speculation. It paid $600 for
the land; realized about $3,000 initially from timber; sold lots for upward
of $3,600; and reserved a large amount of wooded land for future uses, as
well as reserving several town lots.

The layout of the fresh town area was the work of railroad engineer Detmold.
He also played an important part in the selection of the route for the
railroad. The Detmold Plan of 1832 for "New Summerville" still exists today.

When the South Carolina Railroad was completed in 1833, it was the longest
in the world (135 miles) and twice as long as America's first railroad (the
Baltimore and Ohio, built in 1830). It would be the first train to carry
U.S. mail, and it would run right through Summerville, which was one of the
earliest stops on the line that would operate between Charleston and
Augusta, Ga.

The first railroad locomotive in America was named The Best Friend. It was
built in New York state for the South Carolina Railroad Company. When it was
put into operation, it weighed 4 tons and cost $4,000. The locomotive got
its first trial pulling four cars with 40 passengers, achieving speeds of 16
to 21 miles per hour. Although an accident destroyed The Best Friend, its
descendant locomotive, The Phoenix, did make several trips through
Summerville on its regular route.

In April 1848, the first accommodation - or commuter - train between
Charleston and Summerville was begun, running in the summer months only.
Between 1852 and 1858, yellow fever epidemics ravaged Charleston and other
coastal regions. The epidemics led to another growth spurt for Summerville,
and to the town's prominence as a health resort. Ten years after it was
begun, the accommodation train began operating throughout the year.

The once-prominent railroad station evokes another memory of days gone by.
The building stood across from the north side of Hutchinson Park near where
Main Street crosses the track. Local railroad historian Alexander McIntosh
talked about the heyday of commuter trains in Summerville. It was not until
the 1850s that the railroad extended into downtown Charleston. Many rails
were destroyed during the Civil War, and when they were rebuilt after the
conflict, it became possible for men to work in Charleston and live in
Summerville. Shoppers could also go to Charleston by train, and students
could attend private schools or the College of Charleston.

McIntosh has a timetable from 1912 that shows several passenger trains as
well as freight runs coming through Summerville on a regular schedule. "The
commuter trains in the earlier years had a turntable just a block and a half
below Hickory Street where the engines would be turned, and the railroad men
could then take the train back to downtown Charleston," he said. The
Summerville Short was one of those trains. This operated daily until the
1920s and was a popular train before many roads were paved. The Carolina
Special, locally known as the "Carolina Creeper," was the passenger train
that operated after that, and continued up until the 1960s.

The last passenger station in Summerville was built in 1900. Frank Milburn
was the architect, and the station was a substantial structure. It included
waiting rooms and a baggage room. It was modernized with indoor plumbing a
few years after being built. Southeastern Express leased some space there in
1924. It was about 100 feet long and 25 feet wide. A shed for loading and
unloading freight was eventually added to the west side of the station.

McIntosh described the station as being constructed of wood; it had
wainscoting about halfway up and was then stuccoed. Up until 1946, early
station colors would have been green with yellow trim.

After that time, the standard Southern Railway colors were a medium gray
with white trim. Later they simplified their style and made stations
all-brick structures, The Summerville Depot stood until the 1960s, when it
was torn down. McIntosh said the Carolina Special was taken off the line in
1963, and the line has been freight-only since then.

Some 40 years later, a train whistle wafting along Flower Town tracks still
stirs up nostalgia among some old-timers.

Newer residents can conjure up future possibilities of avoiding cumbrous
traffic and jammed parking lots. Who knows? Maybe the tide will turn once
again in our direction.

Barbara Hillis archivist for the town of Summerville. Information for this
column was taken from "Summerville," the official history of the town,
published in 1998.