I was on a quest to find traces of the “other” Swamp Rabbit Railroad, a passenger service on the Blackville, Alston & Newberry (BA&N) line that ran from Blackville in Barnwell County to Seivern in Lexington County. So far the task had been easy. There were clear tracks and right-of-ways between and through the towns of Blackville, Springfield, Salley, Perry, and Wagener. The last four towns came into existence because of the BA&N, and these towns celebrated their railroad heritage. The Swamp Rabbit was about to get more elusive, though, as its route traversed the environment for which it was named – the swamps of the Edisto River.
I was following a map created by Mitch Bailey of Lexington. I had downloaded data points from the map into my GPS, and used those to plot my next stop. Following the route to the next point northwest of Wagener I was no longer on Highway 39, but following the smaller Highway 79. At first the railroad followed the same pattern as it had for the other segments of my trip – a right-of-way running parallel to the road.
Evidence of the railroad was getting harder to spot, though. There were a couple of points of interest marked on the Bailey map, but I had a hard time finding them. One was a request stop at a location named “Swedenburg.” GNIS data doesn’t have that location in the database, but the name is fairly common around Wagener. Regardless, the only thing I found was an old-style ranch entrance.
Just beyond that was a predominantly African American cemetery.
There were a couple of other data points on the Bailey map that intrigued me, but I just couldn’t find them, either. The Rocky Point Schoolhouse & Indian Hill locations were supposed to be request stops. While I didn’t expect to find a school building, I was hoping for some evidence of these places. Alas, none were to be found.
The track crossed the highway then veered of across the woods. There was no way I’d be able to follow it without a bit of trespassing. I was getting close to one of the most interesting stops of my trip, though.
I knew nothing about the community of Sievern prior to my research on the Swamp Rabbit. Through casual research I really had only three significant details about the town:
- It was named for Sievern, Germany, birthplace of General Wagener, president of the railroad, and namesake of the previous town I’d visited.
- It had been the northern terminus of the Swamp Rabbit, with a turntable so that the engines could be send back down the track.
- It was the home of the Edisto Academy.
Any information I could find on the community was either related to the railroad or to the academy. There was not much about the town itself, or whether or not it was even a town. Carolana.com, one of my most trusted sources of information about obscure towns, doesn’t have it listed at all, neither as a town that had a post office, nor as one that never had a post office. Compounding this problem was the fact that “Sievern” was often spelled “Slevern” on certain maps and records due to typos.
Here’s what I have been able to find…
The BA&N wished to extend its service beyond Sievern, and was reorganized as the Greenwood, Anderson, and Western Railroad in 1895. That railroad had ambitious plans, as was reported by the Anderson Intelligencer in 1896:
The Greenwood, Anderson and Western Railroad has applied to the Secretary of State to amend Section 2 of its charter, as follows, which seems to take in almost the entire State
“The said company is hereby authorized or construct or acquire, maintain and operate a railroad from the town of Greenwood, in Abbeville County, in a northernly and westernly direction through Spartanburg, Anderson, Newberry, Lexington, Oconee, Pickens, Laurens, Union and Greenville Counties, going by way of the cities of Newberry, Union, Anderson, Laurens, Walhalla, Pickens, Greenville and Spartanburg, or either or several or all, as may be determined by the board of directors, and in a southernly and easternly direction from said town of Greenwood,in Abbeville County, through the Counties of Abbeville. Saluda, Edgefield, Aiken, Orangeburg, Lexington, Barnwell, Hampton, Colleton, Berkeley and Charleston to the city of Charleston or any other pointon the Atlantic coast in the County of Charleston, passing through the towns of Batesburg, Sievern, Blackville, Barnwell, Allendale, Walterboro and Sommerville, or either or several or all of them with such other towns in said Counties as may be determined by the board of directors, and also from such point in the above described lines as may be constructed or acquired to such point on the Savannah River as may be determined by its board of directors and also from such line as may be constructed or acquired through the Counties of Aiken and Edgefield as may be so determined.”
It’s interesting to note that they list Greenwood as being in Abbeville County. This was prior to the formation of Greenwood County.
The GA&W Railroad never got a chance to operate a line, though. It went bankrupt, and was sold to another railroad for the now-paltry amount of $15,600. Once again, the Anderson Intelligencer reported the sale:
That new railroad was the equally ambitious Sievern-Knoxville Railroad. That line never made it to Knoxville, but at some point the line was extended beyond Sievern to Batesville. That’s as far as it went before Southern Railroad took over the whole operation and eventually closed down the line.
But, back to my visit…
The first thing I spotted was the imposing Seivern Baptist Church. The brick building is in the Greek Revival style, without a steeple.
Note that the sign, and the way I spelled it above is “Seivern,” not “Sievern.” The community name is also spelled that way in the GNIS databse, adding to the confusion of research. Also notable about the church is that a former pastor, Rev. William J. Buchner, wrote a multi-volume history of the railroad and the community of Sievern (which is how I will continue to spell it when referring to the community.) The information from the Bruchner history forms the basis for the Bailey map which I was following. The books are available in the records room of the Lexington County Library. I’m going to have to make another trek down that way to take a look at them.
On the Abandoned Rails site, Bailey shared a photo of the old Sievern passenger depot, which he says is behind Seivern Baptist.
I actually think Bailey meant behind Chalk Hill Baptist just around the corner on New Holland Road.
The Bailey map shows the railroad running behind Chalk Hills Baptist. Right under his marker location for Sievern is a small clearing, which might have been the station location, or perhaps the turntable.
From the Google Earth image I could have probably gotten to the location, although the satellite imagery doesn’t show a building like the station above. However, the church was just finishing up a late Mother’s Day service, and I would have been disturbing them. Just down the street was a dirt road headed in that direction, but it also had No Trespassing signs.
