Lowcountry train still right on time in Yemassee

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comFebruary 4, 2012 

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Pastor Joseph Austin wants to flag down the talk about a train depot in Hardeeville.

Letters to the editor say Hardeeville is right on the main line from Miami to New York and tourists to these parts might prefer a train to obnoxious airports and high-priced gas.

All they need is a depot.

Pastor Austin, who lives in the suburban sprawl of Yemassee and preaches at the Word of Truth Ministry in Coosawhatchie, knows that at one time Hardeeville had a station. Between Charleston and Savannah, so did the hamlets of Ravenel, Hollywood, Green Pond, Yemassee and Ridgeland.

All the train stations are gone, except for Yemassee, where during World War II thousands of young men took their first step toward Parris Island.

"Amtrak will not/is not going to put a station in Hardeeville," Pastor Austin writes. "So come to Yemassee. The parking is free."

Amtrak's Silver Meteor and Palmetto trains make four stops daily in Yemassee. More than 10,000 passengers got on or off last year. They don't sell tickets in Yemassee, but they have a newly refurbished train station. The town bought it from Amtrak for $1, and now they've got a piece of American history it hopes will revitalize the village straddling the Beaufort and Hampton county lines.

Pastor Austin, 81, remembers something even more beautiful about the lonesome whistles that broke the stillness of swampy nights.

"Did you know that once upon a time, you could wave the train down without having a ticket?" he asked.

KRESS CROSSSING

His mother and father did it when they lived on the same land he now calls home on Mackey Point Road. His grandfather bought the five acres for $35.

Pastor Austin's folks used to wave down the big steel with a handkerchief or white towel. If the engineer blew the horn two times, it meant he saw them and would stop.

That was usually around the Kress Crossing, a keyhole into an unimaginable world that still intrigues the Lowcountry.

That's where Claude Washington Kress got off the mainline, and his plush railroad car was pulled onto a track that went around to the big house on Buckfield Plantation. He liked to escape New York in the winter to come shoot deer, quail, duck and clay pigeons on his 11,000 acres.

C.W. Kress planted hundreds of acres of narcissus bulbs to sell at S.H. Kress & Co. stores. The "Kress Five and Dime" chain, which he ran with his brother, founder Samuel H. Kress, grew from one store to 241 in the 1930s and 40s. It's gone the way of Walmart, but many of its magnificent store buildings remain. The one in Beaufort now houses the Old Bay Marketplace. Some have a stylized narcissus in terra cotta ornamentation to represent the millions of Lowcountry paperwhite narcissus bulbs sold within.

A narrow-gauge railroad line on the Buckfield property ran between the narcissus fields, three bulb-sorting sheds, and the main rail line north. Dutch men oversaw the bulb operation.

In World War II, the Kress family sold the timber on their land to the federal government. German prisoners of war from a nearby camp did the work, editors Robert B. Cuthbert and Stephen G. Hoffius write in "Northern Money Southern Land: The Lowcountry Plantation Sketches of Chlotilde R. Martin."

C.W. Kress funded a historic library on business and economics at the Harvard Business School. S.H. Kress was an art collector whose donation to America established the National Museum of Art. The Columbia Museum of Art is among many other museums to receive a Kress collection.

FLAGGING THE TRAIN

For Pastor Austin's folks, the bulb fields and the canals that flooded them with fresh water meant income in a poor place. One of his uncles was a driver, riding horseback to see that everyone was working. He recalls a bell ringing twice each morning. If workers weren't at the railroad tracks when the bell rang the second time, they couldn't work that day.

They were paid 50 cents a day. A perk of the job cleaning canals was that fish were tossed in a bucket all day, then divided at quitting time.

Pastor Austin said his parents and their seven children also farmed. On the way home from the cotton field, his parents would drop a line in a pond and catch five or six fish for supper.

Saturdays must have been a joyful day for his parents. They'd set aside the hoe to wave down the mighty train for Savannah. They knew the schedule on all three train lines that set the cadence to their lives.

"It was imprinted in their minds," the pastor says.

Imprinted on his young mind was that his parents always brought a treat back home.

"Candy," he said, "or a biscuit."

Nobody can wave down a train anymore.

It's a piece of Lowcountry life that's come and gone like the aroma of a narcissus, or the flash of the Silver Meteor blasting through Green Pond, Hollywood, Ravenel and points north.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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Yemassee takes train station

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