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Re-examining South Carolina’s Secession–the story of the Blue Ridge Railroad

If we are to explain South Carolina’s secession in 1860, we might look more closely at its fractious legislative struggle over railroad development. South Carolina, like Virginia and Georgia, embarked on major railroad projects aided by state finances and backing. These projects aimed to break the mountain barriers separating them from the rest of the South and fulfill the idea that Nature favored their region, a persistent theme in the late 1850s among Southern expansionists. It became an important refrain in the years leading up to secession. The political implications of the notion could not be ignored: they hinged on what Nature bestowed and how people reconfigured Nature to their own advantages. The basis for most of these claims came from the experience with railroads. Up and down the mountainous chain separating the seaboard from the interior, projects got underway in the 1850s to break through Nature’s barriers and substitute for them a second Nature of rails, tunnels, embankments, grades, and structures.

The South Carolina Blue Ridge Rail Road, for example, was planned to connect Charleston to the west across the mountains, much like the Virginia project to tunnel through the Blue Ridge and the Baltimore and Ohio’s effort to break through the Alleghenies. For South Carolina the stakes placed on the Blue Ridge Railroad were especially high and so were the expectations. The road’s new president, Edward Frost, a Charleston attorney turned railroad investor, argued that once built the railroad would reshape the geography of the state and that “Charleston will then be 46 miles nearer to Knoxville than Richmond and 96 miles nearer than Savannah.” Both of these rival cities with their railroads had drawn off the trade from the West and left South Carolina imprisoned by its mountains. He urged that stockholders and legislators to look at a map and they will see that “without the Blue Ridge Road, Charleston and South Carolina have little opportunity of sharing in the advantages of a commercial connection with the navigable waters of the West.” In fact, Frost argued, the neighboring states constructed railroads that “belt” South Carolina and once North Carolina completed its work “then the cordon of railroads around South Carolina will be complete and close.”1

If the state was about to be shut off from the modern commercial economy developing on its very borders, enabled by the railroad’s capacity to conquer nature, then South Carolina, according to Frost, had the opportunity to open itself up. He would not predict the Blue Ridge Railroad’s earning potential once it was completed because the importance of the road would be measured “by the trade which it will, in time, attract.” He pointed out instead that other railroads outperformed even their most optimistic projections and he concluded that a maxim could be drawn from these comparisons: “railroads create the trade they need.”

The idea was alluring. It went beyond confidence or optimism. It was understood as a kind of natural, economic, and technological law whose operations were in effect whether the citizens of a state or city wished it or not. Frost pointed out that wheat traveled 456 miles from Knoxville to Richmond, and much of it further to Baltimore. “Why may not Columbia, having advantages of water power greater than Richmond, and as favorably situated, not manufacture wheat, with a carriage from Knoxville of 321 miles?” Frost asked.

South Carolina’s isolated position on the ever-changing map of railroad growth in the 1850s worried Frost. He cautioned his stockholders as well as the public and the legislature that the state was one of the smallest “in territory and one of the least in white population, while it is one of the wealthiest, of the Southern States.” Only “moral force and character” had allowed it to remain a leader, but railroads and the reconfiguration of the South with them threatened South Carolina’s position, and presumably its wealth. The Blue Ridge, he argued, was too large in scale for private capital to complete. The railroad was a “great national highway, uniting the geographical divisions of the continent, across the great mountain barrier which separates them.” And railroads of this magnitude, including those already built by neighboring states and others under construction, “superseded” every other mode of trade. “Commerce is no longer dependent on the natural advantages of sites at the estuaries of large streams,” Frost maintained, “Even the Mississippi cannot protect New Orleans from the successful rivalry of railroads.”2

Despite the excitement and progress on the Blue Ridge tunnels and tracks in 1858, the road again needed more capital by the end of the year. Frost and the company’s directors appealed to the state legislature to amend the original charter and authorize another one million dollars in state aid and bonds. The fight in the Legislature over the Blue Ridge Railroad funding grew heated and intense debate followed. Men who had supported every other railroad in the state turned against the Blue Ridge. They maintained that the road was too expensive and too speculative, that it could never pay for itself, and that if private capital could not be raised then the state should not built it. Supporters held that the state debt would not be materially affected by an additional two million dollars, that the state could (and probably should) raise taxes, and that other southern states were taking on similar levels of state aid. They pointed to Georgia which invested $5 million in the Western, and Virginia which spent $3 million on its Blue Ridge Railroad and Tunnel and was busy undertaking a $12 million project on the Covington & Ohio. Besides, the bill’s proponents argued, the State legislature was already spending $3 million on a lavish new state house widely seen as an extravagance.3

