Spring 1997

Experiencing history: a visit to a railroad "stonehenge"

Railroad ruins

Continued from top page

On a fall day in September Allen and I met John and Frank at the Church of the Holy Cross at Stateburg and proceeded along highway 241 to Middleton Road, about a mile beyond Wedgefield. This road descends to the now abandoned Camden branch of the old South Carolina Railroad about a mile away on the border of the Wateree River swamp. Since this area of Sumter County is a part of the "High Hills of the Santee", we had to descend a couple hundred feet to the swamp border.

Here we saw the antebellum location of Middleton Depot, a siding on the railroad where, over the years, thousands of bales of cotton from local plantations were loaded onto the depot loading dock or onto waiting railroad cars for shipment to Charleston. The bustle of wagons, the hoisting of bales of cotton onto the dock, and the distant whistle of a train were easy to imagine.

Since the rails and cross ties had been removed a few weeks before our visit, all that remained of the railroad was a ribbon of crushed rock stretching through the forest. Along this mile in April 1865, General Edward E. Potter and his Union army discovered nine locomotives and approximately 200 cars from the rolling stock of the Wilmington & Manchester and South Carolina Railroads. His army proceeded to burn, blow up, and otherwise destroy these trains and tracks.

During World War II most of the remaining scrap metal from these trains was collected and used in the war effort, though much remained. Over the past two decades, dozens of collectors with the aid of metal detectors have removed cannon sites and mounts, cannon balls, Georgia pikes, bayonets, pieces of shrapnel, bullet molds, baggage checks, broken swords, and other weapons. Thinking of these finds inspired our imaginations to conjure up visions of umbrella-shaped clouds filled with pieces of cannon balls and other metal spiraling skyward as the Yankees blew up and burned the trains and rolling stock. At the end of this crushed rock mile the railroad began a bend to the right as its route headed to the Wateree River channel over a mile in the distance. At this bend in 1854, the completed Wilmington & Manchester Railroad joined the Camden branch of the South Carolina Railroad. A "Y" track was constructed whereby trains could enter the South Carolina Railroad track, back down that track, and then return to the Wilmington & Manchester line by the other prong of the "Y" track; in other words, it was a turn-around. In the bend there were two trestles on the South Carolina Railroad and three on the Wilmington & Manchester. Much of the "Y" track on the Wilmington & Manchester was located along and over two creeks, requiring it to be "trestled." As we began to follow the remains of one branch of the "Y" trestle, a canopy of large trees immediately engulfed us. The pilings of the long abandoned railroad rose to a height of about eight to twelve feet above us, creating a ghostly, shadowy "Stonehenge" in two parallel lines through gums, oaks, poplars, and cypresses. We were at Wateree Junction where two of South Carolina's antebellum railroads joined!

Over 150 years ago, each railroad had been created with much publicity and promise and now both lay abandoned before us. As we stood at the junction, in our minds' eyes the long trains filled with cotton, lumber, and other goods and trains carrying Confederate soldiers passed in review. In a passenger car window we "saw" Colonel and Mrs. Chesnut on their way from Camden to Columbia.

At this site we experienced history in a way that gave new life to the words in history books. To see the swamps, the abandoned railroads, the Wateree Junction, the site of Middleton Depot, the site of Potter's destruction of the trains in 1865, and now to understand the geography surrounding these sites, all located within a mile and a half of each other, was an experience we will cherish and always remember. This trip also gave Allen and me a pleasant change of pace from reading old manuscripts or a microfilm screen. If you wish to enrich your visits to historic sites, visit the South Caroliniana Library and consult our many collections. Our library features one of the most comprehensive collections of information about South Carolina historical subjects, including historic sites. A capable, cooperative, professional staff waits to serve you.

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