Our Family Railroad.

The Smoak Tramway

The Branchville & Bowman RR 1890-mid-1920s) in Orangeburg County, SC got its start as the Smoak Tramway (chartered 1884) owned by E.T.R., John S. and D.W. Smoak. The tramway ran for 6 miles out of Branchville towards Bowman's Crossroads. It was operated as a logging railroad with locomotive and 5 logging cars. In 1890, E.T.R. Smoak partnered with Samuel Dibble to develop the B&B RR, a significant upgrade to the old tramway. At the time Dibble was also involved with the Bowman Land and Development Company with Hart Moss and Tom Raysor.

The Original Smoak Tramway began at the Smoak Lumber mill. The lumber mill was located on the corner of North Street and SC State Road S-38-655 on two lots in Branchville. The site spanned what is now S-38-655. One lot is now just woods and the other is part of the property once owned by one of E.T.R.’s grandsons, Oscar Wiles Smoak. Many of the houses in the area including Oscar Smoak’s old house and John Gary’s old house on Main St. (now owned by Alfred H. Smoak of Branchville) were built using lumber milled at the old sawmill. The same lumber was also used to build The Old Sardis Methodist Church. Today if one visits the old Sardis Church and looks inside, you can see faint footprints of some of the people, including E.T.R. Smoak that built the church on some of the ceiling planks. Some of those prints are E.T.R.’s.

According to the late John Gary Smoak, Sr., E.T.R.’s grandson, he remembered the tramway carrying logs and lumber to and from the mill. E.T.R. died at this mill while eating lunch. John Gary remembers riding in a wagon with his father, Andrew Nathaniel Smoak from their home (Alfred Smoak’s current home) down the dirt road (present day Calhoun St. and S-38-655) to the mill to carry E.T.R. Smoak his lunch and get some corn milled into grits at E.T.R.’s grits mill beside the saw mill. After the grits was ground Andrew and John Gary left the mill to return home. Before they got halfway home, a rider galloped toward Andrew’s house and intercepted Andrew and John Gary to tell them that E.T.R. had suffered a heart attack and died just a few minutes after they had left the mill. Andrew Nathaniel and John Gary Smoak, Sr. are buried in the old Sardis Methodist Church cemetery there in Branchville off of US 21 headed toward Orangeburg.

Today there are only a few old concrete foundations to denote where the lumber mill stood. There is no evidence of the grist mill remaining.

At its peak, the Smoak Tramway ran from the Smoak Lumber mill roughly on a track to what is now North Street eastward across what is now US 21, across the Bowman Branch highway. Still following North street, it ran into the woods crossing Pen Branch at the intersection of North St. and Ott St. (see note below re: John Gary Smoak accident) and back into a wooded area that was being logged out in the Four Holes Swamp area.

When the tramway was joined with the Branchville and Bowman Railroad, a spur was created for the tramway turning south, south west crossing what is now US 78 near the present Branchville Wood Products company on US 78 behind the Branchville Baptist Church. Part of the B&B right-of-way came directly through the landscape and garden store on US 78 just about ¼ miles from the US 21/US 78 junction.

Alfred Smoak tried to purchase the land where the store is presently located when he was mayor of Branchville. The family that owned the land did not want to sell. Later when the store purchased the land there was a lawsuit over a part of the land that was old B&B right-of-way. Someone felt that they owned the rights to the old B&B right-of-way and tried to block the sale. The suit failed and the store purchased the property.

The line then continued to the present rail line from Branchville to St. George, SC. Just before it got to the present rail line, the B&B turned east paralleling the Branchville to St. George line until it reached the Branchville Depot. Once it left the depot, the line continued across the present day US 21 and turned to parallel the track of what is now the rail line from Branchville to Orangeburg that runs parallel to the present Calhoun Street in Branchville. The line ran north until it ended near the end of present day Orange Street at Calhoun St.

E.T.R Smoak would stack lumber and logs next to the tracks along the tracks just across the street from the Smoak Mill where Oscar Smoak’s home stands now. The Railroad using the Branchville to Orangeburg line would pick up the logs and lumber for transport on their railcars. Other goods, local produce and other products were transported to the Branchville Depot and transferred to the railroad line there for shipment.

Note: In about 1923, John Gary Smoak, Sr. was swimming in Pen Branch where the Smoak Tramway crossed the branch. He dove into the water and hit his head on a submerged piling causing a severe head injury. He was rushed to the local doctor who said that he would not live unless he was transported to a hospital in Charleston. John Gary Sr.’s father, Andrew Nathaniel quickly arraigned for a locomotive and crew that was stopped in Branchville, based out of Augusta to transport John Gary Sr. to Charleston. Nathaniel paid for the trip but no one knows the cost. The late John Gary Smoak, Jr. had said he remembered the men placing his father on a black, leather covered day bed, placing him on the train and going to Charleston. John Gary Jr. remembered telling the men to not put his father on a “black” bed to carry him to the hospital. John Gary Sr, of course, survived.

This information is based on information from Joe Bartolini's website, Joe's SC Railroads Research Page and direct conversations with the late John Gary Smoak, Sr. and John Gary Smoak, Jr. before their death and Alfred H. Smoak, 84, on 26 Feb 2011 in Branchville, SC. - Ronald A. Smoak, Canton GA.