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Hilton Jr., B. 1991. Trails from rails. South Carolina Wildlife 38(4):44-49.

(Note: The draft below was submitted to South Carolina Wildlife magazine; the article that actually appeared in print may have been edited.)

For nearly 150 years after Europeans settled on the coast of what is now South Carolina, journeys to the Upcountry were time-consuming and not at all easy. Most travel was by horse--either in the saddle or via carriage, coach, and buckboard. Boat excursions were no less difficult because the rivers all flowed the "wrong way"; voyages to the upper Coastal Plain or Piedmont required upstream paddling and--for the most part--traversing around shoals that are still common to the state's slow-moving waterways. In the words of one historian, it was easier to go from Charleston to Philadelphia than from Charleston to Greenville.

Only after 1833--when the longest railroad in the world stretched 136 miles from Charleston to Hamburg (now North Augusta)--did it become commonplace to send large quantities of freight or people to the interior. With the advent of steam locomotives, an average Charleston-Hamburg run took only six hours, far faster than the several-day trip by horse-drawn vehicle. A statewide railroad industry blossomed and by 1860 tracks reached from Charleston to Aiken, Greenville, Yorkville, Florence, Newberry and almost every significant town in South Carolina. This seemingly simple historical event--the coming of the railroad--brought a boom in commerce that sent an agricultural Southern state rushing into the industrial age.

A century later, railroads were still THE way to move raw materials and finished products in South Carolina. Cotton and food crops were shipped to and fro across the state, and textile goods eventually made their way by rail from Carolina mills throughout North America. Historians estimate that up to 300,000 miles of rail line crisscrossed the U.S.--six times the mileage covered by the current interstate highway system--and railroads were the lifeblood of Carolinas commerce. But now, and for the past few decades, Palmetto State rail lines have carried fewer and fewer people and less and less freight. Nationwide, nearly 150,000 rail miles have been abandoned, and about 3,000 more miles are given up each year.

With the advent of gasoline engines, most of the country's great railroads were displaced by county, state, and federal highways clogged with passenger cars and tractor-trailer trucks. Now air express companies even guarantee overnight delivery of some consumer products from one continent to another. No longer does the phrase "with adjoining rail access" entice a potential developer to buy land for a new factory or warehouse; "convenient to the interstate" and "near the airport" are more desirable attributes for almost any piece of commercial real estate. Across South Carolina and most of America, the story of the railroads is told primarily in the past tense--much to the disappointment of folks who long for slower-paced times, the sound of chugging locomotives, and the plaintive wail of the steam whistle as the Peach Blossom Special went flying down the track.

Throughout South Carolina and the nation, freight and passenger lines are pulling up stakes or--more accurately--pulling up spikes, ties, and rails. Most railroad companies are shutting down their operations, selling off locomotives and boxcars and leaving the roadbeds to salvage companies. In towns like York--once the crossroads for at least two hotly competitive and profitable railroad companies--the only evidence for one of the rail lines is a newly-paved connector street appropriately named Railroad Avenue. Once this track carried soybeans and timber through the county seat east to Rock Hill and south to Columbia or the coast, and each fall a touring circus came to town by rail and stayed to spend the cold months. An old building on a nearby spur still carries an ornate, faded inscription of "Circus Winter Quarters" that drums up visions of elephants and giant canvas tents hauled in special train cars. Today, there's no sign whatever of old rails or of railroad ties sold off as landscape timbers; even the gravel was scraped up and hauled away in trucks for construction projects at some distant locale.

In South Carolina, such scenes aren't just happening within cities and towns. The majority of railroad right-of-way in this state cut across rural areas dotted with farms and pastureland. Some even rolled through untamed wilderness. Although the railroad made it possible for new towns to spring up and prosper, the line often went through rugged country where just laying the rails became a monumental achievement. Magnificent wooden trestles spanned unpredictable waterways and deep gorges, and in the northwestern part of the state, tunnels sometimes had to be cut when too-tall mountains got in the way. More often, however, railroads took easier paths, winding through valleys to follow the relatively level banks of streams and rivers, and sometimes following ridge tops. These riverside and ridgetop routes meant South Carolina railroad lines navigated some of the most scenic terrain in the state. Notes and journals from railroad passengers who frequented the trains mention enchanting pastoral views and spectacular scenery visible from the dining car as passenger trains rolled across the Carolina countryside. With the demise of the railroads, it may be that we'll soon lose access to these beautiful sections of the Palmetto State.

