The Heartbeat That Built Greenwood

With a vision of a thriving future, Greenwood “built itself” around the energy of the railroad in the 1850s. That same forward-looking spirit keeps Greenwood growing today.

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The remnants of Greenwood’s railroad history

are all around us. But they are more than history; they are the blueprints of Greenwood’s present and future. 

“Greenwood made its own history; Greenwood built itself.” says railroad veteran Tom Howie. “The railroads were the vehicles that they used to gain that success, connected it to the rest of the world and allowed it to develop like it did.”

Railroad fan Duffy Bridges loves to explore the ways that the railroad connects the past with the present. “It's the lifeblood of the town,” he says, “and the railroad was the heartbeat for a long time.”

Railroads and Families

Tom comes from a family of locomotive engineers and railroad supervisors, beginning with his grandfather, who went to work with the Seaboard Airline in 1902. Tom’s father followed those tracks, as did Tom. “I've been in the rail industry since I was 17 years old.”

“The day after I graduated high school, I went out with my friends, had a big time,” Tom remembers. “At six o'clock the next morning my daddy woke me up. He said, ‘Son, get up and go to the Depot. There's a man down there who wants to talk to you about a job.’ By eight o'clock that morning, I was swinging a hammer and driving spikes in the railroad.”

Duffy grew up in a family that has been in Greenwood for generations. “There's a lot of history, oral history that I got, particularly from my grandmother,” he says. “Her grandmother or great-grandmother came here by the railroad, stopped at Hodges and decided to settle here, decided it was a place that could be prosperous for them. 

“My grandfather told me stories about riding what I believe was called the Silver Comet, which was actually an electric train, from here to Greenville to go to the orthodontist when he was a younger man.”

Because the town was built by the railroad,” Duffy says, “there's a lot of history here that you can see. With CSX having such a large presence here still there's a lot of opportunity to see modern train movements on historical lines.”

The Railroad Historic Center is one symbol of Greenwood’s railroad connections. “It's a monument to the rich history that Greenwood shares with the railroad,” Tom says.

Piedmont Northern executive car is now on display at the Railroad Center. Railroad executives would ride in the executive car, inspect the track and smoke cigars in the vestibule on the back of the car. 

“When they parked the car at night, it was party time,” Tom says.

How It Started

In the 1840s, when Greenwood was a town of 300 people, community leaders heard that a rail line would be built between Columbia and Greenville. They came up with a plan—buy enough stock in the railroad to pressure the company to bring the line through Greenwood. As it happens, Greenwood had a geographical advantage; it lies on a watershed between the Saluda and Savannah Rivers.

“When you build a railroad on a watershed line, you don't have to build bridges, and it's a lot cheaper,” Tom says.

Greenwood’s first rail line opened in 1852, affectionately known as the “Swamp Rabbit Route.” The rail line led to the growth of stores and warehouses around the depot, and stimulated agriculture production and textile manufacturing. 

By 1880, the flow of goods to and from Augusta necessitated a rail service to Augusta to cut down the two- or three-day wagon trips to Augusta. 

Around 1890, the Seaboard Airline arrived in Greenwood. “Now, don't let the term ‘airline’ confuse you. It doesn't have anything to do with an airplane. It relates to air brakes on freight cars, Tom says. “Rather than go through Greenwood, they went under Greenwood’s main street, under the Swamp Rabbit Route, and under the Augusta-to-Knoxville route. They created the tunnel that was the key to the future, to facilitating rail traffic to Greenwood.”

“Greenwood was booming, and the middle of Greenwood was nothing more than a railroad with two depots,” Tom adds, with eight to 10 parallel tracks running through the middle of town. “It was noisy and smokey, steam engines everywhere. It was just a mess. I used to switch cars in the middle of Greenwood, and we had an extra crew member who would do nothing but flag traffic on Maxwell avenue.”

It was the large number of parallel tracks running through town that gave Greenwood what’s said to be the widest main street in the US. As rail lines were removed or rerouted (beginning in the 1930s and finally completed in the 1970s), Main Street became a more beautiful thoroughfare. The tunnel on the main street was the key to that operation.

Growth and Entrepreneurial Spirit 

The same entrepreneurial attitude that brought the railroad to Greenwood carried the community through the decline of rail travel. Textiles had become a mainstay of the local economy, especially with the growth of Greenwood Mills, but being off the interstate could have had a devastating effect. The Swamp Rabbit ran its last train through Greenwood in 1982. 

“But that didn't stop Greenwood,” Tom says. “They're still progressive. They recruited other industries. They brought in robotics, medical and other manufacturing. They always said yes to anything that was progressive. And today it's a town in the middle of nowhere of about 5,000 people and it's still growing. I give them credit for making their own history and forging their own way.”

Reminders of the Past

Throughout the country there are tiny reminders of the railroad past, Duffy says, including old signal heads. “You watch closely near some of the crossings, you'll see tombstone-shaped posts, with dashes and dots on them. It's not Morse code; it's a signal to the engineer or the conductor of which whistle pattern to use when using these crossings.”

During the ‘80s, a young entrepreneur opened a blues bar built around railroad history. “My mother and father both told me stories about how much fun they had at Jackson Station,” Duffy says.  The B52s, REM and Muddy Waters played there. “Jackson Station actually sat right on the railroad tracks. When a train would come through, there would be a mad rush to the bar because he would serve half price drinks. I can only imagine what these musicians were thinking when they heard a train coming and everybody stopped listening and ran away from the stage.”

Greenwood later repurposed the old rail beds as bike trails, now called the Heritage Trail. “What was from the past is something new for modern day,” Duffy adds.

Visit Greenwood

The Railroad Center and rich history are only part of the appeal of Greenwood. “The people and the characters that you'll meet here are, first and foremost, the reason you should come to Greenwood,” Duffy says. “We have all the amenities that you could ask for, plus some. We've got a great music scene. We've got tons of history. We've got Southern cuisine, we've got Cuban cuisine, we've got music, we've got a wonderful art center, a theater.

“When I explain Greenwood to people who have never even heard of it, I say that it is the hub in the middle of nowhere.”

Read 'Greenwood Mills: The Self Family Story' >>
Greenwood Railroad Museum

Explore the golden age of railroading, and its impact on Greenwood, through the restored train cars on display at the Railroad Center.

Heritage Trail

Take in Greenwood's industrial and railroading along the Heritage Trail, rail beds repurposed as a two-mile bike trail from the town center to the outlying countryside.

Arts & Culture
The Museum

The Museum features three floors of hands-on exhibits about local history, natural history, and science, with a turn-of-the-century main street from 1900.