The Last of the Train Cars in These Parts

You might think that when the Greenville railroad was dismantled in the early 2000s to make way for the multi-use GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail, all evidence of the track’s railroad days was either sold or destroyed. Well, you’re almost right. Almost.

One Single Train Car

See the truth is, when the Greenville County Economic Development Corporation (GCEDC) purchased the nearly abandoned Greenville and Northern Railway right of way from RailTex in 1999, they acquired — along with several miles of railroad — one single train car.

One single train car that’s never left us.

 

Rusted-railcar
The old railcar left behind after the Swamp Rabbit Railroad ceased operations
Built way back in 1947, the train car originally operated as part of the Southern Railway, according to a report by Greenville County. The Southern Railway was a large system of lines that served to connect multiple Southern states to one another through over 6,000 miles of track.

As was common practice, Southern Railway (later renamed Norfolk Southern) ultimately interchanged cars with other lines, including the Greenville and Northern. This little car took part in the trade-off.

Brian Kelley train car 3
Travelers Rest-based photographer Brian S. Kelley made several emulsion transfers of the old train car, a photography process that renders images worn and more abstract
Brian Kelley train car 4

Brian Kelley train car

A Station for a Home

Initially, when GCEDC received the old car, the organization wanted to donate it to a railroad museum based up in Indiana. However, the costs to remove the car and transport it the many miles between here and there proved too high.

Instead, trail planners opted to move the rusty railcar to the intersection of the GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail and Sulphur Springs Road near the community of Berea.

The car became the inspiration for a revitalization project and pocket park at that point on the trail. In 2013, they converted this little section of the trail into the aptly named “Swamp Rabbit Station,” a fitting home for the last of the train cars in these parts.

Swamp-Rabbit-Station

“The railroad is why we have the Swamp Rabbit today, and this rusted railcar is the most tangible element of history that we have along the trail,” said Ty Houck, Greenville County Rec’s director of greenways, before the restoration began.

What was once brown and yellow with age today boasts a fresh coat of bright green paint and welcomes trail users to pause for a breather before continuing on their journey.

Swamp Rabbit Station, when completed, will include a sitting area, water fountain, flower beds, bike racks, a human sundial, and a play area for children.

Train-car-cobweb

Sulphur-Springs-Road-train-car
The newly painted railcar
Train-wheels
These wheels have traveled here and there and back again

On Down the Line

For those journeying from Greenville up to Travelers Rest, even more train memorabilia lies ahead.

At the History Museum of Travelers Rest, for example, you can take a gander at old railroad crossing signs, photographs, whistles, and even a genuine train conductor’s hat.

Perhaps the neatest part is that the museum curates the items on display from locals, whose families have, more often than not, lived in Travelers Rest for generations.

Railroad-crossing
Inside the History Museum of Travelers Rest

Bells and Whistles at Whistle Stop

If you prefer to see memorabilia outside the glass case, then Whistle Stop at the American Café is your stop. Here, you’ll find replica train engines out front, original railroad signage, a red caboose-themed ice cream shop out back, and all the bells and whistles, you might say, of railroad times.

And Whistle Stop has the right to pay homage to the locomotive era. It opened as a café in 1932 and has stayed in the family ever since, always with a significant relationship to the Swamp Rabbit.

Whistle-Stop-front-door

Whistle-Stop-caboose

By the 1940s, the American Cafe (its first life) had become a regular “whistle stop,” or unscheduled stop, for train conductor Charlie Collins and his passengers. Collins would blow the train’s whistle, and everyone on board would get out and go into the café for lunch. When he finished, he got up and back on the train, and those who still needed a lift followed suit.

A large trompe-l’œil (“eye-tricking”) mural on the northern outside wall of the restaurant commemorates the train engine that ran past the café near daily, down to the light-colored “110” etched on the front.

While the railroad might be gone, reminders like these — and our memories, too — remain.

Whistle-Stop-train-mural
The train-themed mural at Whistle Stop at the American Cafe
(Photo Credits: Emulsion transfers – Brian S. Kelley Photography; Rusty train car – Greenville County; All other photos – Celeste Hawkins)

[jetpack-related-posts]

Counting on the Swamp Rabbit: Greenville’s Favorite Trail, by the Numbers (#1)

The Swamp Rabbit got its start as a railroad line, promising to create a better trade route between Greenville and nearby major cities like Asheville and Knoxville. Sadly, that promise never came through. But you can’t blame the line’s failures on disinterest or indolence on the part of the local people, who cheered on and fought for the Swamp Rabbit from day one.

