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Saving H&B Railroad

Hank Amundson of the Lowcountry Council of Governments and Heyward Horton of the Colleton County Economic Alliance are working together with other agencies trying to get a railroad-based industry to locate in either Colleton or Hampton counties. Photo by Rick Tobin

Hank Amundson of the Lowcountry Council of Governments and Heyward Horton of the Colleton County Economic Alliance are working together with other agencies trying to get a railroad-based industry to locate in either Colleton or Hampton counties. Photo by Rick Tobin

Efforts are underway to save H&B Railroad, the company that has been in operation in Colleton and Hampton counties since 1891.

The company, chartered as the Hampton and Branchville Railroad, originally carried timber cut from Lowcountry wooded areas to local mills. The rail line started in the Town of Hampton, and was extended towards Branchville. The line then ran through Miley, Ashton, and on into Hellhole Swamp. The railroad line eventually extended into Colleton County, and went through Moselle, Ashton, Padgetts, Smoaks, Canadys, and into Cottageville.

In the early 1960’s, H&B Railroad switched from hauling logs and lumber to coal, hauling that commodity to the electricity-generating plant owned by South Carolina Electric and Gas to fuel the furnaces.

They continued to haul coal until December 28, when the cars emptied the last loads at the plant. The plant will close in 2015.

Although some people thought the closing would cause the railroad to shut down, others within the Lowcountry were thinking out of the box. Colleton County Economic Alliance Executive Director Heyward Horton and Lowcountry Council of Governments (LCOG) Workforce Development Director Hank Amundson are working together to try to bring in a company or industry that needs a railroad system in order to operate to Colleton or Hampton county.

“Think about it. There are industrial companies and other bigger projects that have a rail requirement,” Horton said. If we have this railroad, we have something to market. This is an asset in attracting industry. This would be considered a state asset.”

Horton noted that officials at H&B Railroad are actively developing a marketing plan, and his office, the Southern Carolina Alliance, and LCOG Workforce Development Director Hank Amundson are working together on this project. “We joined forces with the Southern Carolina Alliance in May of 2012. We have pooled resources with them for a bigger bang and we are now under their umbrella, and they are a marketing powerhouse.” The Southern Carolina Alliance is an organization that helps with industrial site location needs, provides assistance for industrial sites and buildings, provides incentives for industry location, and helps with project management.

Amundson said his office is also actively involved in trying to attract industries needing a railroad such as the one that currently exists in Colleton and Hampton counties. “We’re another piece of the puzzle We have counseling and training programs under the Federal Workforce Investment Act to push our economy forward, and we have another tool to offer companies. We choose to focus on sectors pushing economic development.”

Amundson said LCOG’s On the Job Training Program develops work skills, making the life of the person who is trained better, and thereby making our economy better. “It’s like a domino effect. We are orchestrating jobs that improve people’s quality of life by giving them the opportunity to earn a higher wage, and, this way, we’re breaking the cycle of collecting benefits. Everyone that can be needs to be in on this so we can market it.” Amundson added that LCOG reimburses up to 75 percent of wages earned up to six months after employment.

Horton said his office has already received inquiries from companies that would need a railroad system in order to operate. “We get pings on railroad-needed industries because we have the H&B Railroad in place. H&B is in good shape, is run well, and is a very marketable tool. The railroad has 40 miles of track that goes through a lot of area that could be acquired for industrial use. They are a railroad looking for a customer.”

Both Horton and Amundson expressed their faith in H&B Railroad. “I feel confident that we can find a user,” Horton said. “There are a lot of stars that are in alignment. County Council knows this is an asset, and the line also goes through Hampton County. The economy seems to be improving and, as the industrial market also improves, we can reach out and find a use for this product.”

Horton said, on a statewide level, there is also a push for stronger economic development. “We have a good economic development system in place. Governor Nikki Haley and Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt are both good marketers for our state. When all of these agencies that I have been talking about come together and align, that’s when I get optimistic.”