Southern Railway is the final product of nearly 150 predecessor lines that were combined, reorganized and recombined since the 1830s. The nine-mile South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Co., Southern's earliest predecessor line, was chartered in December 1827 and ran the nation's first regularly scheduled passenger train - the wood-burning "Best Friend of Charleston" - out of Charleston, S.C., on Christmas Day 1830.
By 1833, its 136-mile line to Hamburg, S.C., was the longest in the world. As railroad fever struck other Southern states, a network gradually spread across the South and even across the Allegheny Mountains. Charleston and Memphis, Tenn., were linked by 1857, although rail expansion halted with the start of the Civil War.
Known as the "first railroad war," the Civil War left the South's railroads and economy devastated. Most of the railroads, however, were repaired, reorganized and run again. In the area along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, construction of new railroads continued throughout Reconstruction. Southern Railway, as it came into existence in 1894, was a combination of the Richmond & Danville system and the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railroad. The company owned two-thirds of the 4,400 miles of line it operated, and the rest was held through leases, operating agreements and stock ownership. Southern also controlled the Alabama Great Southern and the Georgia Southern and Florida, which operated separately, and it had an interest in the Central of Georgia as well.
Southern's first president, Samuel Spencer, drew more lines into Southern's core system. During his 12-year term, new shops were built at Knoxville, Tenn., and Atlanta, and more equipment was purchased. He moved the company's service away from an agricultural dependence on tobacco and cotton and centered its efforts on diversifying traffic and industrial development. By the time the line from Meridian, Miss., to New Orleans was acquired in 1916 under Southern's president Fairfax Harrison, the railroad had attained the 8,000-mile, 13-state system that marked its territorial limits for almost half a century. The Central of Georgia became part of the system in 1963, and the (former) Norfolk Southern Railway Co. was acquired in 1974.
Southern and its predecessors have been responsible for many firsts in the industry. Its predecessor, the South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Co., was the first to carry passengers, U.S. troops and mail, and it was the first to be lighted for night travel. In 1953, Southern Railway became the first railroad in the United States to convert totally to diesel-powered locomotives, ending its rich history in the golden age of steam. From dieselization and shop and yard modernization, to computers and the development of special cars and the unit coal train, Southern often has been on the cutting edge of change, earning the company its catch phrase, "road of the innovators."