How a Reconstruction president got his own road in the South

Laurens, S.C., is a typical small Southern town. Its mills are closed, the Columbia, Newberry and Laurens Railroad is now part of a major transportation company and the last bank with its headquarters in the community relocated nearly a decade ago.

But there’s no denying its history. Even though it has a population of around 9,000, the town can claim two South Carolina governors, a U.S. Senator and a U.S. Secretary of the Navy. It also produced at least two Confederate congressmen and several signers of the S.C. Ordinance of Secession.

That latter bit is what makes the sign on a main street heading into town rather striking: “President Andrew Johnson Memorial Highway”.

Johnson, of course, served as the 17th president of the United States. Of particular note to denizens of Laurens and other Southerners, he was president during the first part of Reconstruction (1865-69), when Radical Republicans in Congress did their best to stick it to the South for the War Between the States.

At first glance, naming a road in the heart of South Carolina after a Reconstruction president seems akin to, oh, labeling the section of road between the German cities of Stuttgart and Munich the “Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau Memorial Autobahn”.

It should be noted that Johnson was by no means aligned with the Radical Republicans. He favored quick restoration of the seceded states to the Union. Unfortunately, his plans did not give protection to former slaves. He went so far as to veto the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave citizenship to former slaves, and got crosswise with the Republican-dominated Congress.

Andrew Johnson, with a face only a mother, but not a prospective mother-in-law, could love.

He was impeached by the House of Representatives and escaped conviction and removal from office by a single vote in the Senate. Without Congressional support, he accomplished little during his four years in office.

So why does Johnson, generally considered one of the worst, if not the worst president in U.S. history, and the man in charge of the Federal government directly after it defeated the Southern Confederacy, have a highway named for him in the South Carolina Upstate?

It turns out that Johnson, a native of North Carolina, operated a tailor shop in Laurens in the mid-1820s. He even courted a local “blue-eyed beauty,” a lass named Sarah Ward.

Johnson wanted to marry Ward, but according to legend, Ward’s widowed mother didn’t think a tailor was suitable for her daughter and nixed the match.

Once Johnson realized he had no chance of winning Ward’s hand, he returned first to Raleigh, N.C., where he’d been born, then moved west to Tennessee.

It was in Tennessee that he would eventually serve in the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and as governor before becoming Abraham Lincoln’s vice president for six weeks, until Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, thrusting Johnson into the presidency.

A resolution designating a stretch of road through Laurens as the “President Andrew Johnson Memorial Highway,” recognizing both his time in the town and his service to the people of the United States, was passed by the S.C. General Assembly in 2000.

Alas, I was unable to find any roads named for the widow Ward or any of her kin during my time in Laurens.

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When mapmaking was equal parts art and utility

train map

Some have the ability to recall precise swathes of knowledge from their schooling. I am not one of those individuals.

While I can recollect misdeeds, mishaps and the occasional bout of corporate punishment, there are very few specific bits of knowledge I can remember being imparted some 40-plus years after I began elementary school.

One nugget that I do clearly recall involved a second-grade social studies lesson detailing why movable objects such as cars and planes didn’t make the cut when cartographers create maps. They are, of course, impermanent and most likely wouldn’t be in the same place the next day, making them useless to individuals attempting to navigate based on landmarks shown on a map.

Apparently, this is a relatively new concept for mapmakers, as evidenced by the blog Trains in Towns, which highlights steam locomotives shown on old-time maps.

Evidently, detailing train tracks, a permanent landscape feature, wasn’t enough for cartographers of the 19th and early 20th century to demonstrate the existence of rail lines.

Many of the so-called “bird’s-eye” or panoramic maps of the era show steam locomotives chugging along, belching out smoke and pulling cars through towns and cities.

These maps often feature other transient objects, as well, including ships at anchor, horse-drawn carriages, people walking down dusty lanes and even animals frolicking in fields.

I’m partial to the bird’s eye map of Columbia, SC, from 1872, which is on display at the local library. It shows not only trains, but, among other transitory features, horses galloping around a local race track.

The mapmakers of the period were, it would seem, creating works which could serve artistic as well as utilitarian purposes.

(Top: 19th century bird’s-eye map of unidentified river town showing steam locomotive, riverboats and horses pulling carriages. Source: Trains in Towns.)

A 270-year-old church with one member

Cedar Creek Methodist Church 006

In the woods 18 miles north of Columbia, SC, sits an aging church, reported to have a congregation of but a single individual. Thieves have stolen the copper tubing from its air conditioning unit, making services throughout a good part of the year quite uncomfortable.

Yet, Cedar Creek Methodist Church, metaphorically speaking, soldiers on.

The church dates back to 1743, when it began as a German Reformed branch of Presbyterianism called the German Protestant Church of Appii Forum, and was one of 15 German churches in interior South Carolina.

The congregation met in a 16-foot-by-20-foot structure constructed of logs with a dirt floor.

The congregation is said to have been converted to Methodism in a single day by famed Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury shortly after the end of the American Revolution.

Asbury was one of the first two bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the US. A native of England, he was appointed a traveling preacher by none other than John Wesley at age 22.

In 1771 Asbury volunteered to travel to America. When the American Revolution began in 1775, Asbury was the only Methodist minister to remain in America.

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State paper resurrects old CN&L Railroad

In a curious corporate transaction that was apparently missed by railroad aficionados and everyone else except a few folks at The State newspaper, the old Columbia, Newberry and Laurens Railroad would seem to be back in service.

More than a quarter century after the historic line was formally merged into what became CSX Transportation, the CN&L has roared back to life, according to the Columbia publication.

A short story in Friday’s State reported that a 52-year-old bridge that “spans C.N. and L. Railroad” three miles northwest of Columbia topped this year’s list of South Carolina’s substandard bridges for the 10th time.

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