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“Why Hub City?”

June 1, 2007

I have always been intrigued by the railroad. I can remember the Christmas when I got my first Lionel train set.  Several years later, my dad built an elaborate HO gauge model railroad layout in our basement. My greater interest, however, has always been in real locomotives pulling long lines of freight cars along the steel rails that crisscross our country.

I came by my fascination with trains honestly. My great-grandfather died in an accident while working as a flagman on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. After The Great Depression, my grandfather bought a strip of land that bordered on the main Southern Railway Line from Spartanburg to Columbia. He built a lumber shed on one end of the land. On the other end he built the home in which my family now resides. In those days, a lumberyard required a railroad siding, since most building materials were transported by rail.

As a boy, I often visited my grandparents’ home; the very same house Clare and I live in now. Then, the home had a screened sleeping porch. Before air conditioning, sleeping on the porch in the summer was cooler than sleeping inside the house. Often I chose to spend the night on the porch. Several trains, pulled by coal burning steam locomotives, passed on the tracks behind the house during the night. In the morning, my grandmother would scrub the soot from my face and hands.

The lumberyard closed at 12:00 on Saturday. After our dinner served at high noon, if my grandfather and I didn’t go fishing, Dad and I would go uptown, get a treat at Bluebird Ice Cream, and arrive at the Magnolia Street Depot a little before 2:00 P.M. That was the time when four passenger trains stopped in Spartanburg. It was a locomotive traffic jam. The two Carolina Special trains, one from Cincinnati and the other from Charleston, met each other at 2:00 P.M. The two Piedmont Limited trains, one from New York and the other from New Orleans, met at the same hour. Four of the five available tracks were in use at the same time.  Many travelers made connections in Spartanburg. My dad and I just went to see the trains. Watching four steam-powered engines with passenger cars in tow arriving and departing within a matter of minutes was quite a show!

Spartanburg County has long been a locus of intersections. Several old Indian trails crossed the area east and west, north and south. Both the Catawba and the Cherokee tribes hunted this land.

Later those same trails became wagon roads traveled by pioneers. Near Roebuck, the intersection of Blackstock Road and the Old Georgia Road was a main crossroad.

United States Highways 176 and 29, and, more recently, Interstate 26 and Interstate 85 paralleled those ancient Indian trails. Our area has long been a hub. However, it was the railroads that gave our town the nickname Hub City.

            Spartanburg’s rail service began with a train from Union and Columbia in 1859.  In 1873 came the Atlanta & Charlotte Air Line, now the main line of the Southern from Washington to Atlanta and points west.   With the completion of the Saluda Grade in 1885, Spartanburg was connected with Asheville. This route became the Southern Railway Line from Cincinnati via Spartanburg to Charleston.  Also in 1885, the Charleston & Western Carolina, which ran from Port Royal to Augusta, came to Spartanburg. 

The Clinchfield Railroad is an engineering marvel. The rail runs from Elkhorn City, Kentucky, to Spartanburg, passing through more than 450 miles of mountains and fifty-four tunnels along the way.  In 1909, it reached its southern terminus of Spartanburg. The Clinchfield, primarily a coal carrying line, had one passenger train daily from Elkhorn City. Because Spartanburg was the end of the line, it turned around at Drayton Avenue and backed all the way into the Magnolia Street station.

An electric railroad, the Piedmont & Northern, also came to Spartanburg in the winter of 1913-1914 from Greenwood, Anderson, and Greenville.

Just after the turn of the 20th century, much of Spartanburg’s activity centered around the Southern Station, built in 1904 at Magnolia Street.  The hub connections were completed with the construction of a railway tunnel along Memorial Drive. The tunnel goes under North Church Street, the Southern tracks, and Magnolia Street.

Some have reported that almost 90 trains stopped or passed through Spartanburg daily. Dr. Lewis P. Jones, retired Chairman of the History Department at Wofford College and an avid railroad buff, has said, “People exaggerated the number of trains that came through Spartanburg.  Some folk counted one train as it arrived, and counted it again as another train when it departed ten minutes later.”

The Magnolia Street Depot fell into disrepair, and much of it was demolished in 1971.  The west end of the structure survived and recently has been refurbished. It now serves as a center of cultural activity and continues to be used as a railroad station.   Two Amtrak trains, still called the Southern Crescent, stop each day. Now, most rail traffic through Spartanburg is freight, carried by two railroads formed by multiple mergers, the Norfolk Southern line and CSX.

Clare and I enjoy living by the tracks in the home built by my grandfather. I am glad to report that Hub City is alive and well. Eleven trains rumble down the rails by our house each day.


-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, June 2007

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