On a day when snow is flying back home in Milwaukee, I’m 900 miles away, luxuriating in 70-degree temperatures and enjoying the refreshing shade of the huge live oak that hugs the generous eaves encircling one of the South’s most distinctive train stations. The building is a replica, but don’t hold that against it.
You have to hand it to Aiken, S.C. When this genteel old city decided it wanted its long-lost Southern Railway depot back, it dreamed big and built big — and fully in the spirit of the original. Today’s Aiken station is remarkably similar to the one Southern built in 1899, when the town was fast becoming the “Winter Colony,” a haven for wealthy Northeasterners. The original station was designed by Southern’s staff architect, Frank Milburn.
In those early years, Aiken was quite a railroad town, having been located at nearly the west end of the state’s first railroad, the South Carolina Canal & Railroad Co., famous for the Dec. 25, 1830, run of the pioneering steam locomotive Best Friend of Charleston. The city took its name from William Aiken, founder and president of the railroad. By the turn of the century, Aiken was the hub of two Southern lines, including the Charleston Division, essentially the old original Charleston-Aiken-Augusta (Ga.) main line, now abandoned east of Aiken; and a branch that ran 24 miles north to Edgefield, of which a short stretch remains.
Just six miles west was the junction at Warrenville, on Southern’s Augusta-Columbia main line. A century ago, that connection allowed for a regular New York-Aiken train called the Aiken-Augusta Special, which lasted until 1941. At the height of service in the 1920s and ’30s, Aiken might have seen as many as 25 private-car and 55 extra Pullman movements each season as the city evolved into one of America’s polo capitals.
Today, Aiken retains its distinctive charm, enhanced by the generous boulevards that criss-cross the city on a formal grid. Its downtown is a lively place, with blocks of cozy restaurants and shops. And while Aiken isn’t the same railroad town it was 100 years ago, it’s still worth a visit, for several reasons.
There’s the depot, of course, now called the Aiken Visitors and Train Museum, featuring a lofty lobby, or waiting room, ringed by a mezzanine filled with artifacts, dioramas, and exhibits. Local boosters and preservationists long regretted Southern’s decision to raze the old station in 1954, and in the late 1990s they began raising funds to build a new one. It saw its grand opening in September 2010. The architecture is faithful to Milburn’s original structure, right down to the snazzy cupola.
The surrounding grounds beckon, as well. Behind the main building, a pair of heavyweight Pullmans, reconfigured as dining cars, are parked on a pair of covered stub tracks, recalling the era when Aiken was crowded with first-class cars serving the polo crowd. Aiken to this day is surrounded by lovely horse farms, and the game is played at several clubs around town, including the Aiken Polo Club, founded in 1882.
Those parked Pullmans have their own interesting history, having survived various iterations until arriving here a few years ago. The car parked on the easternmost track was built as a lounge for the Frisco in 1916 and is a combination of wood and steel construction. On the adjacent track is an all-steel car built in 1918 for Illinois Central. The ex-IC car was modified at some point to have an open platform and both cars have been reconfigured with huge picture windows.
Today’s depot would presumably might have been a welcome sight to the late F.E. Ardrey, Sr., who served as station master at Aiken for approximately 32 years and became a fixture in the community, especially as a tennis player. That last name Ardrey might be familiar to Classic Trains readers: his son, F.E. Ardrey Jr., was better known to generations of Trains readers as Frank Ardrey, whose credit line accompanied scores of photographs published in both magazines over the years.
A third-generation Ardrey railroader, Carl Ardrey wrote an affectionate tribute to his grandfather in a 2017 issue of Ties, the magazine of the Southern Railway Historical Association. Carl started out on the Alabama Great Southern in 1978 and held various trainmaster jobs with NS until he retired in 2016. The grandson noted his station-master grandfather’s devotion to all those Pullman patrons.
“F.E. was known for his personal service, above and beyond his job description,” wrote Carl. “I was told that he always took his Pullman diagrams home for the night, keeping them on the mantel, because he often got a phone call after hours from one of the elite requesting reservations.” The patriarch Ardrey died in 1971.
Although never a major point for regular Southern passenger service, Aiken did see as many as six trains a day on the Charleston main after 1900, plus a daily local on the Edgefield branch. Seasonal Pullman service lasted until 1941, by which time the only direct train was the local out of Charleston. Not long thereafter, passengers from the Northeast were obligated to detrain at Warrenville, and catch a bus or taxi to Aiken.
Don’t worry — there are still trains to see and hear in Aiken. If you’re there on a Tuesday or Thursday, you might encounter Aiken Railway’s local patrolling its five customers around town. A division of Western Carolina Railway Service Corp. (which also operates the Greenville & Western), Aiken Railway began leasing the property from NS in 2012. The company operates out of a small terminal on Park Avenue, just a few blocks southeast of the train station.
I was lucky the day of my visit. Not long after we arrived at the depot, I heard the horn of Aiken Railway’s handsome green GP30 No. 4201 split the afternoon silence. Soon it came creeping around the sharp curve by the station and pointed north to fetch some cars of bulk kaolin. Later in the day it would head off down to Warrenville to the interchange with NS’s Coast Division.
Sitting there in the shade under the depot’s eaves, watching the Geep ambling past, its horn echoing over leafy neighborhoods, I couldn’t help but smile. The old Winter Colony is still a railroad town.