The Old Way Forward

South Carolina’s railroading history

By Meghan Daniel

Photography courtesy of Vince LiBrizzi

Today, the museum’s five diesel locomotives — three of which came from the United States Air Force and two from the Army — run along the state’s only tourist railroad and provide a unique, immersive opportunity to experience South Carolina’s rich railway history on a scenic route. Photography courtesy of Vince LiBrizzi

A 10-mile round trip on a Rockton, Rion & Western railcar carries passengers along wooded ridgelines, through a quarter-mile long granite cut, and past a slew of historic freight cars owned and operated by the South Carolina Railroad Museum in Winnsboro. Since its establishment in 1973, the museum has acquired not only the former Rockton and Rion Railway, which dates back to the early 1880s, but also five operating locomotives and 55 additional pieces of rolling stock, a rail industry term that refers to locomotives, freight cars, and passenger cars.

Rodger Stroup, the museum’s superintendent of railroad operations, explains that the extensive collection of equipment currently in use and on display at the museum includes donations from the Charleston Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, CSX, and Norfolk Southern, among other companies and collectors. In large part, the collection is the outcome of an “ears to the ground” approach taken by the museum’s dedicated corps of volunteers. This group of railroad enthusiasts has helped secure donations and winning auction bids for the museum from many big names in railroading. In addition to having recently received four circus cars, the museum is also awaiting the arrival of three baggage cars and two crew cars acquired from Amtrak.

The South Carolina Railroad Museum pays homage to a long history of railroading in the state. Rodger says of the formation of the museum nearly five decades ago, “When the railroad museum started, there were two visions: to do a tourist railroad and to have static displays featuring cars for people to visit and tour.” Today, the museum’s five diesel locomotives — three of which came from the United States Air Force and two from the Army — run along the state’s only tourist railroad and provide a unique, immersive opportunity to experience South Carolina’s rich railway history on a scenic route.

During the summer, evening rides are often timed so that passengers can catch a glimpse of the setting sun as their train returns to the station. Other seasonal excursion trips give riders the chance to enjoy a nostalgic, catered meal aboard a nearly 100-year-old dining car, travel to a nearby pumpkin patch, and even sip hot chocolate while Santa and his helpers pay each passenger a visit. Rodger, a history buff and South Carolina railroad aficionado, noted that modern-day railroad-related attractions follow in the footsteps of many historical railroad firsts that give the Palmetto State a stamp of distinction: namely, the South Carolina railroad was the first to carry mail and the first to fall victim to a train robbery!

While today’s railway passengers are less likely to be subjected to Western-style holdups along their route, Rodger estimates that the museum gives rides to somewhere between nine and ten thousand people per year. Seasonal rides, such as the popular barbecue train, sell out quickly, he says, adding that the museum also offers tailored trips for special groups such as senior citizens, scouts, and even wedding parties.

Impromptu visitors can tour the depot, gallery, and trainyard free of charge during the museum’s regular operating hours: Wednesday-Saturday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Rodger encourages patrons to keep an eye out for an announcement about the upcoming completion of an expansion project three years in the making that will add another quarter-mile to the operational track, extending the western side of the track across the Rion Causeway. Until then, be sure to pencil in a ride on the Santa train on your December calendar — it is one of Rodger’s favorite excursions!

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