WHISTLE-STOP MEMORIES: VETERAN AGENT MCLEAN – A BIG PART OF BLYTHEWOOD TRAIN HISTORY

September 2, 1999 | State, The (Columbia, SC)Author: CLARK SURRATT, Senior Writer | Page: 1 | Section: NEIGHBORS 2

H.D. McLean of Blythewood not only saw the rise and fall of the local railroad business.

He worked in it.

McLean retired from Southern Railway in 1968 after 42 years with the company.

He was an agent in Blythewood, one of those small towns where railroad and town were synonymous.

The depot was part travel agency, part telegraphic office, part post office and the information center of town.

At one time in the early part of the century, six passenger trains ran through Blythewood. McLean can still rattle off their numbers.

Passenger service was curtailed and stopped entirely in the 1950s, he said.

“Pulpwood was always the biggest thing we had here in Blythewood, though,” McLean said.

Blythewood is also another of those small towns where nothing is left of the train industry but the tracks and maybe a rusty siding switch.

The old depot is long gone.

“I think somebody bought it just for the wood,” McLean said.

One piece of the old building remains, though. It’s the Blythewood sign off the depot, and McLean has it.

In the industry’s heyday, in the 1930s and 1940s, Southern trains out of Columbia stopped at Killian, Blythewood and on toward Ridgeway.

Headed east, Seaboard trains stopped at Dentsville, Jacobs, Blaney and Lugoff.

Jacobs? That’s where Pontiac is now. Blaney? That’s Elgin, although some residents want to change the name back.

If you wanted, you could catch a train in Blythewood to Columbia. Or from Lugoff to Columbia, and any other towns along the rail lines across Richland and Lexington counties.

Now, trains not only don’t stop, at these places, they hardly slow down. There are no small-town depots left in the two counties. Along some stretches, say between Edmund and Pelion, trains don’t run and the tracks have been ripped up and hauled away.

Back in 1946, Lucius Martin hopped onto a Seaboard Railway passenger train in Swansea and rode to North, every bit of eight miles away.

“It was the only time I ever rode a train, and I did it because I wanted to be able to say that I rode one,” said Martin, longtime Swansea town administrator and fire chief.

Imagine being able to take a short ride on the rails as easy as getting in a car. Go down to the depot, buy a ticket and go.

Passengers could do this not only in Swansea, but Pelion, Batesburg-Leesville, Irmo, Blythewood, Eastover – and many other places. Railroad stops were the focal points in these towns, indeed, in many cases the reasons the towns existed.

Martin’s small but memorable experience is just one of hundreds of tales left over from the glory days of the railroads.

“Back in the 1930s, when the Silver Meteor first came through, people used to go down just to look at it,” Martin said.

Local trains are only memories, if vivid ones, because, like World War II veterans and Great Depression survivors, local employees of the era of the railroads are a passing generation.

Howard Sheppard, who lives in Cayce, is vice president of the S.C. Railroad Museum, which operates the small Rockton and Rion line in Fairfield County. Not far from his home is a CSX rail yard in Cayce, but it is far different from decades ago, when there was a “round house” in the Cayce yard where train engines could turn around.

Long-haul freight trains still are doing big business, but the old days of the passenger trains and the mixed freight-passenger-mail trains are long gone.

“During World War II, you couldn’t get a seat on a passenger train,” Sheppard said.

Mass peacetime production of the automobile, massive highway construction, easy airline travel, and changes in cultural habits in the 1950s pretty much sent the rail passenger business packing.

Ernestine Teal, who lives in Chapin, is a former agent – like her late husband, Eugene – of the fabled Columbia, Newberry and Laurens company that ran through the Irmo-Chapin area. She helped close CN&L depots at Irmo and Prosperity.

“When my husband was working at Chapin, I used to get a ticket for me and my son to ride to Columbia in the mixed train,” she recalls. “Sometimes, we’d be the only ones in the passenger car. I knew it wouldn’t be there much longer.”

Passenger service was ditched in 1953, said Furman Younginer of Irmo, former treasurer of CN&L and noted rail lore man. “The automobile had taken over.”

The old CN&L – dubbed affectionately as the Crooked, Noisy and Late – is now part of the CSX system, hauling coal, logs, wood chips and other distance freight loads at high speeds.

Local railroad lore has been shortchanged when it comes to community histories, said Horace Harmon, curator of the Lexington County Museum.

“So many towns grew up around the railroad stops, places like Summit and Gilbert and Pelion,” he said. Some old railroad stops – such as Thor, between Pelion and Wagener – didn’t leave a town behind, he said.

Something of an exception was the town of Lexington, which was placed in the center of the county to be the county seat. The railroad depot, however, was on the other side of Twelve Mile Creek, beside where the old Cinnamon Hill restaurant building is.

“Some people ask me why the town never grew out to the railroad,” Harmon said. It’s not clear, he said, except that both the town and the railroad were on high ground, separated by the creek and some low-lying areas not easy to cross in the older days.

As with most other communities, the Lexington depot is a thing of the past, torn down for progress.

“The rail companies, when they stopped service, didn’t want to continue paying taxes and keeping places up,” Sheppard said. “They just got rid of everything.”

Ronald Dick, president of the Central S.C. chapter of the National Railways Historical Society, said it’s almost a disgrace what’s happened to passenger service in this area.

“South Carolina once had the world’s longest working railway,” said Dick, who moved to South Carolina eight years ago. “It’s disappointing to discover the lack of interest in rail transportation.”

September 2, 1999  State (published as The State)  
Columbia, South Carolina
Page 62
September 2, 1999  State (published as The State)  
Columbia, South Carolina
Page 67

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.