A railway to reason?


This photo shows a replica of the Best Friend of Charleston, the first steam locomotive to power a regularly scheduled passenger train on American rails. The original showed up in Charleston on Christmas Day 1830. Astonished news reporters wrote that the train “flew on the wings of the wind at the speed of fifteen to twenty-five miles per hour, annihilating time and space leaving all the world behind.”

Could a railroad built from the sea straight to the heart of a young America possibly have saved the country from the catastrophe of civil war?


The exact route for the ill-fated Louisville, Cincinnati & Charleston Rail Road was never precisely determined, but this map shows the most likely path that the line would have taken between South Carolina and the Ohio River. Map by the Office of Creative Services, Indiana University.

That’s the intriguing question posed in a new book by preeminent railroad historian H. Roger Grant. Grant writes that the nation will never know how the boldest railroad-building scheme ever conceived in the nascent days of the United States might have changed the course of events that led to the American Civil War. But his latest book (of thirty)—The Louisville, Cincinnati & Charleston Rail Road: Dreams of Linking North and South (Indiana U. Press, 2014)—offers a compelling case that a proposed 700-mile-long rail link between Charleston, South Carolina, and the “Queen City of the West” (Cincinnati’s once-famous nickname) might have gone a long way toward defusing a political powder keg that eventually exploded in 1861, tearing the nation to pieces.

Grant’s premise is founded on how steam-powered locomotion—a marvelous new technology imported from Europe to the U.S. in the early 1800s—was by the 1830s swiftly revolutionizing both commercial and social life in a growing America itching for better modes of transportation. After seeing the unparalleled commercial success of the Erie Canal in 1825, America had gone on a canal-building binge. Soon hundreds of towns throughout the industrialized Northeast and through much of the Atlantic seaboard were linked by what critics would eventually deride as “dismal ditches.” Within a decade, the serious drawbacks of canals (they were constantly at the mercy of floods and droughts and were impossible to build across mountains) had made the prospects of the “iron horse” the new national obsession by business tycoons and civic boosters from New York to Savannah.

Hopes for reviving Charleston

By 1835, Charleston was a 165-year-old seaport rapidly slipping from its once-proud perch as “The Commercial Emporium of the South.” Since the close of the Revolutionary War, the city’s wealth and prestige had declined steadily, thanks in large part to competition from Savannah, Georgia, which had become a major player in exporting cotton, the South’s number-one commodity. Charleston’s business community was starving for anything that might help reverse the old city’s fortunes.

At the same time, business and municipal interests stretching into the hinterlands had grown tired of being largely isolated from the mainstream of American commerce. Plagued by bad roads, tricky waterways, and a mountainous terrain that defied easy transportation of both goods and people, vast tracts of western South Carolina, northern Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and southern Ohio remained cut off from a lucrative trade route that tended to flow counterclockwise from the industrial North via rivers and canals to New Orleans along the Mississippi River valley.

Buoyed by the rapid advancement in steam-powered rail technology (in 1830, a locomotive named Best Friend of Charleston steamed into Charleston from New York City and soon took passengers on a headline-grabbing top speed of 25 mph), boosters of every stripe spanning nine states were ready for action. In August 1835, prominent Cincinnati physician and civic leader Daniel Drake started the ball rolling with a call for a committee to essentially rubber stamp his conviction that building a railroad between his city and Charleston was a sound idea. Such a railway, he argued, would “become the first direct link between the Old Northwest and the Old South, facilitating trade of a wide variety of raw and finished goods,” Grant writes. Moreover, Drake said that an “iron horse would greatly enhance personal travel, movement of the U.S. mails, and rapid troop deployments.”

Drake promised that this “veritable artery of commerce,” as he dubbed the project, would be a welcomed tonic for the entire country at a time when regional tension over the issue of slavery was growing by the day. “The north and the south would, in fact, shake hands with each other, yield up their social and political hostility, pledge themselves to common national interests, and part as friends and brethren,” he said.


Robert Y. Hayne, a former South Carolina governor, coaxed $10,000 from his state’s General Assembly to fund early survey work.

A contagion of passion

Drake’s rhetoric and passion soon became contagious among political circles large and small. Quickly buying into the fervor were South Carolina’s Robert Y. Hayne, the state’s former governor, U.S. senator, cotton planter, and political powerbroker, and J.G.M. Ramsey, a well-established Knoxville physician, banker, and historian.

After Hayne led a successful effort to coax $10,000 from the South Carolina General Assembly to fund preliminary survey work, the concept of the Louisville, Cincinnati & Charleston Rail Road (popularized as the “LC&C”) was ready for fleshing out in the traditional manner—a rip-roaring railroad convention.

Since 1830, these festive affairs had become almost commonplace in American communities eager to put their own special stamp on progress. LC&C planners quickly chose Knoxville for the convention site, mainly because of Ramsey’s powerful influence and because the town, situated at the navigable headwaters of the Tennessee River, was rapidly turning into a commercial center with bright prospects.

The five-day convention opened on July 4, 1836, with fanfare that combined the national holiday’s patriotic zeal with the excitement of the launch of an unprecedented civic enterprise. Never before had there been any serious talk of building a railroad of such length anywhere in the country, much less through a mountain range. Reportedly, the event drew 380 delegates from Ohio, Indiana, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and even Alabama.