In 1985, a group of individuals concerned with loss of access to railroad rights-of-way formed the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. This non-profit group, headquartered in Washington, DC, has grown to nearly 65,000 members interested in seeing abandoned rail line converted to multiple-use trails open to the public. The rails-to-trails concept has been around a lot longer than the Conservancy. The Elroy-Sparta State Trail in Wisconsin, for example, was created almost 25 years ago, and the Burke-Gilman Trail took over an old logging railroad in Seattle in 1978. Most rail-trails, however, are relatively new--such as the 52-mile Cedar Valley Nature Trail between Waterloo and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, opened in 1984.

Leaflets describing these trails all have something in common: They talk about the value of scenic old rights-of-way as recreational areas for large numbers of people with a variety of interests. All talk about bicycling, hiking, running, bird watching, nature study, cross-country skiing, and horseback riding--plus the historical aspects of the railroads and rail towns themselves. Brochures also mention easy access because the rail-trails are close to where people live. More than 250 trails already exist in 35 states, and at least that many more are in planning stages.

Surveys indicate that as many as 30 million Americans make use of existing rail-trails--a pretty fair indicator that the Rails-to-Trails concept really works. In fact, these rail line conversions have been successful not only elsewhere but also here in South Carolina, where there are four rail-trails open to the public, three in development, and several others under study. Open rail-trails in the state include Blue Ridge Railroad Historical Trail near Clemson, Cathedral Aisle Trail at Hitchcock Woods in Aiken, and West Ashley Bikeway and Swamp Fox Trail, both at Charleston.

The accepted authority on Rails-to-Trails in South Carolina is Jim Schmid, who studied the concept as part of his masters degree work at the University of South Carolina. In his thesis, Jim described each of the existing trails. He also met with many city, county, and state officials and citizen groups to lobby for development of a unified state-wide rail-trail system.

"A beautifully simple concept is moving across this country," Jim writes, "backed by an unusual coalition of supporters. It's 'rails-to-trails,' the idea of converting abandoned rail corridors into 'linear' parks and spacious green areas for our enjoyment. Supporters include pleasure walkers and hikers, bicyclists and equestrians--all in favor of new recreational activities. Historians like the idea because it preserves an important part of this nation's past, while conservationists favor protecting our important natural areas. For senior citizens and the physically handicapped, rail-trails are on level grades that provide easy maneuvering. And because railroads often link towns and frequently parallel today's highways, accessibility is another bonus."

The "linear park" idea is one that holds much promise. Simply convert an existing railroad right-of-way into a greenway that has the multiple uses Jim describes. It doesn't require a large tract of land, but 200 acres of abandoned rail line will stretch out for up to 20 miles of linear park.

There are some problems with establishing rail-trails, especially in the eastern U.S. In the West, railroad companies bought right-of-way outright, and when they decided to abandon a line they simply donated or sold their property. In these cases, some rail-trail advocates were able to receive or purchase appropriate tracts via easy transfer of deed. In South Carolina, however, nearly all rail lines were built on land under easements so that when a section of track is abandoned, the property reverts to the original owner. Since railroad companies typically don't give much warning when they're about to abandon, rail-trail groups are faced with trying to quickly identify and then negotiate with every individual property owner along the route before plans for a rail-trail can proceed. Sometimes a property owner is hostile to the thought of strangers hiking or bicycling near a homesite, and it's not uncommon for landowners to interfere initially with attempts to set up rail-trails.

"We've heard some valid questions raised at public meetings," says Jim Schmid, "but what we try to remind landowners is that rail trails have worked beautifully in almost every location where they're been established. Rail-trail users become custodians of the trail, and there's a subsequent decline in vandalism, litter, and any sort of crime that the landowners might fear. There are no new problems in South Carolina for which solutions haven't been found elsewhere, so I'm hoping that support for the movement will grow in this state as property owners see the benefits to tourism and local economies. When hesitant landowners finally see all the good that can come from a rail-trail, they almost always 'buy in' and become stalwart supporters who are proud of the project."

