The curiously named Swamp Rabbit Trail follows the former right-of-way of what was once the Greenville & Northern Railway, a short line running north from Greenville, South Carolina. The history of the G&N dates back to the late 19th century, and from these early years, it struggled to earn sustained profits. Like most railroads of this period, it had grand visions of running hundreds of miles between Georgia and Tennessee. Lack of funding and financial support ultimately saw fewer than 30 miles completed. Eventually, the G&N settled into moving timber products and later acquired other forms of traffic, but throughout the course of its history, never moved substantial levels of freight. By the 1990s, declining revenue left the railroad with an uncertain future, and the property was officially abandoned during the mid-2000s.
The city of Greenville has held a long history with trains: the large and powerful Southern Railway, Atlantic Coast Line (through subsidiary Charleston & Western Carolina), and profitable interurban Piedmont & Northern (electrically operated) all served the town. And then there was the tiny Greenville & Northern Railway, a humble shortline only a fraction of the size of its counterparts. The system dates to the 1880s as the Carolina, Knoxville & Western Railroad (CK&W), incorporated by a group of investors hoping to connect Augusta, Georgia, with Knoxville, Tennessee, via Greenville. In total, the system would have stretched roughly 300 miles, and such grand hopes were not uncommon during the era of frenzied railroad construction. Hundreds of similar projects all across the country were conceived at that time, many forgotten to history because of the great expense and lack of financial support.
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The CW&K began its march north from Greenville, which would have lay roughly along the halfway point of the completed system. However, after only a few years of construction, the rail had reached only River Falls—a logging camp north of Marietta—by early 1899, before funds ran out. Unfortunately, those 23 miles would prove the extent of the railroad’s ultimate goal. With few sources of online freight, it wavered on bankruptcy, finally succumbing when operations were entirely abandoned. In 1907, the property was revived as the Greenville & Knoxville Railroad. Perhaps promoters of the new line again had high hopes of pushing the line into Tennessee, but once more this was not to be. There was no additional expansion, and reorganization came again in 1920 as the Greenville & Northern Railway.
With somewhat stronger backing through the Saluda Land & Lumber Company, the G&N settled into hauling forest-related products and other types of general freight but, interestingly, never carried passengers. By the 1950s, the area’s rich timber tracts had largely been exhausted, and the railroad abandoned the 8 miles north of Marietta, leaving it with about 15 miles still in service. After this time, the G&N relied on a mix of traffic ranging from agriculture to chemicals. In June 1957, it was sold to the Pinsly Railroad Company, which had been in the business of operating shortlines since its founding in 1938; it continues to own and operate small railroads today. Throughout its history, the G&N was a low-key, laidback operation using small locomotives such as 2-8-0 “Consolidation” steam locomotives and 70-ton diesel switchers manufactured by General Electric. In later years a larger, standard diesel road-switcher in the form of GP8 #704 arrived, rebuilt by the Illinois Central some years before from Electro-Motive GP9 #9237.
In April 1997, the system was sold to the Carolina Piedmont Railroad, which continued to operate the 10 miles to Travelers Rest. In May 1999, Greenville Country purchased the property and named an operator. Apparently feeling that remaining traffic was not enough to profitably continue the system, the county abandoned it in 2005. Although rails were left in place for several years, they were later removed, paving the way for the Swam Rabbit Trail’s opening in May 2010.
Railroad attractions in the state include the Lancaster & Chester Railroad & Museum in Lancaster (museum and first-class charters); the South Carolina Railroad Museum in Winnsboro, offering both historical display and excursion rides; and the Museum & Railroad Historical Center in Greenwood, where you can find preserved pieces of rolling stock owned by the Piedmont & Northern, Seaboard Air Line, and 2-8-2 steam locomotive #19.