As the last round of bourbon and barbecue was wrapping up on July 8, the Knoxville convention had a firebrand president (Hayne); an estimate of initial construction cost ($10.8 million, or $222.6 million in today’s money); a crude idea of how to set up and run the most ambitious railroad business ever conceived; and, almost predictably, a feisty squabble among delegates about exactly where this monster railway would run from Cincinnati to the sea. The fight came close to killing the whole idea in its crib.

But a last-minute compromise whereby a trunk of the new line would swing through Georgia saved the day. The convention’s happy ending prompted the Charleston Courier to gush: “What a bold conception! … For if it succeeds, South Carolina will be prosperous beyond all former calculations, and the Union of the States will be as lasting as the rocks and mountains which will be passed and overcome by the contemplated road.”


Daniel Drake, a Cincinnati physician and tireless booster of the railroad, wanted to link his city to Charleston.

A weapon to wield against slavery

Clearly, LC&C boosters understood that what they were proposing had more riding on it than the hopes of a better, faster way to get goods to market. They saw the mammoth, cross-mountain railway as a lance aimed at the loathsome boil of slavery that was the central cause of so much national anguish.

The railway would be a 700-mile-long magic carpet bringing in new jobs and ideas, an infusion of different cultures, lightning-fast telegraph communication, and at least the hope that North/South grievances could be held in check long enough for the institution of slavery—already in its death throes around the world—to wither away.

It wasn’t to be.

“For all practical purposes, it was over by the end of 1839,” Grant says. “The LC&C was really the victim of a perfect storm of circumstances.”

The first, and deadliest, blow to dash the hopes of LC&C backers was the Panic of 1837, the largest of a series of national recessions that dogged the U.S. economy for decades. Almost overnight, money sources vanished, and along with those, any real chance of raising the enormous capital necessary to push the LC&C forward evaporated.

Against the backdrop of the biggest depression the country had ever seen, renewed bickering over where the railroad would be built reached a fever pitch, pitting state against state and powerful politicians against shareholders. South Carolina’s most formidable politician, John C. Calhoun—fierce secessionist and former U.S. vice president—pitched a petty, costly battle against the LC&C company in a bid to make sure the railway went through his plantation along the Seneca River in upstate South Carolina.

The final blow came in 1839 when Hayne, age forty-eight, suddenly caught a fever and died. Without its champion, the tortured effort languished, but the dreams of the Knoxville conventioneers persisted in various forms until well after the bloodbath of the American Civil War. Grant documents in colorful detail how these vestigial projects progressed, some reaching remarkable heights of engineering skill.

In 1859, for example, engineers using black powder blasted a tunnel more than a mile long through solid granite near the town of Wahalla, South Carolina. Planned as the final push through the Appalachians by the new Blue Ridge Railroad Company, a remnant of the old LC&C, for all its wonder the tunnel was never finished. During the 1950s, Clemson’s dairy farm used it to age and store blue cheese.


In 1835, Cincinnati boosters of a plan to build a railroad linking their city to Charleston published a pamphlet that included this rough map of the projected line. The mapmaker included locations of raw materials that the railroad likely would carry, notably coal, iron, salt, slate and “zinck.” Courtesy of the Cincinnati Museum Center.

The tantalizing “what-ifs”

As his book attests, Grant clearly enjoys writing about the “what-ifs” in American history. If the Panic of 1837 hadn’t happened, if all of the LC&C boosters had sung from the same hymnbook, if the project’s very personification hadn’t died young, could “Hayne’s magnificent dream” really have changed the tragic course of antebellum American history?

Grant points to the transformative power of the Erie Canal—ridiculed early on by critics as a colossal boondoggle—as evidence that a successful LC&C could have had a revolutionary impact on social and political life in the South, possibly even delaying or shortening the tragedy of the American Civil War.

“These rails would have opened up so much,” he says. “The LC&C showed the enthusiasm for a dawning new age, for shattering isolation, for wanting to increase commercial intercourse. If you had these links between Ohio and Indiana and Illinois, between the Old South and the Deep South, surely you would develop similar types of business and social arrangements. Just makes sense to me.”

It made sense to Abraham Lincoln, too. In his research for the book, Grant turned up a fascinating account of an interview Lincoln had with his chief economic advisor during the war.

Henry Charles Carey asked his boss if he thought that it would be possible to “dissolve the Union” if there were railroads linking the upper reaches of the Mississippi River valley and the Gulf coast as well as ports at Charleston and Savannah.

“No,” Lincoln replied. “It would then be entirely impossible.”



H. Roger Grant stands at the entrance of an unfinished railroad tunnel near Wahalla, South Carolina. The tunnel now serves as a rock-walled reminder of what might have been. Photo by Craig Mahaffey.

H. Roger Grant is the Kathryn and Calhoun Lemon Professor, and Centennial Professor (2004-–2006), in the Department of History, College of Architecture, Arts, and Humanities. Frank Stephenson is a freelance writer based in Carrabelle, Florida.

Some images here are taken from The Louisville, Cincinnati & Charleston Rail Road: Dreams of Linking North and South by H. Roger Grant (Indiana U. Press, 2014).

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