Trains are a very important part of South Carolina history. My hometown of Florence was built around the railroad depot and Spartanburg's nickname of Hub City came from the railroad hubs there. Stumphouse Tunnel is the railroad tunnel through a mountain whose construction was interrupted by the Civil War and never finished.
Several towns have their own museums dedicated to trains, but Winnsboro is home to the South Carolina Railroad Museum, (803) 635-4242, 110 Industrial Park Road. The museum is lovingly staffed by volunteers who take their preservation and education roles seriously. From the moment you arrive, you can feel their enthusiasm for trains and local history.
The museum is made up of several exhibits spread across a building and stationary train cars depicting a railroad executive's car, a sleeper car, a U.S. mail car and cargo. The exhibits are free, but the real attraction is the hourlong train ride along a spur once used by a couple of industries and the now-closed granite quarry in Winnsboro. Riders have several seating choices from a typical coach seat to an open-air caboose. Tickets range from $12-$20 for adults with discounts for seniors and active military and for children in coach only. Your guides are from all walks of life, but have cleared by the Federal Railroad Administration to operate the train.
If it's not too hot or not raining, the open-air car is a good option. The train never gets over 15 mph, so you get a really good look at the surrounding terrain. Each car has its own guide who explains what you are seeing and all about the train cars and their operation. Some of the more interesting things you see are the granite sides of the train bed that were opened more than a hundred years ago by hand, the chimney remnants of former tenant farmer shacks and fields of corn and sunflower used to attract game birds and deer to hunting grounds.
The museum portion of your visit may not hold the interest of really young children, but the train ride will definitely keep your toddler enthused. Make sure to visit the facilities at the train station before you board as there are no bathrooms on the train.
The museum and train are open on Saturdays in the summer. The museum opens at 9 a.m. and closes at 3:30 p.m. with train runs at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. You still have a chance to catch the train Sept. 15.
Winnsboro extra: The train ride hosts will point out a granite school from the mid-20th century during your train ride. The former Greenbriar School is a beauty, made of the granite quarried right there in Winnsboro. It is currently a private residence, but it's worth a closer look. You can ride by on S.C. Highway 269 and take pictures, especially of the beautiful stone fence built around the property. (Just a note, the home is for sale if you have a few extra dollars lying around and an eye for historic renovation.)