An engineer’s take on the history of railroads in Greenville, SC

Swamp Rabbit Trail Maps

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Sam Tucker has railroading in his blood. He knows the history of railroads in Greenville, SC, when hobos took to the rails in boxcars, he remembers when cabooses were the second homes for engineers and he remembers when the Swamp Rabbit moved train cars between Travelers Rest and Greenville.

Today, the Swamp Rabbit Trail brings tens of thousands of strollers, bicycles and pedestrians down its paths where railroad ties used to be. While the timeline of the Swamp Rabbit Trail is well documented, the stories of those lines are still being told by those who remember a time when hobos could be seen riding the bumpers between freight cars, or on top of passenger trains – a method called Deck ’em because of the nature of the haul.

“They did away with the fireman, they did away with the brakemen, they did away with the flagman,” Tucker reflected with a hint of sentimentalism. “That orange thing on front of the train is the caboose. When we get ready to leave we put it on the rear car and it sends a signal.”



Mr. Tucker was finishing his shift and securing his diesel locomotive for the night when he stopped for a goodwill chat with passing locals on the Swamp Rabbit Trail. When pressed he admits the anything-goes glory days on the railroad are over because of the federal oversight on nearly all railroad lines in the United States. (Following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 and increased liability issues in recent years, regulators have installed cameras on trains and implemented strict procedures to help ensure safety and security on lines.)

“There are a lot of stories I can’t tell, but let’s just say it was a different time for us before all the bureaucracy came,” Tucker said.

The vagrants haven’t abandoned the lines altogether, says Tucker. In fact, the amount of energy he puts into keeping his trains safe and secure means he is as much a watchdog as he is a switch man. The hobos used to call policemen on the railroads the “Yard Dicks” and they made it their business to keep the vagrants off the trains. But he rarely finds anyone who can stand the hot boxcars in summer. But other security issues remain–larceny is the biggest problem.

“They break locks and steal beer off  the cars,” Tucker said. “We call it in when it happens and there’s a report. It’s all regulated now.”

But it’s not all bad working for the federal government according to this second generation engineer whose son recently started a job in the same line of work. His role as engineer is supported by a conductor and together their train route covers many of the largest cities and burgeoning towns in the Upstate, including Spartanburg, Greenville and Pelzer, SC.

“The cameras are always rolling in front and it’s saved us a few times. Sometimes people say something happened and we go to the cameras and it saves us.”

Despite changing times, the history of railroads in Greenville, SC continues to be reflected in the landmarks and monuments punctuating the recommissioned pathway between Travelers Rest and downtown Greenville. And railroading is constant in the area as trains continue to support a massive transportation system that has defined people and business for nearly 200 years.

Terminology reflected in the history of railroads in Greenville, SC

  1. Flipping a rattler – Boarding a moving box-car.
  2. UnderslungTo get underslung means to ride under a train and have the shacks throw things at you, or to have them drag a piece of iron on a string under the car so that, bounding up and down, it will punish you plenty.
  3. Head end – The front of the train. In front of or near the engine.
  4. High ball – Signal for a train to pull out of town.
  5. Peddler or bob tail – A short local freight train.

For more information on terminology used on railroads, visit http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma01/white/anthology/glossary.html

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