118 Years of Service
Birth of A Railroad
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.
The early intention was to build a 55-mile narrow gauge 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.
The Springmaid Line
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 occurred.
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.) These disasters, in addition of the conversion of the railroad from narrow gauge to standard gauge, took a heavy financial toll.
On June 30, 1913 as the train was carrying fans to a baseball game in Chester, it derailed with 79 passengers onboard. 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 attempting to recover from the wreck, the flood of 1916 carried away the bridge over the Catawba River. 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 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.
Colonel Springs died in 1931, leaving his empire to his only child, Elliott White Springs.
Colonel Elliott Springs
Elliott Springs was born just weeks after his father purchased the L&C and had a genuine love for the railway. Under his leadership, the L&C began to prosper.
In 1939, Springs brought the L&C national attention when he purchased the “Loretto,” a rail car that had originally been built for the former president of U.S. Steel, Charles M. Schwab. Springs carefully preserved the splendor of the forty-year old car's Victorian design—Cuban mahogany paneling, crystal chandelier, velvet draperies, marble bath and gold-plated beds. He had the “Loretto” remodeled for office use, then parked it on a siding near the White homestead in Fort Mill. (The “Loretto” is now on display at the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, North Carolina.)
Springs had a flair for colorful advertising, which he used to broaden the image of his company and the L&C. One of the things he remains best remembered for is the menu he wrote and printed for the L&C dining car. This menu included: Long Island Ugly Duckling stuffed with Turnip Greens and Pearl Onions, Cannibal Sandwich with real collar buttons, Pork Barrel stuffed with Republican, Drawn and Quartered Democrat Roasted in Own Jacket, and Elliott Springs with Garlic and Chlorophyll. Also offered were an alligator pear for one dollar and a pair of alligators for two dollars. Dessert was watermelon Jane Russell, pitted grapes and potted dates. That the L&C did not actually own a dining car at the time did not matter.
Springs rarely did anything in a small way. It was his idea to appoint 29 vice-presidents to the Railway, one for each mile of track. They included playwright Charles MacArthur, golfer Bobby Jones, artist James Montgomery Flagg, writer Lucius Beebe, radio man Lowell Thomas and his wartime friends Billy Bishop and Clayton Knight. Another one of these fictional vice-presidents was Ham Fisher, who seldom drew a freight train in his Joe Palooka strip without labeling it Lancaster and Chester. However, it was striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, named “vice-president in charge of unveiling,” who got the most attention. Lee was a devoted fan of the rails who kept models of famous trains in her basement. She made frequent visits to the L&C.
In addition to providing menus for dining cars that did not exist and the naming of the colorful vice-presidents, Springs listed a timetable for trains that likewise did not exist. They included The Shrinking Violet, The Black Label, The Purple Cow, The Red Rose, The White Horse and The Blue Blazes.
When Springs moved into his office at the new company headquarters in Fort Mill, he found himself with a four foot (1.3 m) high and 120-foot (37 m) long blank space on his walls. He proposed a mural of the L&C but several aerial photographers insisted this would be impossible. In spite of this, Springs sent well-known photographer Elliott Lyman Fisher up with company pilot Cecil Neal. They flew up and down the line until Fisher had photographed every foot of track—villages, mills, woodlands and fields. When several mountings of the prints failed to satisfy Springs, Fisher colored each slide by hand. One hundred and eighty lights illuminated the slides from the rear giving them a three dimensional effect. The mounting of the mural allowed Springs to inspect his railroad any time he wished.
In 1946, the L&C upgraded its fleet by buying six diesel locomotives from the U.S. Army. These 65-ton Whitcomb locomotives had seen service in Italy during the war and burned about the same amount of oil to run that the old steam engines used for lubrication. The purchase of these engines made the L&C the first fully diesel-operated railroad in the state, something that Springs liked to boast of. The steam engines formerly used by the railroad were either sold or put out to pasture. However, these diesels did not spend long on the line as they were replaced by three 70-ton GEs in late 1950.
In 1951, Gypsy Rose Lee was on hand in Lancaster to “unveil” the new Williamsburg-style depot. Around this time Springs outfitted a Rolls-Royce as a high rail inspection vehicle. In the late 1950s, the L&C adopted a light blue, gray and white paint scheme to replace the dark blue and white scheme of earlier diesels.
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—the Springs Foundation—continues to touch the lives of people who live in this region by providing financial contributions to enhance education, health, and recreation programs in Chester, Lancaster and York Counties.
After Elliott Springs died, his son in-law, H.W. Close, became president of the railway. From 1959-1990 the L&C 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 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 new customers into the area . The Railway invested in heavy rail, bridge rehabilitation, new freight cars and locomotives and increased unit train movements.
The L&C was purchased by Gulf & Ohio Railways in 2010.