Regardless of how it’s spelled, the community’s name figures so prominently in the history of the railroad that I wondered if it actually had been a town, despite the lack of data on Carolana.com and other sources. Bailey seems to indicate that it was on the POI for this location.
A considerable village was planned and in fact existed for a time while the mines and the railroad lasted, but today it is scarcely more than a crossroads village and two churches.
Scene of the 1891 shooting of the outlaw Emmanuel Williams by CMR conductor Oscar Meyer. Rev. Buchner wrote chapters on the incident in his History of Wagener series, including a section entitled “Manuel!” examining news accounts and court records of the case in detail. Rumor had it that the conductor actually ambushed Williams from a distance, shooting with a rifle, but folks weren’t so nitpicky about such things in those days, it seems.
SC author Daniel Elton Harmon, formerly of Lexington, published a short story, “The Chalk Town Train,” which was inspired by this incident. While the characters and location were fictionalized and renamed, the railroad involved retained the name “Carolina Midlands Railroad.”
It was sensational news. A 1895 edition of the Winnsboro News and Herald reported the event.
With a tale such as this I knew I definitely needed to take a look at the Buchner books. However, there was even more to attract me to this location. Sievern was the home to the Edisto Academy.
In his memoir “Ninety Years of Aiken County: Memoirs of Aiken County and Its People“, Gasper Toole describes the Edisto Academy:
Edisto Academy, a Baptist co-educational school located at Seivern, Aiken County, S. C., was founded in 1915 and closed in 1934 due to conditions resulting largely from the economic “depression.” While primarily a high school, it offered work in the elementary grades and, for a while, one year of college work….
The plant consisted of three buildings and 331 acres of land. Student enrolment [sic] at the peak was 112.
The school was a residential facility operated by the South Carolina Baptist Convention. News reports often listed it along with Furman University, North Greenville Academy (later College, then University), Anderson College, and Long Creek Academy. The school was in existence for only 19 years.
The financial plight of the school was not understated. The same news reports often pleaded for support for the school, usually in the form of donated goods rather than money. The term was “pounding” where church congregants would bring “a pound of this and a pound of that” of staples for the school. A 1920 edition of the Edgefield Advertiser event went beyond that, and requested a “tonnin’.”
Even with the pledged support, the school couldn’t survive the Great Depression. The Baptists cut off funding in 1932, but the school hung on for another two years before closing.
Mitch Bailey included the following description for his POI:
Edisto Academy was a fairly prestigious boys’ private Baptist grade school that drew pupils from all over SC & the Southeast while it was open 1915-1931. You can plainly see the brick walls of the main building standing on the hill overlooking Road 21 esp when the scrub oaks have dropped leaves.
In the early 1980’s the author had occasion to visit this site while the building still stood, & was then used by the landowner for supplies storage.
According to Rev. Buchner, who wrote another book about the school itself, the founder chose Seivern over Wagener because Wagener had saloons and Seivern did not.
Obviously the RR brought students and supplies, including delivering the school’s big iron cooking stove & oven. A number of students over the years had to be reprimanded for “hopping” the Swamp Rabbit to hitch a joyride over the bridge to Todd, the whistle stop on the other side. Once, a train driver decided to teach two such young stowaways a lesson when there were no passengers waiting at Todd. He flew by at maximum allowed speed and forced the boys to ride five miles further before they could get off, which of course was five additional miles they had to walk back!
One or two of Bailey’s details differ from the Toole memoir, but the essential points are the same. The ruins of the main building are still visible in the latest imagery from Google Earth.
Blogger and historian Nate Fulmer was able to take this photo for his Palmetto Brick Society blog. It’s the only image of the school I’ve been able to find online. Fulmer identifies the ruins as the “former girls’ dormitory.” Hard to say which of these is correct.
Back in the present and back at Sievern…
I returned to Seivern Baptist Church. A granite marker sits on the corner of the church’s property at the intersection of Seivern Road and New Holland Road.
The marker has an arrow pointing left, and the text reads, in part, “Site of Edisto Academy Baptist School, 1915-1934.” On the other side of the road was a dirt road with a brick column marking the entrance. Sadly, on the other post was a prominent “No Trespassing” sign.
Once again, it looked like I’d been thwarted. I had already gotten some strange looks from the congregants leaving Chalk Hill Church, so I didn’t want to antagonize the community further by trespassing. I did drive back down the road next to the school to see if I could catch a glimpse. It was impossible through the thick leaves, but it might be possible next winter when the leaves are gone.
UPDATE: Fellow investigator Ken Cothran sent me a message shortly after this post was published. It seems there is another image of the Edisto Academy. This one was posted to a Canadian photography discussion board (of all places), and is by a photographer only known as “Barefoot.”
That discussion forum also contained a link to the legislative act to incorporate the Edisto Academy. That act states that the academy was incorporated “…for the purpose of educating the white youth of both sexes in languages, arts and sciences….” Well, that certainly clears up whether or not it was co-educational, but it also brings out the segregated nature of the academy.
I made one last attempt to find Sievern. Just up from Seivern Baptist on New Holland Road going away from Chalk Hill was another dirt road I thought might take me to the town’s location.
The road took me through some remote areas past some old buildings – old houses and farm buildings surrounded by newer mobile homes with Confederate Battle Flags in abundance. There was a definite “stay away from here” vibe, so I kept going.
The dirt road eventually brought me back to New Holland. My attempt to find Sievern had failed…for now. I do want to revisit this area next winter. For today, though, I still had daylight, and I still had more of the Swamp Rabbit to find.