Jim Schmid describes the four existing rail-trails in South Carolina as some of the nicest he's seen anywhere. According to Jim's masters thesis, the "Swamp Fox Trail represents a true escape from the hectic pace of everyday life. This 21-mile trail, designated a National Recreation Trail in 1979, is tucked away within the 250,000 acre Francis Marion National Forest in Berkeley and Charleston counties. . . . It's easy to become part of these woods and swamplands, slipping into the low-lying forests as Gen. Francis Marion and his men did after harassing British troops. Such guerilla tactics earned the Revolutionary War hero the nickname 'Swamp Fox' and a place in American history." This trail, built over old logging lines, includes elevated railway, boardwalks, and footbridges that are especially attractive in spring when wildflowers abound and insects haven't begun to multiply. Hurricane Hugo damaged many of the large trees in the area in 1989, changing the view but providing a dramatic demonstration of the enormous weather forces unleashed on South Carolina. The trail begins at a parking spot off U.S. 17 near Awendaw, or from the other end on S.C. 402 at Huger campground. (For a map of Swamp Fox Trail, contact the U.S. Forest Service, PO Box 2227, Columbia SC 29202, ph. 803/765-5222.)

"Cathedral Aisle Trail," says Jim, "has history as well as beauty. The trail is in the heart of Aiken, a unique town with a tradition of horses and a patina of old wealth. The three-mile stretch is actually part of a 25-mile network of trails that crisscrosses Hitchcock Woods. The story of Cathedral Aisle begins in 1833, when a 136-mile railroad was completed from Charleston to the nearby town of Hamburg (since vanished from the map). At that time, the Railroad line was the longest in the world. . . . The preserve adds up to 2,180 acres of beautiful southern forest in an urban setting" frequented by hikers, walkers, and equestrians. Cathedral Aisle Trail is directly off Dibble Road, between SC 118 and SC 19. (For a map, contact Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce, 400 Laurens St. NW, Aiken SC 29801, ph. 803/641-1111.)

Jim calls two-mile West Ashley Bikeway in Charleston "a Cinderella story for urbanites, the tale of a dumping ground turned into a city park. It's also a story illustrating what can be done with citizen involvement and government cooperation." This linear park was abandoned as rail line in 1976 and quickly became a "collection point for old mattresses, rusting appliances and other refuse, along with weeds and rats. Area residents complained about the conditions" and with federal and state funds developed the bikeway. "Today, the asphalt pathway serves a real need in the community. Although it's too short to draw serious bicyclists, it's a great way for children to get to school, for residents to get from one area to another, and it's a welcome recreational area for walkers and joggers." (For information about West Ashley Bikeway, between US 17 and St. Andrews on SC 61, contact Charleston Department of Parks, 30 Mary Murray Dr., Charleston SC 29403, ph. 803/734-7431.)

"It's impossible to walk the Blue Ridge Railroad Historical Trail," Jim claims, "without sensing the spirit of those who worked and lived there more than a century ago. At one time, 1,500 men, women, and children, mostly Irish immigrants, lived a rough existence on this mountainside, literally carving a railroad tunnel out of rock with their hands. They were carrying out the dream of a railroad line starting near Anderson and winding through the mountain foothills to end in Knoxville, Tennessee. Bankruptcy and the Civil War killed the dream, but the railroad bed and the tunnels remain." In 1974, Seneca's Boy Scout Troop 219 developed the trail as a Bicentennial project and maintains the trail to this day; it is listed on the National Register of Historic Railroad Trails and nationally recognized by the Boy Scouts of America. "The five-mile rail-trail begins at Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel Park . . . . The tunnel, measuring 25 feet high and 17 feet wide, extends 1,617 feet into the mountain, leaving visitors in a cool, enveloping darkness. In the 1950s, Clemson University used the tunnel's [environment] to help cure blue cheese. The trail winds past two smaller tunnels, which have long since filled in." Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel Park is off SC 28, near Walhalla in Oconee County. (For a map, contact Pendleton District Historical and Recreational Commission, PO Box 234, Pendleton SC 29670, ph. 803/646-3782.)

