When trains reigned — Raylrode Daze celebrates town's rich railroad heritage
Polishing up the old Cal Smoak Special for the 37th Annual Raylrode Daze Festivul in Branchville this weekend is Tom Jennings, festival president. The little train is used to transport festival goers around town during the festivities. Branchville, the world's oldest railroad junction, has a rich heritage as a railroad town. Among those enjoying the festival Saturday will be Gov. Mark Sanford. JOHN OTT/T&D

BRANCHVILLE — President George W. Bush won't be among the VIPs at the 37th Annual Raylrode Daze Festivul this weekend, but three presidents before him did stop in Branchville when the town and the railroad junction that make it famous were in their heyday. Among the countless travelers who enjoyed meals in the dining room in the old Branchville passenger depot were Presidents William H. Taft, William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's train also stopped in Branchville en route to Warm Springs, Ga., but he remained on board. Today, Gov. Mark Sanford will be in Branchville for Raylrode Daze, greeting and meeting festival goers.

On the week-long festival's busiest day, the World's Oldest Railroad Junction will celebrate its rich railroad heritage with a Whistle Blowing Contest and rides on the festival train, the Cal Smoak Special, along with a parade and lots of entertainment.

In Branchville's early days, 24 trains came through the town every day, carrying goods and people. The chandelier that hangs in the depot dining room is the geographic center of town, with town limits that radiate out in all directions for exactly one mile.

Johnny Norris, president of the Branchville Railroad Shrine and Museum, was fascinated with trains as a young boy growing up in the busy railroad town.

"I'd meet the trains and watch the activities. I remember when Franklin Roosevelt's train stopped in Branchville. They got some food out of the dining room. I was about 16 years old," Norris said.

He turned his love of trains into a career, starting out as a telephone maintainer for the railroad, then being promoted to supervisor. When he retired, Norris was general manager for communication and signals for Norfolk Southern Railroad.

Branchville native Larry Hendricks, 70, grew up in a railroad family. His father was a locomotive engineer.

Hendricks began working for the railroad in 1956 at the age of 21 and retired in 1997. He worked as a train conductor, and his brother and half-brother were both train engineers. Even his grandfather worked for the railroad.

"I used to catch passenger train No. 12 on Saturday morning and go to Charleston with my father. We'd go to the old Union Station on Columbus Street in Charleston," Hendricks said. "Then he and I would walk to Spring Street, where the railroad shop was, and then that afternoon we'd come back to Branchville on passenger train No. 11.

He remembers when six passenger trains came through the town every day, two on the Branchville to Augusta route and four going between Charleston and Columbia. In addition, 18 freight trains passed through the town daily, Hendricks said.

"Every afternoon, townspeople gathered around to see No. 11 arrive from Charleston. People would go up there to see the train come in. A lot of them had husbands who worked on the train," he said.

Hendricks recalled regularly seeing a local soldier "in the late 1940s waving good-bye to his mom and dad" from the train as he returned to Fort Jackson following his weekly visits home.

The last passenger train passed through Branchville on Oct. 26, 1962, when the route between Columbia and Charleston was discontinued, he said.

Back in the heyday of trains, roads were of poor quality and many people did not own automobiles. The trains provided safe and speedy transportation of passengers and goods. Trains reportedly even stopped at the fairgrounds in Orangeburg to let off and pick up passengers at the county fair each year.

"We were a bustling town back when I was a child," retired school teacher Libby Street said. Born in 1917, she remembers when steam locomotives brought prosperity and people to Branchville.

"On Saturday night, we had so many people you could hardly walk down the street. To try to ride a bicycle down it was absolute torture. This was back in the 1920s. All the stores stayed open on Saturday night until 12 o'clock," Street said. "The buggies and wagons and cars would park in back of the stores."

She said all the salesmen that came to town came on a train.

"My grandmother had a boarding house. (The salesmen) stayed overnight," Street said. "We called them drummers since they drummed up business."

But trains, particularly steam locomotives, had a downside, she said.

"We had a drugstore on the corner, and we'd buy ice cream cones. (Walking back), we'd get stopped by the (passing) trains, and your ice cream cone would get covered with cinders as you stood by the tracks," Street said. "Any trip you took by train, you were covered in cinders."

Today, Branchville's old passenger depot is a museum. Its long-neglected freight depot sits empty. The few trains that still pass through the town carry only freight, often trucking containers, symbolizing how roads, particularly the interstate highway system, have largely replaced the railroad.

As time passes, there are fewer and fewer old-timers who remember when trains reigned and roads were little more than dusty trails.

For Branchville, the railroad is more than a legacy. It's a reminder of a colorful past when the town, like the railroad, was thriving and growing. It is a proud history, one to be remembered and celebrated.

  • T&D Correspondent John Ott can be reached by phone at 803-829-3638.
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