Carolina Special

The Carolina Special paused in the small mountain town of Tryon, N.C., on Dec. 5, 1968, right before its final 3-mile crawl up the white-knuckle Saluda Grade. Provided/Bill Schafer/Southern Historic Railway Association

Some railroad enthusiasts this week will commemorate a bittersweet milestone that marked a turning point for a bygone era of the travel industry.

It was a time before I-26 was completed, when South Carolinians boarded passenger trains that would take them to the Blue Ridge Mountains and dozens of other distant stops to the north and west.

The service reached the end of the line 50 years ago. It was Dec. 5, 1968, when the “Carolina Special” pulled out of the Palmetto State for the final time, an acknowledgment that the Pullman car was no longer the preferred way to get around.

"The train that become part of the lives of so many South Carolinians no longer would race proudly from the moss-draped oaks of the Lowcountry to the red clay hills of the Piedmont," according to a newspaper report about the Carolina Special's final stop in Charleston. "She no longer showed her owners a profit and the run was being discontinued."

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Union Station

Union Station at East Bay and Columbus streets in Charleston was the South Carolina terminus for the Carolina Special until January 1947, when a fire destroyed the building. Provided/U.S. Library of Congress. 

Southern Railway began operating the daily Carolina Special in 1911. It was a marathon 25-hour terminal-to-terminal excursion between Charleston and Cincinnati by way of Asheville. The South Carolina line included a historic 136-mile section of track completed in the 1830s to link the Holy City with what is now North Augusta.

Bill Schafer, a retired Norfolk Southern strategic-planning director and co-founder of the Southern Historic Railway Association, estimated he climbed aboard the Carolina Special seven times while he was attending Davidson College.

"It was an institution," said Schaefer, a Virginia resident who worked for Southern Railway earlier in this career. "It was the only train of its kind that cut across the Alleghenys to the Midwest the way it did. It ... was  the only direct service from North Carolina and South Carolina to Cincinnati for many years." 

For all its horsepower, the train was unable to stop the powerful new market forces that were reshaping the transportation industry by the mid-20th century. The Carolina Special and most other passenger rail services fought a slow battle of attrition as post-war America embraced the automobile.

"They were building interstates, and jet planes were coming into use," Schafer said.

The Carolina Special's Charleston-Columbia segment was an early casualty of this new love affair. In early 1962, Southern Railway asked state regulators for permission to terminate the roughly 100-mile leg, saying it was underused, overstaffed and losing $100,000 a year. An official from the carrier blamed "desertion by passengers and the automobile."

Three railroad unions objected, as did the predecessors of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, South Carolina State University and Claflin University. At a hearing before the S.C. Public Service Commission, lawyers for the labor groups accused Southern Railway of "deliberately providing the poorest passenger service possible to justify dropping the Carolina Special," according to a newspaper report.

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After several appeals and rehearings, regulators gave final approval to the railroad's request to shut down the line on Oct. 25, 1962. 

Two days later, passengers boarded the Carolina Special in Charleston for one last ride. Hundreds of onlookers turned out to say goodbye at stations along the line, according to a news account of the sentimental send-off. A 70-year-old Orangeburg farmer got choked up pining for the days when the locomotive ran on coal. The face of a female passenger who rode the train weekly for more than 20 years between Columbia and a Calhoun County whistlestop was described as "tear-streaked."

"Small groups of misty-eyed train lovers watched as TV cameras and newsmen's pencils recorded the historic event,"  the Charleston Evening Post reported.

Southern Railway maintained the Columbia-Cincinnati route for a few more years before eliminating regularly the scheduled daily runs in 1966 as it focused on its more profitable freight business. The gasping Carolina Special left the state for good two years later. Schafer drove two hours from school to photograph its last stop in the small North Carolina mountain towns of Tryon and Saluda.

No formal events were scheduled in South Carolina to mark this week's silver anniversary. In western North Carolina, the Saluda Historic Depot will hold a reception Wednesday featuring Schafer and other speakers to commemorate the train's last three-mile crawl from Tryon up the perilously steep Saluda Grade.

The drop-in will include a historical briefing about the Carolina Special. And maybe a few misty eyes.

Contact John McDermott at 843-937-5572 or follow him on Twitter at @byjohnmcdermott