What's it like to actually navigate along an old railroad right-of-way? Jim Schmid's preceding accounts described what four existing Carolina rail-trails are like, so last spring I decided to check out a potential site recently abandoned between York and Sharon in western York County. Here's my account of a trail that's still under study.

As a naturalist, I'm impressed by all the flora and fauna visible from Piedmont highways. And, as a bicyclist, I've realized how much more roadside nature is revealed if I'm pedalling instead of cruising in my car.

Nature watching while biking is fun, but as roads become more congested with cars and trucks, it's dangerous to smell the daisies or gawk at a hawk while biking busy thoroughfares. Recently I found the perfect solution to this problem by riding a mountain bike down an abandoned railroad line.

Although I've been bicycling seriously for more than 25 years, I'd never been on a mountain bike--a low-slung, sturdy machine designed for off-road travel--until one cool, misty morning last spring when I joined folks interested in a "Rails to Trails" program under consideration by the York County Council.

After climbing aboard our mountain bikes, the six of us departed York along a railroad right-of-way from which ties and rails had been removed. Not far down the trail we encountered railroad personnel and loggers whose heavy equipment made so much noise that one rider suspected we'd never see any wildlife. I encouraged patience, and as we moved further into the country the riding party soon discovered how much nature lives within a few minutes of downtown York.

As we headed west toward Sharon on the old railroad bed, we noticed clumps of velvety, gray-green leaves of Mullein, an alien plant from Europe that grows easily in disturbed areas where American plants compete poorly. Hundreds of Mulleins were scattered among the gravel, and here and there were clumps of golden-brown Broomsedge, a native grass that occurs in old fields across the Piedmont. Both Mullein and Broomsedge indicated the rail line had been abandoned for at least two years--the amount of time these early successional plants need to germinate, grow roots, and produce noticeable above-ground leaves and stems.

Further down the trail we found vegetation in various stages of succession. A 40-year-old hardwood stand on one north-facing slope contained White Oaks, Yellow Poplars, and Red Maples more than 50 feet tall, and beneath them was a relatively young understory of American Beeches with dead, tan-colored leaves still clinging to their twigs. In another expanse of woods, densely-packed Eastern Red Cedars and Sweetgums indicated this was once pastureland in which other kinds of saplings had been grazed out by hungry cattle.

Despite misty, foggy weather and cool temperatures, there was plenty of bird action all around us. Overhead, a Belted Kingfisher attracted our attention with its distinctive rattle. American Crows noisily mobbed a Red-tailed Hawk inspecting a meadow for its "small-rodent brunch." Later, the loud honking of two Canada Geese betrayed their presence long before they flapped into sight over a placid farm pond. There was also some indirect evidence for bird life along the trail. I spotted a cluster of stiff tail feathers from an Eastern Meadowlark--a resident blackbird that undoubtedly fell victim to a sharp-shinned hawk or other predator. Nearby, a circular 3-inch hole in a standing hardwood snag must have been excavated by a pair of crow-sized Pileated Woodpeckers--birds that need a territory large enough to contain plenty of deed trees filled with insects.

All along the way, vegetation was finally beginning to come back after years of being sprayed with toxic defoliants that kept the right-of-way clear. One moist embankment was especially lush with Christmas Fern, Yellow Jessamine, Wild Ginger, Liverleaf, and wild Blueberries. Further on, a large outcropping of pure milky quartz was covered by crustose lichen--an interesting life form made up of an alga and a fungus that can turn bare rock into soil.

At one creek crossing we found empty shells of small freshwater clams stranded during high water and eaten--perhaps by Raccoons--after the flow receded. And while we chatted about White-tailed Deer prints trailing across the sandflat, one sharp-eyed biker pointed quietly into the woods as a startled white-tailed deer turned and charged back up the hill.

