Wednesday, September 30, 2015
By Sharon Purvis, produced in cooperation with the HubCity Writers Project.
Hub City Farmers Market, Hub City Writers Project, Hub-bub, Hub Diggity, the Culinary Hub—it’s impossible not to notice that an awful lot of businesses around Spartanburg have “hub” or “hub city” in the name. To find out why, I paid a visit to the Hub City Railroad Museum on Magnolia Street (open from 10 to 2 on Wednesdays and Saturdays), where museum volunteer Milton Ashley was happy to help.
In 1859, the first railroad came to Spartanburg, from Columbia through Union—earning it the name of the Spartanburg, Union, and Columbia Railroad. Next came the Atlanta & Richmond Air Line Railway in 1873; “air lines” referred to railways that went above ground, as the crow flies, in a straight line, Milton tells me. In 1885, the Spartanburg & Asheville and the Charleston and Western Carolina (which never actually made it to Charleston, despite the name) railroads came through town, followed by Carolina Clinchfield & Ohio in 1909 and the Piedmont & Northern Railway in 1913.
In addition to all these railroads that led to far-flung destinations, the city chartered an electric train that ran to Saxon, Glendale, and Clifton, as well as the full length of North and South Church Streets, and it ran from 1906 to 1936.
The city limits were in the shape of a circle in the height of all of this railroad activity, and Spartanburg’s Union Station, sitting roughly in the center, was the hub of a wheel with the various railroads that led away from it as the spokes—so the Hub City was certainly a fitting name.
As trains came through town, dropping off and picking up passengers and freight, sometimes part of the train stayed in town for repairs at the massive Hayne Shop near Hearon Circle. Opened in 1925 to combine several other shops in the South, the Southern Railway complex was one of the largest employers in Spartanburg County—“on a par with the large textile mills,” according to Milton; “they were highly prized jobs.” The shop closed in 1995.
A passenger train on Amtrak’s Crescent line still comes through twice a day—the northbound train between New Orleans and New York stops at 11:39 p.m., and the southbound at 4:14 a.m. There is a waiting room in the middle of the train station but no ticket office, and the depot itself is a fraction of the size it once was. The fact that it stands at all is due to a letter-writing campaign of train enthusiast Trey Davis III, who was a high school student in 1996, when the station was gutted by fire after a lightning strike.
The depot was built in 1904 by Southern Railroad, and at its prime, there were 22 passenger trains daily, with five covered platforms and a tunnel under the tracks to reach the platforms on the other side. A fire in the 1970s destroyed a good part of the building, and after the lightning strike in 1996, the city made plans to raze the building. But thanks to Davis’s campaign and community support, it was restored, with part of the building leased to the museum.
The museum is not large, but it is packed full of railroad artifacts such as an operator’s desk, a baggage car, a telegraph machine, and more. Space is also dedicated to some of Spartanburg’s exports that were shipped all over the country thanks to the numerous freight railways—cotton, textiles, and peaches, along with other agricultural goods.
In 2003, the museum acquired the bright red caboose that is impossible to miss when you’re driving along Magnolia Street. It wasn’t originally a caboose—it started its life as a boxcar, and it was converted to a caboose in 1947. When cabooses went out of service in the 1980s, it was donated to a Boy Scout troop, and most recently it was used as a residence owned by a local family before they donated it to the Hub City Railroad Museum. Volunteers restored it to a close approximation of how it would have looked when it was in use, and visitors to the museum can see what a working caboose looked like.
Although passenger trains have been on the decline, rail freight is still an important part of the region’s economy—the Inland Port in Greer, serviced by Norfolk Southern Railroad, not only handles the export of cars, tires, and other goods in the area but brings imported goods from the Port of Charleston for distribution all over the eastern seaboard.
And, as is happening all over the country, the Rail Trail program is bringing new life to unused track beds. The very first railroad to come to town in 1959, the Spartanburg & Union line, is now the Mary Black Rail Trail, giving residents a safe place to walk, run, skate, or ride a bike.
If you’re looking for more Spartanburg railroad history, the Spartanburg Headquarters Library has a terrific collection of historical photos in the Kennedy Room vault, and they can be accessed online, too.
Photos by Nat Jehlen.
Sharon Purvis, Produced in cooperation with the HubCity Writers Project.
Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who has made her way to South Carolina by way of Indiana, Colorado, Peru, North Carolina, and New York. Although she currently works from home, she’s found that writing about the Upstate is a great way to get to know the area—and there’s a lot to know.