Former railroad in Hitchcock Woods added to the National Register of Historic Places

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Oct. 17—The route of the old Charleston to Hamburg Railroad through Hitchcock Woods and the remnants of that transportation system are recent additions to the National Register of Historic Places.

To Tom French and others who are interested in railways and the past, that was an important step in a plan to remove some of remains from the local urban forest and do the work necessary to preserve them.

Those relics then would be put on display.

Also part of the proposal is the acquisition of a building that would be turned into a museum where the public could learn about the Charleston to Hamburg Railroad's significance in Aiken and South Carolina's history.

French is the chairman of the Friends of the Best Friend, which has teamed up with the Friends of the Aiken Railroad Depot and the Hitchcock Woods Foundation to try to make everything happen.

"In order to do this, it is going to take a lot of money," French said.

He believes that the National Register's recognition of the Charleston to Hamburg Railroad site will help in raising funds and provide the effort with "some credibility."

The South Carolina Canal and Railroad Co. built the Charleston to Hamburg Railroad in the 1830s.

At 136 miles in length, it was the longest railway in the world at the time it was finished.

The railroad's purpose was to make Charleston more competitive with Savannah as a port in the cotton trade with Europe.

The South Carolina Canal and Railroad Co.'s steam-powered Best Friend of Charleston, for which French's organization was named, was the first locomotive in this country to suffer a boiler explosion.

In contrast, the Charleston to Hamburg Railroad turned out to be a great success that created a more positive memory.

"It was a huge economic engine for the state, and it basically rescued Charleston's economic fortunes," French said.

Records, which date back to 1836, show that the trains traveling on the railroad, carried more than 39,000 passengers and more than 28,000 bales of cotton.

In 1835, at a key point along the railway's route, the town of Aiken was founded.

Aiken today is the largest city in Aiken County, but the Charleston to Hamburg Railroad's operations ended long ago and the memories of them faded.

There has been a surge in interest lately because of a Hitchcock Woods cultural resources survey that was conducted during the winters of 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Prior to then, hikers who walked up and down Sand River noticed "something sticking up out of the sand," French said, and they assumed "it was the old railroad, but nobody knew for sure."

The excavations and information collected during the survey and another related effort that followed "actually proved" that the hikers were correct, according to French.

Much of what was found turned out to be the remains of the railway's inclined plane.

The structure, also known as a funicular, was where train cars were raised up and lowered down a steep slope.

After being examined, the remnants were covered back up to protect them, French said.

They are among the earliest railroad relics of their type, if not the earliest, in the world, he believes.

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 authorized the creation of the National Register of Historic Places.

Overseen by the National Park Service, the list is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate and protect historic and archeological resources.

French submitted the National Register application for the Charleston to Hamburg Railroad's route in Hitchcock Woods and the railway's remnants.

They officially were added to the list in September.

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