Original wooden-railed tracks of the SCCRR Inclined Plane at Aiken, found in Hitchcock Woods in 2016. This photo is of an archaeological dig performed by the SC Dept. of Natural Resources (SCDNR) in April of 2018.
In late 1830 the SCCRR would design and build the first steam locomotive put into regular service in the United States, the “Best Friend of Charleston”.
Horse Powered Locomotive invented by C. E. Detmole, the successful competitor for the prize of $500 offered by the South Carolina Railroad, as it appeared on this road in 1829-30.
Sailing Car with excursionists as it appeared on the South Carolina Railroad on March 19, 1830.
Late winter of 2016 a strange circumstance was discovered in Hitchcock Woods. Long-buried railroad tracks began to emerge from the ground, where no railroad tracks should be. Investigation and study later revealed that these railroad tracks belonged to the Charleston-to-Hamburg mainline of the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Co. (SCCRR), and were first laid down sometime between 1830 and 1833, making them nearly two hundred years old!
These tracks are so old, in fact, that the rails themselves are made of wood, with a strap of L-shaped iron spiked to their tops to strengthen and protect them. When completed in 1833 those railroad tracks were part of the first railroad in the world to exceed 100 miles in length, and at 136 miles in length it was the longest railroad in the world, more than double the length of any other railroad in existence at the time.
When these tracks were envisioned there were no steam locomotives in the US, and few anywhere else. Steam locomotives were such a new concept that in 1829 the SCCRR held a contest for the best horse-powered locomotive, awarding $500 for a wheeled horse-treadmill named “The Flying Dutchman”, and in 1830 it even experimented with a sail-powered car (but this was never adopted for use on the railroad). In late 1830 the SCCRR would design and build the first steam locomotive put into regular service in the United States, the “Best Friend of Charleston”.
The few steam locomotives in existence in England in the early 1830s showed promise, but had limited power. When faced with the need to run the railroad tracks into the Horse Creek Valley near the Savannah River, it was determined that these locomotives literally could not “make the grade”, and so the SCCRR engineers designed an Inclined Plane for the job. They laid two tracks side-by-side over a half mile in length down a steep slope entering the Valley, and built stationary steam engines into an “Enginehouse” at the top of the slope. Cars arriving at the bottom of the slope from Hamburg (across the Savannah River from Augusta, GA) were staged on one track, and cars arriving at the top from Charleston and all points East were staged on the other track. A half-mile-long cable was attached to each set of cars, and wound around a wheel beneath the tracks at the top. The stationary steam engines in the Enginehouse were then used to turn the wheel, drawing the cars from Hamburg up the slope on one track while simultaneously lowering the cars from Charleston etc… down the slope on the other track. Though we have no contemporary pictures of what it looked like, it probably looked and functioned much like Inclined Plane #8 on the Allegheny Portage Railroad in Pennsylvania, built in 1835, and painted many years later from memory by eyewitness and artist William Bender Wilson.
Before the Inclined Plane there was nothing but farmland at the top of the Horse Creek Valley, but soon a town would spring up around the Enginehouse of the Inclined Plane. This town was later surveyed and expanded by the SCCRR and Chartered by the State of South Carolina in 1835, having been given the name “Aiken” in honor of the first President of the SCCRR, William Aiken, who had died in 1830. The Inclined Plane, bypassed and abandoned in 1852, would later become part of the Hitchcock Woods, its exact location eventually lost and forgotten.
So those two-hundred-year-old tracks are a unique discovery, likely the oldest railroad tracks in existence anywhere in the world. But to those of us who live in Aiken, they are also relics of its founding, and of those pioneers whose vision literally changed the world forever for the better.
Photos courtesy of Howard Wayt and the Aiken Railroad Depot
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2018 Trenton Chapter NSDAR