MONCKS CORNER — It's been 40 years since a train has picked up passengers in this small Berkeley County town.
Yet the train depot at 100 Behrman St. has remained an active and vibrant part of its downtown.
It's not alone.
There are 23 old train depots across the state listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And many others also might survive, even though they no longer function as train stations. Some have been preserved and reused as restaurants, visitor centers, gift shops and wedding venues.
Depots represent the heyday for many small towns. Trains brought commerce and economic development to areas, so it sparked the formation of several towns. But since their use has expired, some have been abandoned and have become dilapidated.
Others have been destroyed, like the former Abbeville station, by railroad companies that viewed the empty buildings as a safety issue near active train tracks. Train wrecks pressured corporations to clear out land near the tracks.
"Ever since the railroads quit running, depots have been in jeopardy," said Mike Bedenbaugh, executive director of Preservation South Carolina. "Many railroad companies tore them down because they were liabilities.”
Yet many towns have been able to acquire the sites and have taken steps to save these historic monuments. They view them as the heartbeat of their humble communities. To preserve them is to cling to vivid reminders of the golden days.
Heart of community
Moncks Corner, currently boasting a population of almost 11,000, incorporated shortly after the North Eastern Railroad Co. laid tracks in the rural community in 1856. A depot, which served passenger and freight trains, was built shortly after near the intersection of East Main and Behrman streets.
From there, farmers and lumbermen from rural Berkeley County shipped timber, cotton and agriculture to markets in Charleston and elsewhere. The Postal Service contracted with the station to transport mail between Charleston and Moncks Corner. Military men boarded trains at the station and headed south to Parris Island.
The town's downtown district formed around the train stop. Businesses like Delta Pharmacy and Baron's Department Store, which are still open today, opened up shop around the train station.
This happened in other towns like Lake City and Kingstree. Because trains offered land travel that was quicker and more efficient than walking or using horse-drawn carriages, railroads played a monumental role in the formation of small communities.
“Most small towns were built around a depot," said Sara Anderson, the events and marketing manager for Moncks Corner who oversees the depot's activities. "All main streets lead to train tracks. It was the only way to get goods to and from where they needed to be.”
Long before interstates and federal highways, trains linked rural residents to the world beyond their countryside.
Moncks Corner resident Willie Powell, 66, remembers leaving the depot as a young boy on a train headed for New York one summer.
“(In New York), I was like a kid in a candy store" Powell said.
But as automobiles provided a more effective means of travel in the 20th century, train travel dwindled. Many depots closed and were sold by train companies to private developers.
The Myrtle Beach train station, built in 1937, was purchased by a beverage distributor in 1967 that constructed offices and warehouses on the site, which blocked the view of the depot from main roads. In 1999, the owner placed the site on the market and contended the property would sell quicker if it was demolished.
Others across the state were kept by railroad companies but not maintained after the depots stopped operating.
Bishopville's old train stop, located on Main Street, is currently owned by the railroad company CSX Corp. The post no longer serves as a train stop and has vegetation seeping through its bricks.
The town tried several years ago to purchase the property but was unsuccessful, according to Eddie Grant, who serves as executive director of the S.C. Cotton Museum located in the town.
Other depots that have been abandoned include stations in Alcolu, Cades, Calhoun Falls and Chapin, according to Mary Lehr, a spokeswoman with the Charleston Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.
Lehr said many depots have fallen to the wayside because of high preservation and maintenance costs. Some small communities likely could never afford to purchase the depots and preserve them.
"I can only imagine that once the depots use for railroad purposes ceased, the railroad companies allowed the building to sit unattended for many years and the repair costs caused preservation or private use to be economically unfeasible," Lehr said.
"Maybe the smaller towns did not have financial means to re-purpose the building or maybe they had no use for the building. Often times either purchasing the building or accepting the building as a donation were not financial considerations the city could accept."
Grant, who's from a Georgia town that renovated its old train station, wishes something would have been done to renovate Bishopville's depot.
“It would have been very historical. It could have been a meeting space or party rental," Grant said. “A lot of people ask about the old building. They talk about what a nice building it would have been."
While some depots became dilapidated, several towns have galvanized funds to purchase the spots and revitalize them.
In 2000, Moncks Corner secured a $100,000 federal grant to renovate the structure. The town enlarged the ticket office. The warehouse was also expanded and renovated into a meeting space.
Today, the depot is a suitable space for town meetings and art classes. There are at least five reservations for birthday parties and other events every weekend. It's also a popular wedding venue.
The facility's original sliding freight cargo doors, wooden ceiling beams and floorboards are reminders of the past.
In Jamestown, the 100-year-old depot near the intersection of S.C. Highways 41 and 45 recently underwent maintenance. The building houses offices for those who spearhead the community's annual Hell Hole Swamp Festival that features a 10K gator run and a whiskey still display.
The Myrtle Beach structure was saved and repurposed too. After the city purchased the structure in 1999, fundraising projects were conducted to revitalize the brick building. The city restored the wooden and concrete flooring, as well as the original ceiling boards and beams. Today, the spot is also a popular destination for weddings, meetings, and other activities.
Lake City's station has been revitalized to house the Greater Lake City Chamber of Commerce. Kingstree still serves passenger trains. But it also houses a restaurant.
In Charleston, there have also made steps to keep the remnants of the train industry. The 1850 Southern Railway Tower Depot on John Street now serves as the Charleston Music Hall. On Ann Street, old train towers now house the Children's Museum of the Lowcountry and the Best Friend of Charleston Museum.
For local communities, depots honor the past while still meeting contemporary needs.
"Both the depot, and the downtown that grew-up around it, have always been the heart of Moncks Corner," said Mayor Michael Lockliear. "We have done a lot recently to improve our downtown area through participation in the Main Street Program, as well as recreation and events, because it’s what people choose to do together that makes them a community. But it’s where they do it that makes it a hometown and the Depot is the heart to the 'where' for Moncks Corner."
Moving forward, funding may be an issue to continue maintaining the depots. Several years ago, Moncks Corner had to raise rental fees to continue preserving the site.
Safety could be an issue as well. While many of the depots aren't active train stops, they often sit near active tracks used by Amtrak and freight trains. To prepare for big festivals downtown, Moncks Corner makes requests to CSX for trains to pass through the area slowly.
Lehr is glad to see these sites serving in other roles. She said it would be detrimental if they were abandoned or destroyed.
"These are buildings that we want to preserve. It's part of our history," she said. "It honors the fact that trains contributed a lot to the economic development of our country. We cannot forget that.”
Some depots have painful reminders of the past.
Lockliear said he heard Moncks Corner's two-ticket windows were once segregated. Both have been preserved.
North Charleston's 62-year-old Amtrak station at Gaynor Avenue, which still serves passenger trains, has remnants of the segregation era with separate waiting rooms and bathrooms for whites and blacks that are still visible today.
The site will soon be demolished to make way for the new North Charleston Intermodal Transportation Center. North Charleston spokesman Ryan Johnson said the new building will feature a display that will feature remnants of the station's history.
"We'll highlight the community's historical significance appropriately, while demolishing a building which was designed to keep our community segregated," Johnson said.