Thermal Belt Rail Trail History

North Carolina

At a Glance

Name: Thermal Belt Rail Trail
Length: 13.6 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Wheelchair Accessible, Walking
Counties: Rutherford
Surfaces: Asphalt
State: North Carolina

A Brief History

The Thermal Belt Rail-Trail follows about 8 miles of a former Southern Railway line located in southwestern North Carolina. The history of the corridor dates back to a predecessor who constructed the route during the 1880s. However, financial difficulty led to that railroad’s downfall, and part of its property went on to join Southern’s growing network during the late 19th century. Over time the line, which extended into central-South Carolina, became just another secondary route within Southern’s system. Following the formation of Norfolk Southern, segments were abandoned during the 1980s, including the section that is today’s trail.

The history of this particular corridor begins with the founding of the Charleston, Cincinnati & Chicago Railroad organized in 1886. The company was informally known as the “Triple C” or “Three C’s.” The planners for this road envisioned a system stretching from the port of Charleston, South Carolina, into the coalfields of the western Appalachian Mountains, terminating at Ashland, Kentucky, along the Ohio River. According to Cary Poole’s book “A History of Railroading in Western North Carolina,” with strong financial backing, work proceeded quickly on the new railroad. Building south from Rutherfordton, North Carolina, rails had reached Camden, South Carolina, by 1888, a distance of 146 miles. The project then headed north from Rutherfordton, extending 25 miles to Marion and opening in 1889. There was also work being done out of Ashland through the Chatteroi Railway, then-controlled by the CC&C. Alas, financial issues befell the company in 1890 when a primary investor failed, and the railroad was forced into bankruptcy.

During May 1893, the property was sold and eventually reorganized as the Ohio River & Charleston Railroad, its name still implying intentions of reaching both locations. Unfortunately, this did not happen. During August 1898, the southern segment from Marion to Camden, South Carolina, was sold to the young Southern Railway, formed on July 1, 1894, and already a major railroad spanning 4,400 miles across the Southeast. The northern segment of the OR&C was taken over by the Chesapeake & Ohio, while the central section went on to become part of the Clinchfield Railroad, a small but profitable coal-hauling line. Under the Southern, the former OR&C route reached Kingsville and connected with its line to Charleston. It became known as the “SB Line” and ran 208.5 miles from Kingsville, South Carolina, to Marion, North Carolina.

The classic Southern Railway became not only one of the most successful railroads of the South, but also across the country, benefitting from many years of strong management, a diverse traffic base, and strategic routes that reached Washington, Atlanta, New Orleans, Charlotte, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Norfolk (via trackage rights), Chattanooga, Jacksonville, and various other points. At its peak, the railroad stretched over 6,000 miles and served 11 states. As Mike Schafer notes in his book “More Classic American Railroads,” in 1981, the Southern boasted annual revenues of nearly $1.8 billion, with net revenues of $212 million—this during a time when the industry faced uncertainty following massive abandonments and numerous bankruptcies.

When the Southern was created in 1894, it was pieced together through the combination of several predecessors, a trend that continued into the 20th century. The most notable of these included the Richmond & Danville; East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia; Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific; Alabama Great Southern; and New Orleans & Northeastern. In all, there were 125 different roads making up the railroad, and many survived as corporate entities well into the 20th century. An astute observer could notice both locomotives and cars carrying subsidiaries’ reporting marks, such as the AGS, CNO&TP, CofG (Central of Georgia), NO&NE, INT (Interstate Railroad), and S&A (Savannah & Atlanta). The Southern continued acquisitions into the postwar period by picking up the Interstate in 1960, while the Central of Georgia, Savannah & Atlanta, and Georgia & Florida were added in 1961. In 1974, it also purchased the Norfolk Southern.

While the Southern was a profitable freight hauler, it is best remembered by the public for its elegant passenger trains. Its flagship was the New York-to-New Orleans “Crescent,” although the company operated a fleet of popular runs, including the “Tennessean,” “Birmingham Special,” “Southerner,” and “Royal Palm,” among others. During the late 1920s, it introduced a stunning livery of Virginia Green with gold and white trim first applied to steam locomotives; however, the paint scheme remained its corporate colors throughout the streamliner era and until the Norfolk Southern merger in 1982. The Southern held its passenger trains to such a high regard that its remaining long-distance operation, the “Southern Crescent,” was not transferred to Amtrak in 1971, fearing a severe decline of service. Instead, the railroad continued operating the train itself until 1979.

The Southern’s SB Line handled a variety of freight such as agriculture, textiles, forest products, and steel products. Over the years, business slowly disappeared, and as a secondary route the line gradually declined. During the 1980s, sections were abandoned in both Carolinas, including the segment that is today’s Thermal Belt Rail-Trail. However, other sections remain in use, including several by short lines. The Thermal Belt Railway, for instance, operates the former SB Line between Rutherfordton and Forest City.

Railroad attractions in North Carolina include the Charlotte Trolley in Charlotte; Cherryville Model Railroad Club and Museum in Cherryville; Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in Bryson City; National Railroad Museum and Hall of Fame in Hamlet; New Hope Valley Railway based in New Hill; North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer; Old Rock School Railway Museum in Valdese; Smoky Mountain Trains in Bryson City; Wilmington Railroad Museum in Wilmington; and the Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock.

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