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BEAUFORT -- For two local historians, a trip down a recently abandoned railroad in Beaufort County means much more than an unsteady walk on shifting gravel.'
For Colin Brooker and Evan Thompson, it means glimpses into the county's past. And while local and state officials work to shape the future of the railroad right of way, the two are outlining its past.'
Brooker and Thompson strolled the stretch of tracks from S.C. 170 to the port at Port Royal on Dec. 16, jumping off the rail numerous times to point out ruins, from Civil War batteries to abandoned meatpacking factories.'
The railroad, now overgrown with weeds, has become contested territory in the wake of legislation that closes the Port Royal port and calls for the sale of the state-owned railroad and port property by the end of 2006.'
Local hopes for the railroad property include changing it to a walking and biking trail, keeping it for a tourist dinner train, or paving it as an alternative road.'
Some just want it to go away.'
PLANTATIONS AND BATTERIES'
"Without a railroad, (the port) was pretty worthless," said Thompson, who added that original rail stops were made at Gardens Corner, the ferry at Whale Branch and Port Royal -- but not Beaufort because its shallow rivers were not conducive to trade ships.'
The Port Royal Railroad was finished in 1873, financed by private investors employing 2,800 workers on the rail line's original endpoints in Augusta, Ga., and Port Royal. The workers were split between the two ends, laying rail until they met in the middle, said Thompson, interim executive director for the Historic Beaufort Foundation.'
Much of the land surrounding the railroad near S.C. 170 and Battery Creek was plantation land, first used for growing indigo before the Revolutionary War and, later, cotton.'
"These were all fairly productive cotton plantations," said Brooker, a preservation consultant and architectural historian, pointing out areas of the former Salem and Pickpocket plantations.'
Farther along the rails, Brooker led an impromptu detour through the forest to an old Civil War battery, with only eroded earthworks remaining. Union troops manned the battery from 1862 to 1865, defending the city from the threat of Confederate troops.'
Most of the land surrounding the batteries was cleared of trees, he said, to provide better visibility for troops and to be used for cultivation.'
"All of these could be trained toward Battery Saxton (on Boundary Street)," Booker said, "so there could be a crossfire if anyone tried to force themselves through."'
Tucked in the woods near Joyner Street, Brooker snooped around the worn-down tabby foundation of a building from Fuller's Hermitage, a plantation owned by Sarah Barnwell Fuller and home to 85 slaves.'
"It could be a cotton house, (or) it could be a barn," Brooker said. "I imagine this was out in the middle of a cotton field."'
Brooker and Thompson then tramped through brush and over rails to the Pickle Factory, an abandoned building once home to the Seacoast Packing Co. in 1920 and later a cucumber and tomato pickle factory.'
The 13,000-square-foot building, now owned by the Technical College of the Lowcountry, also has been a sail loft, a construction warehouse and a home to gamblers.'
Its original operations were financed through the sale of stock certificates, and a newspaper article in 1921 pleads with generic citizens "Mr. Farmer," "Mr. Merchant" and "Mr. Salaried Man" to buy stock and support the hog and cattle meatpacking house and strengthen the local economy.