 

During its less than 100 years of operation, the Swamp Rabbit rail line — part of a larger system intended to connect several Southern states — went by around six different official names.

“You may name your boy Percival, Algernon, or Montmoressi, but if some chap at school dubs him ‘Sorrel Top,’ ‘Bully,’ or ‘Buster,’ the nickname will stick and his real name [be] forgotten. So it has been with this little railroad . . . . [‘The Swamp Rabbit’ name] continues to the exclusion of the longer and higher sounding one,” wrote keen journalist Charles David for The Greenville News in the 1920s.

And he was right. Even today, the railroad’s best remembered as simply the Swamp Rabbit.

 

Swamp-Rabbit-train-Greenville-County
“Swamp Rabbit” served as the name of both the railroad track itself and a few of the engines that ran on it.

 

In the 1840s — when railroad passage through the Upstate was still just a dream in the minds of Greenville’s people and the talk of its influential businesspeople — railroad track layers might earn $12 per month for their labors.

Or at least, this was the “liberal price” that track layers were already being paid near the state’s capital of Columbia.

In 1853, after much anticipation, Greenville finally gained its first railroad. The Greenville and Columbia Railroad had made its path to the town, connecting it both to Columbia on down to the South Carolina coastline.

“The town immediately woke to life,” wrote Greenville economist Guy Gullick. “It soon become the metropolis of the section and its trade quickly extended on all sides, reaching far over the mountains into North Carolina.”

For 20 years, this was the only railroad that serviced the Greenville area.

During the late 19th century, plans formed for a new railroad to make its path through Greenville. In the fullest expression of those plans, the network of lines was essentially meant to help build a connection between two major cities: Augusta, Georgia, and Knoxville, Tennessee.

With this prospect in mind, engineers laid miles of trail between Greenville and Marietta in the late 1800s, as part of the Carolina, Knoxville, and Western Railway project. This would become the Swamp Rabbit as we knew it.

 

Southern-Railway-depot
The Southern Railway depot in Greenville proper

 

In 1887, Greenville County residents voted to subscribe $200,000 to the Carolina, Knoxville, and Western Railway’s stock.

To county residents, the railway promised, at the very least, a better market for local farmers, who hoped to sell their corn, butter, and stock in east Tennessee.

Unfortunately, the construction company working on the railway soon went bankrupt and, not many years after Greenville County had settled on an investment, operations came to a temporary halt for the Swamp Rabbit.

By 1912, the railroad was operating once again and, in fact, it now boasted a grand total of 13 train stations, including those in Monaghan, White Oak, Travelers Rest, Marietta, Cleveland, and River Falls, as well.

After changing hands several more times, the Swamp Rabbit — now part of the Greenville and Northern Railway — came to be used primarily for lumber transportation in the early 1900s.

Saluda Land and Lumber and then Georgia Pacific, respectively, used the tracks for a total of 37 years to haul lumber from northern Greenville County down to the city proper.

 

Materials-unloaded-Greenville-train
A freight yard where building materials were unloaded from train cars

 

The Swamp Rabbit changed hands again and again during the 1950s through the ’70s, and businesses along the line came and went thereafter, too; this was a particularly rocky part of the Swamp Rabbit’s history.

As one source put it, the railroad was “under financial stress 50 percent of the time” during these decades, and some sections were already being abandoned.

In 1997, the Swamp Rabbit came under new management once again: RailTex purchased the line. Not long after, however, the company filed and began preparing for abandonment of the line. Operations had already ceased at this point in time.

It would seem that Greenville’s high hopes for the Swamp Rabbit as a railroad never could come to fruition.

[Note: This is the first part in a series of blog posts about the Swamp Rabbit. Here are the other posts from this series: “Counting on the Swamp Rabbit (Pt. 2)” and “The Last of the Train Cars in These Parts.”

 


Photo Credits

Train photos – Greenville County Library System / Public domain


Sources

The Swamp Rabbit Railroad: Legacy and Legend by Mann Batson
“The Swamp Rabbit Trail: A Tale of More Than 125 Years Spanning Over Three Centuries” by Sandra E. Yúdice / Greenville County