When the legislature of South Carolina voted to withhold continued public support for the Blue Ridge Rail Road in late 1858, all of the work on the railroad and the tunnel stopped. The Charleston Mercury mocked the legislature and the railroad’s critics as shortsighted and foolish. Who would not “feel ashamed” of the “inconsistency and irresolution” that the state “has exhibited before the world?” the Mercury asked. Too many of the state’s leaders, it argued, were measuring the impact of the railroad “by the little pocket rule of immediate dividends.” Instead, “we look upon it as a project on a grander scale, and destined to confer measureless benefits–social, political, and commercial.”4 In the South Carolina House, Christopher Memminger argued that “modern nations,” like the ancient Greeks and Romans before them, build monuments to “their genius and enterprise,” but the abandonment of the Blue Ridge left “half finished tunnels,” “crumbling bridges, and ruined cuts through hills and mountains” as a monument to the state’s “inconstancy and feebleness.” Whether South Carolina could avoid isolation and encirclement and join the rapidly evolving Southern railroad commercial network remained an open question after 1859. In the coming years South Carolina’s desperate need for a unified South only grew more pronounced.5

The prominent railroad engineer and friend of John C. Calhoun, A. H. Brisbane was appalled at the turn of events. Brisbane asked his South Carolina readers what Calhoun would think if the state did not support the railroad to connect to the rest of the South. Calhoun was its first visionary and “to the hour of his death its unceasing supporter.” Brisbane appealed to those who voted against the state support to reconsider their position and to ponder Calhoun’s legacy. Could it be, he wondered, “they have already forgotten the man whose reputation, even now when he is dead, is defending them in their dearest rights.”6

To white South Carolinians, Brisbane’s reference to rights could mean only one thing: the right to hold slave property. To be sure that they understood Calhoun’s linkage between these rights and the railroad economy he hoped to develop in the South, Brisbane conjured up the Calhoun who had walked the passes of South Carolina and Georgia and who in planning the route with Brisbane circled Rabun Gap on a map and exclaimed: “There is your gap, there is the great pass; there the mountains recede . . . as though they invited the States of this great confederacy to pass and repair them.” Calhoun had great faith that the railroad would bring the South to “the gates of Cincinnati” and that even though “we may fail sir, in our endeavors now, but the result must come, and our industrial independence be secured by this boon of Providence–this inexplicable pass, through a mighty range of mountains, unless for some great moral purpose, such as is now proposed.”

In this context South Carolina had a choice, according to Edward Frost, the railroad’s president. It could go forward with the Blue Ridge Railroad, bore through the mountains, and reap the potential advantages of altering nature’s barriers, or it could “recede from the position of moral eminence she has heretofore occupied, and be reconciled to a diminution of her political power and consequence proportioned to her territorial area.”7

The choice was implied for the South as well. The language, ideas, and practices of the local conflict could jump tracks and become an important resource in the South’s claim to nationhood. City and state rivalries within the South translated arguments easily to the sectional or national competition. South Carolina’s leading men were aware of the consequences of their state’s isolation. And although conservative Democrats remained suspicious of state development schemes, enough to finally block the Blue Ridge’s financing in 1859, the questions raised by the railroad projects were profoundly significant for South Carolina. They indicated the ways railroads were reconfiguring the nation’s borders, geography, and commerce. The debates in South Carolina coming as they did on the eve of the 1860 presidential election, moreover, rehearsed a series of arguments that would emerge in the following year over the best means to ensure the South’s future wealth and independence. They also revealed the slow process of reshaping identities. Because the railroads connected places, linked subregions, and crossed natural barriers, their potential prompted a series of questions for those who supported and opposed them: what is our region, who are our allies, and where are we going?

Notes and Sources:

1 “Report of the President and Directors and of the Chief Engineer to the Annual Meeting of the Stockholders of The Blue Ridge Railroad Company, in South Carolina, held in Charleston, the 10th of November 1858,” The Charleston Mercury, November 13, 1858, Issue 10,388, Col. B.

2 “Report of the President and Directors and of the Chief Engineer to the Annual Meeting of the Stockholders of The Blue Ridge Railroad Company, in South Carolina, held in Charleston, the 10th of November 1858,” The Charleston Mercury, November 13, 1858, Issue 10,388, Col. B.

3 For a collection of criticisms, see the series of articles by “Nolumus” in The Charleston Mercury in “The Blue Ridge Railroad” Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. “The Blue Ridge Railroad Enterprise,” The Charleston Mercury, December 30, 1858, Issue 10,427, Col. C.

4 “The Blue Ridge Railroad Enterprise,” The Charleston Mercury, December 28, 1858, Issue 10,425, Col. C.

5 “Speech of C. G. Memminger, Esq. In the House of Representatives, of the Bill to Afford Aid to the Blue Ridge Railroad,” The Charleston Mercury, January 10, 1859, Issue 10,436, Col. C.

6 “General Brisbane’s Compliments to the conductors of the Press,” Charleston Mercury, June 1, 1859, Issue 10,558, Col. D in Nineteenth Century U. S. Newspapers. See also, Betty L. Plisco, The Rocky Road to Nowhere: a History of the Blue Ridge Railroad in South Carolina, 1850-1861 (Salem, SC: Blue Granite Books, 2002): 69-73.

7 “Report of the President and Directors and of the Chief Engineer to the Annual Meeting of the Stockholders of The Blue Ridge Railroad Company, in South Carolina, held in Charleston, the 10th of November 1858,” The Charleston Mercury, November 13, 1858, Issue 10,388, Col. B.