The history of the West Ashley Greenway

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Fence that says "West Ashley Greenway"
The West Ashley Greenway | Photo via rootsrated.com

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This conversation was written by Maggie Vickrey, CHStoday’s digital media intern.

The West Ashley Greenway is an approximately 10.5-mile trail that runs parallel to Highway 17, from the South Windermere Shopping Center in West Ashley up to McLeod Mill Road on Johns Island. The pathway offers a perfect place to walk, mountain bike, and experience a refreshing change of pace from the crowded downtown streets.

West Ashley Greenway map
Map of West Ashley Greenway | Image via traillink.com

Something you can’t escape by going off the peninsula, though, is Charleston’s rich history. Before the Greenway was a trail, it was train tracks. Not only is Charleston home to the first steam engine and the first train to transport passengers in the nation, but it was also home to the railway that served as a key component in the Civil War. 

Chartered in 1853 and completed in 1860, the 110-mile long Charleston & Savannah Railroad was created with the purpose of expediting trade by linking port cities. Before the war, trains transported passengers, cotton, tobacco, grains, meats, and livestock to and from, you guessed it, Charleston and Savannah.

Thomas Drayton, of the historically known Drayton family in Charleston, was the president of the Charleston & Savannah Railroad in its beginning years. It all started with a letter he wrote to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, on April 6, 1861, offering his services, which provided a connection between the military and the railway. Shortly after he became brigadier general for the Confederacy.

Military map of Battle of Honey Hill
Plan of the Battle of Honey Hill | Photo via South Carolina Encyclopedia

After the Battle of Fort Sumter initiated the Civil War, the railway became a crucial constituent for Confederate communication and transportation. Though cars still carried passengers and commercial goods, most of the train cars served to move soldiers, ammunition, and wood for citizens and gunboats. The Union recognized how critical the rail system was to protect the Confederacy, making it a major target for destruction on several occasions – including the Battles of Pocotaligo and Battle of Honey Hill.

By the time General Sherman took over Savannah in 1864 and the war ended, the tracks were left damaged and the industry had become financially unstable, forcing the railway to be nonfunctional. In 1866 the railroad was sold for $30,000 to Joseph H. Taylor who rebuilt the rail system and later reopened it as the Savannah & Charleston Railroad in 1869.

Map of Charleston and Savannah Railroad
Map of the Charleston & Savannah Railroad | Image provided by the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

Over time the railroad industry made a major comeback and a web of tracks sprouted around SC. Parts of what was originally the Charleston & Savannah Railroad tracks adorned several other names including Charleston & Savannah Railway, the Plant System, the Atlantic Coast Line, the Seaboard Coast Line, and presently CSX Transportation.

By the 1960s, however, the railroad industry started to decline, leaving America with thousands of miles of resting tracks. As a reaction, the Rails to Trails movement surfaced with initiatives to turn the long stretches of land into public trials.

By the 1980s, the Staggers Rail Act deregulated the railroad industry which had previously prevented railroad owners from altering or discontinuing routes despite a dwindling need for them. The Croghan’s Branch, which was last used as part of the Atlantic Coast Line, was eventually abandoned (the exact date remains unconfirmed) and later turned into the Greenway as part of the movement.

Today, the Greenway serves as a recreational and historic trail made for locals and visitors alike. It may also eventually connect to the Lowcountry Lowline project, currently in its planning stages, which aims to create a safe and social pathway and alternative method of travel for locals. With the $18 million plan in place to create a pedestrian walkway over the Ashley River, the Greenway could potentially connect to the Low Line downtown, creating a network of paths from West Ashley, all throughout the peninsula and over the Ravenel Bridge.

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