The Bicentennial story of Southern Railway

Part II

At first there were only a few threads of pine and iron in the vast earth - colored tapestry of early America to mark the beginnings of railroads.

Roads and rivers had carried the commerce of the colonies. For a time they carried the growing commerce of the young United States. But mud - surfaced roads were often impassable; forest trails were difficult and dangerous, and rivers did not always go where they were needed nor provide adequate channel depths.

The effort to shape transportation to people's needs took two principal forms in the early nineteenth century in this country. One was the creation of artificial water channels or canals. The other was the building of timber supported iron roads, smooth to travel and impervious to weather, called railroads.

Southern Railway's earliest predecessor line - the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company - came into being to do one or the other, or both. The purpose for chartering the company in the winter of 1827-1828 was nothing less than to saVe the port trade at Charleston that was the city's lifeblood.

The city's trade was declining from year to year, largely because of the cost and difficulty of transportation to and from the interior. Moving goods or traveling over the existing river and canal route to the up-country was uncertain and hazardous. Little more could be expected from the state built turnpikes, with their poorly maintained causeways, bridges and ferries across the swamps and streams.

Southwestward along the coast, the rival seaport of Savannah, Ga., suffered no such handicap. Commerce flowed freely along the Sayannah River between the up - country and the port.

To - Charleston merchants, the answer seemed plain-build a railroad or a canal between Charleston and some point upstream on the Savannah River to divert the traffic to Charleston.

With the charter approved, stock subscriptions began. Within four days after the books were opened, subscriptions reached the necessary $350,000 level required for the company to be organized.

Decision followed decision, and the project moved ahead. It would be a railroad, not a canal. Surveys were pressed forward. The inland terminal would be Hamburg, S. C., just across the Savannah River from Augusta, Ga. And the man to build it would be a young civil engineer named Horatio Allen, just back from an on - the - ground study of English railroads.

E. L. Miller, a Charleston merchant and a director of the railroad, had a good deal to do with the selection of Allen as the chief engineer to build the line. He had much to do, also, with the farreaching decision to use steam locomotive power rather than horse power. Allen's observations of English railroads had inclined him also in favor of the locomotive.

The "E. L. Miller" (second locomotive built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works) was placed in service in 1834 on the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company. It was named after a director of the railroad who was a strong advocate of steam power.

As Allen recalled it later, he felt there was no reason to expect any material improvement in the breed of horses, "while in my judgment the man was not living who knew what the breed of locomotives was to place at command."

Considering what the railroad was expected to do, it was not surprising that the line's first locomotive was named the "Best Friend of Charleston." Miller had ordered it built at his own expense, with the understanding that the railroad would buy it from him if it performed satisfactorily.

Some early experiments had been made with horse - powered cars and a car equipped with a sail like that of a small boat. But when the Best Friend and its cars made the first regularly scheduled steam locomotive run on an American railroad, on Christmas Day in 1830, the line was already committed to steam locomotive power.

The Best Friend's first trip was short, since only a few miles of wooden crossties and iron - capped wooden rails had been completed. But within three years the company had built a 136 - mile line to Hamburg, S. C., that was the longest in the world.

South Carolina's pioneer railroad amassed an impressive record of "firsts." It was the first to experiment with a form of lighting for night operation; the first railroad to carry the U .S. mail, and the first to carry troops and arms to a point within the strategic boundaries of a theater of war (against the Creek Indians in 1836).

"Something" turned out to be a railroad. When the original incorporators under the 1828 charter made no move to build it, Nicholas Mills and a group of coal mine operators did.

Built and equipped with coal wagons and mules for just about $150,000, the line proved profitable for its owners and a real benefit to turnpike users. Coal wagons largely disappeared from the turnpike, and the cost of moving coal over the 12-mile distance dropped from 8 to 10 cents a bushel to three cents or less.

The railroad's success carried the seeds of its own undoing, for its profitable operation over a period of years must have been a factor in encouraging the Richmond and Danville Railroad (another Southern predecessor) to build a steam - powered line almost parallel to it. Whitmell P. Tunstall, a young lawyer and a member of the Virginia legislature, began in 1838 a 16 - year crusade to have a railroad built from Richmond across the state to Danville, Va.

When the R&D was well under way in 1851 (the line was completed to Danville in 1856) , the Chesterfield was abandoned. Part of the line was sold to the R&D in 1856.

Railroad interest was stirring elsewhere in the South as well, leading to the development of rail lines that were later to become part of Southern.

While the South Carolina line was operating its first locomotive, a Richmond businessman named Nicholas Mills was busy organizing a novel railroad that was Virginia's first. The line, the Chesterfield Railroad, extended only 12 miles, running downhill from coalpits near Midlothian, Va., to the bank of the James River opposite Richmond. Gravity provided the only power necessary to get the loaded coal wagons down the iron - capped wooden rails to the river bank. Each train carried one car loaded with mules. These animals pulled the empty cars back upgrade to the mines.

To celebrate the completion of the Ches- terfield Railroad, Nicholas Mills took a group of friends for an inaugural ride. Two mules in tandem hitch pulled the cars upgrade to Midlothian, Va. On the return trip the mules rode as the cars rolled back powered only by gravity.

Like other early railroads, this one developed in response to practical local needs. Heavily loaded coal wagons tended to cut deep ruts in the turnpike between Midlothian and the river, raise clouds of dust in summer and churn the road into mud in the rainy season. Citizens whose faster buggies dawdled along behind the lumbering wagons kept urging the state legislature to do something about it - a canal, a better road, but something. proved him right when the Tuscumbia, Courtland and Decatur grew to become part of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad (now part of Southern) .

Georgia people lost no time in getting in on this new kind of transportation. They chartered the Central Railroad and Canal Company in 1833, and had a route surveyed between Savannah and ~acon. In 1835 the name became Central Rail- road and Banking Company, and con- struction began. William W. Gordon was the first presi- ..* The first railroad west of the Alleghe- nies was a line planned to connect the town of Tuscumbia, Ala., with the Ten- nessee River two miles away. Even before the rails reached the river bank, Benjamin Sherrod, a leader among the valley cotton planters, proposed a bolder plan. The railroad could be ex- tended and serve as an "iron river" to bypass a part of the Tennessee River where shoals made boat travel difficult to impossible. He even predicted in the early 1830s that the rail line might grow into a rival for steamboat traffic on the river. Time