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Guests at the visitors center today might recognize the miniature Aiken depot in this scene from 1916.
Photo by Paul J. Dolkos/Courtesy of Model Railroader
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The track where the model passenger train stands still exists outside the center and is regularly used by the Norfolk Southern. The recreated depot faces Aiken’s Park Avenue.
BUT FOR A YOUNG MAN IN LOVE, there might have been no railroad through Aiken. And without that railroad, the town’s history—even its name—might have been very different.
The tale goes that Alfred Dexter, a Boston engineer, was sent by the South Carolina Canal & Rail Road in 1830 to map a route for a new railroad line from Charleston to Hamburg (near present-day North Augusta). Arriving in what is now Aiken County, Dexter saw clearly that the land was too hilly to build rail lines there.
Then Dexter met Sarah Williams, lovely daughter of wealthy local plantation owner Capt. W.W. Williams. Williams wanted the railroad to come through his property in that region. Dexter wanted Sarah’s hand in marriage. A deal was struck.
“One man got his railroad; the other man got his wife,” says Marty Bailey, a volunteer at the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum.
Dexter later helped design a new town, in precise grids, around the depot. The town was named for SCC&RR president William Aiken, and a new route for shipping cotton across the state was created.
Preserving a critical piece of town history was the motivation for creating Aiken’s Train Museum, which captures eight S.C. towns along this historic railroad line in incredible miniature detail. Completed in 1833, the line was, remarkably, the longest in the world at the time, at 136 miles.
Nine dioramas preserve, in HO scale, the 1916 version of these towns—not only what was, but what is gradually disappearing. Hamburg, the long-gone terminus of the Charleston & Hamburg Railroad, is now just a footnote in history.
More than that, the museum building itself recreates Aiken’s old railroad station in the exact footprint of the 19th-century depot, right down to the flower beds out front.
“So many of our depots across the state are gone or are being used as community centers or libraries,” Aiken tourism supervisor Elizabeth Harm says. Aiken’s own depot was bulldozed in 1954, leaving just an empty lot.
The Friends of the Aiken Railroad Depot located original architectural plans for the old depot and rebuilt it in detail—wooden floors, exposed beams, fireplaces, ticket booth and cupola included.
“There used to be a wall that went from the center of the front desk to the front door and separated the ‘white’ from the ‘colored’ side,” FARD president Tim Simmons says. “We removed that wall—it’s indicative of the barriers that have been removed over the years with respect to segregation and discrimination.”
Downstairs serves as the town’s visitors center. But the mezzanine is where visitors love to hang out. Circling this level are the dioramas behind glass windows, populated in fascinating detail by homes, businesses and townspeople. Periodically, the lights dim, and streetlamps and windows glow in nighttime versions of each scene. A Southern Railway steam engine runs continuously from one miniature town to the next.
“That’s the one problem we have up there—getting kids to walk, not run, because they want to chase the train around the building,” Simmons says, laughing.
In 1916, towns were introducing electricity, so streets feature both horse-drawn carriages and trolleys. In Blackville, residents liked to go swimming in the water tower, so that diorama includes those swimmers. Peacocks were commonly used as “guard dogs,” Bailey says, so the Charleston diorama includes a peacock in the yard (try to find it—it’s a challenge).
“People are amazed by the sophistication of it,” says Harm, noting that FARD volunteers painstakingly researched details of each town, down to the paint colors on the shutters of the houses. Every road, fixture and building was custom built to match photos and firsthand descriptions of Charleston, Summerville, St. George, Branchville, Denmark, Blackville, Aiken and Hamburg.
Interactive exhibits and old film clips help tell the story of railroading in the U.S. as visitors guide themselves from depot to depot. The museum has captured the imaginations of tens of thousands of visitors since it opened in 2010. Railroad fans are especially prone to linger.
A national spotlight will shine on Aiken Train Museum in October. That’s when Model Railroader magazine publishes its “Great Model Railroads 2014” edition, featuring Aiken’s as one of about a dozen model railroads considered among the best in the world.
“Go in with an open heart,” Bailey advises, “and let your inner child come out.”
Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum is located downtown at 406 Park Ave. SE. From I-20, take exit 18 to U.S. 1 South/York Avenue NE; drive about eight miles to Park Avenue.
The museum will celebrate National Train Day and National Railroad Week on May 11 with special guided tours, exhibits, live music and stories for children.
HOURS: Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Groups of 10 or more may request private tours with advance notice.
DETAILS: (803) 293-7846 or (888) 245-3672; aikenrailroaddepot.org.