"I have just returned to Liverpool, having been at Newcastle, visited the railroads in its vicinity and examined the operation of the locomotives with the closest attention. I have been completely convinced of their utility and superiority to horsepower..."
- Horatio Allen, designer and builder of the Charleston-Hamburg Railroad, 1828
Built with a single set of tracks consisting of hardwood rails and wooden ties, and using wooden trestles to carry it over low-lying areas, the 136-mile Charleston-Hamburg Railroad was one of the longest railroads in the world when it was completed in 1833. It also became the first railroad in the United States to be powered entirely by steam, the first to carry mail under contract, and the first to provide regularly scheduled passenger service.
The railroad's builders wanted to link the seaport of Charleston with the cotton-growing plains to its west, as well as the thriving river port of Augusta, Georgia. Because it used technology that relied on wood construction, which could be built quickly and updated easily, the Charleston-Hamburg line was able to expand at a rapid pace. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, in contrast, insisted on double tracks of iron over granite sills, with complex grading and bridge construction. While the B&O was chartered three years earlier than the Charleston-Hamburg line, it had covered only 14 miles by 1833.
Prior to directing work on the Charleston-Hamburg Railroad, chief engineer Horatio Allen had visited England to study railroads for his employers at the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company. There, he met with noted British engineer George Stephenson (father of noted civil engineer Robert Stephenson) and toured the Stockton and Darlington Railway, the first railroad in the world to offer regularly scheduled passenger service. Allen went on to a celebrated career in civil engineering and in 1871 was named the fifth president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The first steam engine on the Charleston-Hamburg line, built in December, 1830, for $4,000, was affectionately named "Best Friend of Charleston." Less than six months after its purchase, a worker, objecting to the machinery's loud hissing as it traveled on a revolving platform, closed a safety valve to quiet the noise and caused an explosion that killed the worker and destroyed the engine.
The Charleston-Hamburg Railroad was opened for limited service on Christmas Day 1830, when it carried 140 passengers on a line six miles long. By November 1833, the railroad line was fully operable and was maintaining three steam engines, eight passenger cars, 11 lumber cars, 14 tender cars, and 56 freight cars in regular service.
In 1835, a ticket from Charleston to Hamburg cost $6.75, with a baggage allowance of 75 pounds. Children under 12 and "coloured persons" were carried at half fare. Regulations prohibited servants not caring for children, the carrying of guns unless examined by a conductor, and the placing of feet on the passenger-car cushions.
The railroad built a branch line in 1842 to Columbia, S.C., another in 1848 to Camden, S.C., and in 1853 a bridge to Augusta, Georgia, just across the Savannah River from Hamburg, S.C. Almost completely destroyed by General Sherman in his historic 1865 Civil War march, the railroad was rebuilt by new owners in the 1870s and 1880s. It was sold in 1899 to the Southern Railway and incorporated into a nationwide system stretching from Charleston to Los Angeles.
Few traces of the original railroad remain today. A small portion of the original track runs through the National Historic Landmark District in Charleston that celebrates the U.S. birth of steam-locomotive service. Included in the district are the William Aiken House, home of the Charleston-Hamburg line's first president, Camden Depot, and four other railroad buildings predating the Civil War. A separate, recently built structure houses a replica of the Best Friend of Charleston.