A Train Rolls Through It
The first time I heard of Branchville, South Carolina, I was a ticket agent at the bus station in Athens, Georgia. A passenger bought a one-way ticket to this hamlet and I ran the white-yellow-pink carbon-paper ticket through a machine like those that once processed credit card transactions. When the call to board the bus came, the passenger got on. Never saw him again. That was forty-four years ago.
“Where is Branchville?” I wondered. Well, now I know. It’s in the land of center pivot irrigation systems. It’s where the land is as flat as an ironing board. It’s in the realm of the crumbling tenant home. Here and there you see fields of stubble where cotton clings to stalks like lint on an old man’s coat. It’s down south of here as they say on US 21.
Back in my ticket agent days my travels pretty much were limited to the road to Athens and back from my hometown. I wasn’t worldly. I wasn’t even regionally. My knowledge of the two-state region I call Georgialina wasn’t anything to write home about. Not so now. Today I travel a lot as Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina go, and I see a lot of small towns with trains rolling through them. All seem busy, small centers of commerce. So being the economist that I am not I associate trains and small towns with boom times.
I came to Branchville in a roundabout way. A magazine had assigned me to write about three bona fide BBQ joints and thus did I finally visit Branchville after selling that ticket so long ago. My actual destination was Smoaks, South Carolina, where you’ll find B & D Bar-B-Que in the middle of nowhere. Just follow that tantalizing smoke.
Branchville was on my route to B & D and it killed a theory I had been forming. And that is that small towns with trains rolling through them prosper. Branchville seemed sleepy, not that that is a bad thing. It has the usual things a small town has, convenience stores and such, and it also had a handsome depot that is now a museum, but judging from all that I saw, the town seemed quiet. Other small towns I drive through with trains seem a bit more active. Maybe I just caught the town on a day when not much was happening. Or maybe my theory is flawed.
High Noon in Branchville
I ate at a place called The Churn. Apparently it’s known for its ice cream. I ordered a hamburger basket. Yep, must be known for its ice cream. I looked around and visited the old train station. There I got a sense for what must have been glory days once upon a time.
I saw a handsome red caboose with bright yellow trim. On its side were the words, “Southern,” and “Southern Serves the South.”
Nearby were old wagons … the kind mules pulled. Nearby also were benches, empty, for no passengers were around … only their ghosts. Dark clouds scudded overhead. It was a somber day.
Still, a restaurant, The Eatery At The Depot, appealed to me. Too bad it was closed. Out back where people could dine beneath the depot waiting area roof hung a sign, “Good Eats.” It looked like a good place. Maybe someday I’ll check it out.
Trains … I’ve long associated them with romantic ideals. When I was a boy I could hear the train rolling through McCormick County from my Grandmom Poland’s farmhouse in Georgia. And then there was the one Amtrak trip I took back in the 1980s. “We hurdled through darkened countryside swaying side to side in a rhythmic clacking that would be our accompaniment all night. Approaching crossings the train would sing its forlorn song: two long blasts, a short blast, and a final long blast. Percussive clacking and airy weeping goes the night train anthem: how mournful in the dead of night, how lonely to those in blackened countryside lying in beds. Perhaps a few envy the travelers piercing their night. ‘To what magical places do they go?’”
To Branchville I had gone. On assignment.
All these things occurred to me as I wandered around Branchville. I wasn’t visiting a town so much as I was visiting the past.
So can you. Drive south on US Highway 21 and you’ll find Branchville where Highway 78 crosses 21. An account of its history says this. “From the stagecoach to the railroad to the automobile, bus and truck—that in a few words, summarizes Branchville’s history.” And the bus aspect is how I first learned of this small town.
I can’t explain why I associate trains with prosperous towns but I do. I need to rethink that. Maybe all trains do in small towns is aggravate people with their horns and traffic delays. My hometown, Lincolnton, Georgia, once had a railroad, the Washington & Lincolnton Railroad. Back in the 1960s, I checked out its old tracks. Rusted, twisted rails jutted from gullies. I could imagine a locomotive belching smoke and sparks, chugging its way toward the Lincolnton depot, a scene from an old Western. Accounts say the trip from Washington to Lincolnton took 65 minutes. The railroad hauled timber and cotton out of the county but the boll weevil and then the Depression doomed the railroad. The last train ran in 1932.
What might Lincolnton be like today if a train rolled through it? We’ll never know but maybe there would be a handsome old depot repurposed to shops and a restaurant. Maybe a modern freight train might roll through, horn blasting. It still does in Branchville.
One final note. I looked for the bus station. No luck. Probably was an old store that served double duty as a bus stop. I was hoping to see where my passenger disembarked so many years ago. In a small way that would have completed a memory that formed when I was a much different man, a fellow who way back then had no inkling he’d someday see Branchville up close. But I did and it derailed my small town train theory.
- Images: All of the photos in this story were taken by the author, © Tom Poland.