In 1873 a Special Act of the South Carolina General Assembly granted a charter to the Cheraw and Chester Railway Company and provided: That the said company is hereby authorized to construct a railroad from Cheraw, in Chesterfield County, to Chesterville, in Chester County, by such route as shall be found most suitable and advantageous. Thus began the long and colorful history of the present day Lancaster and Chester Railway Company.
Proposed as a way to link distant regions of the country, the railroad was to be part of a larger system that would allow for the tranporting of products to and from the South. The early intention was to build a 55-mile railroad that would connect the towns of Cheraw, Lancaster and Chester. After the investors had supplied enough money to build 30 miles of track from Chester to Lancaster, their resources were exhausted. The remaining track to Cheraw was never completed. The financial picture for these early investors did not improve. By June 1896, the Cheraw and Chester was under foreclosure, and by Court Order was sold at auction. Colonel Leroy Springs, founder of Springs Industries, purchased the railroad for $25,000.00 on the Chester County Courthouse steps.
Leroy Springs changed the name of the railroad to Lancaster and Chester, also know as The Springmaid Line, and began what would be a troublesome journey towards success. While Colonel Springs was starting a traffic base of cotton and related materials for the mills, several calamities were also forming on the horizon. In April, 1899, the wooden trestle over the Catawba River burned. Within a month the depot at Lancaster was destroyed by fire. The depot was replaced the same year with the trestle being rebuilt in 1900. However, Springs had a much larger issue to overcome than the depot and trestle. The initial investors chose to construct the Railroad as a narrow gauge. By the beginning of the 20th Century, most railroads had converted to standard gauge track. Narrow gauge railroads such as the Lancaster and Chester could not interchange cars and locomotives with those of standard gauge track. This created a laborious and costly task of unloading and reloading cargo. This difference in track also created a problem economically for operating the railroad. Wood had to be burned for fuel rather than coal because the coal mines were located on standard gauge railroads and the coal would also be subject to the expense of unloading and reloading.
The economic message became clear to narrow gauge railroad owners. The L&C changed to standard gauge in 1902. By 1913, capital stock was increased from $50,000 to $500,000 or 5,000 shares at $100 each. However, 1913 was to be a remarkably fateful year. The worst wreck in the railroads history occurred on June 30, 1913 as the train was carrying fans to a large play-off basebal game in Chester. The L&C, with 79 passengers onboard, derailed. A freight car jumped the track, causing three passenger cars to plunge to the bottom of the creek. Hooper’s Creek Trestle collapsed from the wreckage. Five people lost their lives in the wreck. Some two years later, Colonel Springs managed to settle the claims with the courts. However, after narrowly escaping bankruptcy, there was no money left to replace passenger car rolling stock and passenger service ceased.
While atttempting to recover from the wreck, yet another tragedy awaited the L&C, this time dealt by Mother Nature. The flood of 1916 carried away the bridge over the Catawba River. Even though Colonel Springs had succeeded in borrowing enough capital to get the railroad back in operation from the wreck, it was doubtful this calamity would be overcome. Some of the officers talked of giving up and selling out. However, Colonel Springs was not going to give up the Railroad. Detours over the Southern and Seaboard Railroads were used for weeks. Later, a ferry was built to take the place of the bridge. In the meantime, Colonel Springs had heard of a railroad bridge that was to be abandoned. The double span bridge was jointly used by vehicles, and jointly owned by the county. Springs was able to purchase the bridge and sell the portion used by vehicles back to the county for the full cost of the bridge. The second half of the bridge was brought to the Catawba River crossing using the same stone piles from the previous bridge construction.
Almost unbelievably, this was not the last in the line of tragedies. The railroad was brought yet more fame as a picture of an overturned car, resulting from a tornado, was carried by the nation’s newspapers. According to several accounts, the first boxcar behind the engine was lifted off the track and deposited, bottom side up, clear of the tracks. The engineer proceeded on, seemingly unaware of the event, as the rear cars coasted forward and coupled themselves to the engine.
This eventful era of the L&C came to an end with the death of Colonel Leroy Springs on April 7, 1931. The Colonel’s son and successor, Elliott White Springs would take charge and bring the railroad through the hard times of the Great Depression with consistent profits and consistant notoriety. Railway cars were added and new warehouses were constructed. Twenty-nine Vice-Presidents were named to the Board of Directors, one for each of the Railroad’s twenty-nine miles. This bold move was noted by The New York Times, partly due to the fact that the famed stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee, had been named Vice President of Unveiling.
These events were followed by a very creative advertising campaign carried out by Elliott Springs. Drawing on his past history of writing fiction, he generated a contrived timetable for six nonexisting trains including the Blue Blazes, the Shrinking Violet and the Purple Cow. The trains came with fabricated menus offering items such as Golden Goose Eggs, Back Bay Trollops with Harvard Accent and Split Dixiecrats with Frozen Assets.
With Springs at the helm, the railroad continued to flourish financially as well as publicly. Through the 50’s, property and equipment were purchased. The L&C converted to diesel power. Gypsy Rose Lee made several appearances in Lancaster, dedicating both the new depot and the purchase of fourteen new covered hopper freight cars.
The death of Elliott White Springs, in October of 1959, brought to end yet another era in the history of the L&C. Springs left behind a legacy of contributions, one of which continues to touch the lives of people who live in this region, The Springs Foundation, which provides financial contributions to enhance education, health, and recreation programs in Chester, Lancaster and York Counties.
After the death of Elliott Springs, Bill Close became President of the Railway. From 1959-1990 the Railway built a new Engine Shop, purchased new locomotives, bought new boxcars, and built the Carolina Distribution Park in Richburg, later renamed the L&C Railway Distribution Park. In 1989, Guardian Industries started operation as the newest and largest rail shipper in the Distribution Park.
In 1990 the L&C began an intensive diversification program to attract new industry to the line. Under the leadership of S. M. Gedney, who became President in 1990, the Railway has brought eleven (11) new customers into the area which when combined with existing industry expansion represent over $250,000,000 of new investment to the region. In addition, the Railway has invested over $9,000,000 in heavy rail , bridge rehabilitation, new freight cars and locomotives to handle 286,000 lb. loads and increased unit train movements.
The new millennium has ushered in new opportunities for the L&C to expand its service area. In March of 2001, the L&C signed a lease purchase agreement with Norfolk Southern Corporation to operate 30.8 additional miles of track from Catawba Junction to Kershaw, SC. This line segment connects with the L&C’s 29 miles of original main line at Lancaster. With a 100%+ increase in traffic volume and with its route miles and service area expanded by over 100%, the L&C Railway has positioned itself to continue growing at a steady, reliable rate. This strategy adds emphasis to President Gedney’s quote in the book 1896-1996 Lancaster & Chester Railway, The First Hundred Years: Our commitment is strong and our future is bright.
© 2002 Lancaster and Chester Railway Company
Post Office Box 1450
Lancaster, South Carolina 29721-1450
Fax • 803-286-4158