A balmy night in ACL country

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, February 13, 2018

On February 11, 2018, Amtrak's Palmetto from New York makes its Charleston (S.C.) stop at the station ACL built north of town in 1956. Kevin P. Keefe photo
When it’s 16 degrees with 9 inches of snow on the ground back in Milwaukee, this is a good place to be: enjoying the balmy evening air surrounding the old Atlantic Coast Line depot in North Charleston, S.C.

Family visits have brought me here often in recent years, and even though it’s not the most picturesque of American train stations, it has its advantages, not the least of which is civilized weather in the dead of winter.

But there’s more than that. North Charleston is a throwback unlike most other passenger stations in the U.S. It opened in 1956, an era when most railroads were beginning to realize the retreat from passenger service was imminent. The days of building stations as impressive as North Charleston were pretty much over.

But ACL didn’t get the memo. Here, at a relatively convenient suburban location, the road constructed a spacious facility built to handle the significant crowds still using its Florida trains. Completion of Interstate 95 was still years away, so the varnish speeding up and down ACL’s magnificent railroad still had plenty of people on board.

The experts said ACL still made money on its trains, and you could see all of them at North Charleston. There were the crown jewels, of course — the East Coast and West Coast Champion streamliners, with their popular tavern-lounge-observation cars — but also such other flavorfully named accommodations as the Havana Special, the Miamian, and the Palmetto.

The station that ACL built is noteworthy. Traditionalists might dismiss its boxy simplicity, but the two-story Mid-Century Modernist building has pleasing proportions set off by an appealing surface texture of red brick on the first floor and green-dyed concrete on the second, where ACL’s old Charleston Division freight office was located. The color scheme is appropriate for a semi-tropical city known for its palmetto trees. I’d call the style Low Country Bauhaus.

The interior is noteworthy, too, remarkably well maintained and very much a reflection of the Eisenhower era, from its wooden pay phone booths right down to its identical segregated waiting rooms. Jim Crow was very much alive on the ACL in 1956.

Charleston's grand Union Station was completed on the city's waterfront in 1907, but succumbed to fire 40 years later. Library of Congress
For much of ACL’s history here, North Charleston was the secondary stop in South Carolina’s most appealing city. Once upon a time, Charleston had a grand Union Station, a beautiful twin-towered building in the Spanish Renaissance style, designed by South Carolina architect Frank Milburn and erected 1905–07 for tenants ACL and Southern. Seaboard Air Line also used the station until it built its own in 1931.

Union Station was in the heart of Charleston, right on the waterfront at the intersection of Columbus and East Bay streets and at the confluence of streetcar routes. Vintage photographs indicate it was an appropriately genteel entrance to a historic old city.

Alas, barely two generations of passengers were able to enjoy the building, because most of it burned down in 1947. After hobbling along with a temporary facility, ACL decided to relocate to an older, previous North Charleston depot and avoid a six-mile backup move downtown. The current station soon followed.

There’s no trace of old Union Station downtown, although CSX still sends local freights down to the site to serve a massive South Carolina State Ports Authority facility, dominated today by BMW’s U.S. export hub.

So in 2018, the Amtrak passenger is obliged to drive out to North Charleston. Whatever its architectural shortcomings — not to mention an onerous 6-foot-high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire that surrounds the property — the station retains some vitality. Nearly 67,000 passengers used the depot in 2017 to meet four trains, the daytime New York–Savannah Palmetto and overnight New York–Miami Silver Meteor.

ACL's Palmetto calls at Charleston (formerly North Charleston) in 1951, five years before this station was replaced by the one currently in use. A. C. Kalmbach photo
For a deeper retrospective on the place, I checked the Classic Trains photo archives and, sure enough, in the file “Atlantic Coast Line, South Carolina Diesel Passenger” turned up some gems by a couple of the masters.

One is by Al Kalmbach, of all people. He was traveling in the Southeast in April 1951 and managed to get a nice overhead view of ACL’s Palmetto — still carrying heavyweight cars — at the original North Charleston depot, which was located just south of the current building.

The great William D. Middleton took the other photo, depicting purple-and-silver E7s of the northbound Havana Special slowing under a CTC signal bridge as they approached the station on August 28, 1957. Bill’s caption noted the train’s heavy head-end traffic, indicative of the train’s leisurely schedule.

Purple-and-silver Coast Line E7s sweep under a signal bridge on the approach to the Charleston station with the northbound Havana Special in 1957. William D. Middleton photo
I’d like to think Kalmbach and Middleton would feel kindly toward the old depot here, given that it hasn’t changed much in 62 years. But its days are numbered: Amtrak and local agencies are deep into construction of a new intermodal terminal just north of the current station, on the site of the old north parking lot. Drawings of the new place show it to be of humdrum design, but it’s going to be big.

So my Sunday night visit was bittersweet. The humid, fragrant air hung heavy under the generous platform canopy, and looking north along CSX’s ruler-straight A Line you could watch the headlight of oncoming train 89, the Palmetto, for what seemed like 15 or 20 minutes. When it finally rumbled into the station, even the single Genesis diesel and its short train of Amfleet cars couldn’t break my Mid-Century mood. North Charleston won’t be the same once this fascinating ACL relic bites the dust.




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