For much of the route, the only sound we heard came from bicycle tires crunching railbed gravel. No car horns, no squealing of brakes, no industry, not even airplanes droning overhead. Instead there were plenty of natural sounds we tend to ignore during the bustle of an average day. How pleasant it was to hear Carolina Wrens break the silence with their boisterous "tea-kettle, tea-kettle" songs, or to ride past standing water where inch-long chorus frogs made a racket that belied their tiny bodies.

What a great day! No traffic, no litter, no worries. Just six people on mountain bikes, pedalling through the mist and marveling at natural wonders made accessible by an abandoned railroad right-of way.

The future of Rails-to-Trails in South Carolina seems to be as bright as its citizens want it to be. Since 1970, more than 700 miles of railway have been abandoned in the state, and communities from the Coastal Plain to the Blue Ridge are looking at opportunities for establishing rail-trails.

Three new trails are already under development. The West Ashley Greenway in Charleston is being created atop water lines buried beneath a 10-mile stretch of abandoned railway; the trailway is a pleasant corridor from Folly Road (SC 171) to Johns Island. Marion County and the City of Marion are cooperating on a bikeway and fitness trail that will eventually extend from Mullins to the Pee Dee River. And North Augusta, in honor of Mayor Thomas W. Greene, hopes in 1992 to dedicate "The Greeneway," (sic) a five-mile segment that meanders along the Savannah River.

The potential rail-trail site at York (described above) has attributes typical of many other abandoned rail lines in the state. A citizen committee from across York County and consisting of bicyclists, horseback riders, runners, nature enthusiasts, hikers, and property owners has been working for more than a year to study the York to Sharon route--not an unusual time span for a project that can take up to ten years from conception to completion. One of the problems the York group and others have faced has been lack of coordinating agencies within the state to help rail-trail planners with logistics. Assistance may be available soon if Rep. Mike Jaskwhich of Greenville is able to shepherd a bill through the state legislature.

At the time of this writing, Jaskwhich was preparing legislation to enact a Rails-to-Trails program for all of South Carolina. In writing the bill, Jaskwhich solicited input from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy; the Sierra Club and other environmental groups; the Division of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism; the state Public Railways Commission; and a number of other interested individuals and groups. Jaskwhich's draft bill calls for South Carolina to become "a national leader in the acquisition of abandoned railroad rights-of-way and in developing and operating the grades as state parks for public trail purposes." The bill makes it easier to acquire right-of-way for public use and allows study of potential rail-trail sites prior to actual abandonment. Rick Fulmer, staff attorney for the S.C. House Education and Public Works Commission, said there is broad public support for such legislation and was hopeful the bill would be passed in the 1991 session. (Information on the bill is available from Fulmer at the S.C. House of Representatives, PO Box 11867, Columbia SC 29211, ph. 803/734-3053.)

Through this kind of legislation and the hard work of dedicated citizens, the state could indeed become a national model for rail-trail development. Several outstanding trails aleady exist, and others are nearly complete. Perhaps someday, as one enthusiast envisions, there could even be a rail-trail system connecting the mountains with the sea--a network that could bring enjoyment to great numbers of rail-trail users who seek the sights and sounds of our Palmetto State.

Although Jim Schmid no longer lives in-state, he's still interested in seeing a broad-based Rails-to-Trails movement and suggests these ways that citizens can help the program grow in South Carolina:
  • Support local efforts to create rail-trails by direct involvement and by lobbying local officials.
  • Contact the Recreation Division, S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism, 1205 Pendleton St., Columbia SC 29201, ph. 803/734-0141. PRT can tell you about rail corridors in your area and provide advice on developing rail-trails.
  • Join Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 1400 16th St. NW, Washington DC 20036, ph. 202/797-5400. RTC is a national non-profit organization that provides public education, technical assistance, and advocacy. They have rail-trail slide shows for rent.
  • If you have broad support for a rail-trail project and a local government sponsor, consider applying for planning assistance from the National Park Service, Rails-to-Trails Program, PO Box 37127, Washington DC 20013-7127, ph. 202/343-378.

Bill Hilton Jr. is a science education consultant, writer, naturalist, and Macintosh computer enthusiast who lives in York, South Carolina.

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