Historical marker stands as tribute to Rock Hill industry

A historical marker for the Rock Hill street railway and depots was unveiled Thursday.
A historical marker for the Rock Hill street railway and depots was unveiled Thursday.

Don Kent can't imagine his life without the railroad.

As a kid, he skipped school to watch trains. He spent 30 years, all but a few weeks in Rock Hill, toiling for the railroad. And when he's driving toward a crossing and sees the telltale lights flash, he'll slow down just to watch the train go by.

"The railroad gets in your blood," he said Thursday afternoon, standing near a historical marker that had just been unveiled, remembering Rock Hill's depots and street railway.

Kent was among a handful of railroad workers who showed up to the ceremony in the parking lot of Good Kia off Dave Lyle Boulevard. Many years ago, such an event wouldn't have been possible because of the passing trains and street cars.

Sitting where the city's first depot stood -- now the corner of Dave Lyle and White Street -- the marker is a fitting tribute to an industry that made the city what it is.

Built in 1851, the first depot was called "Rock Hill" because a hill was lowered to lay tracks.

Trains brought President Theodore Roosevelt through town, slowing as he waived to those who lined the tracks. President William Howard Taft also came here by train, stopping to give a speech at what was then Winthrop College.

Train wheels carried Eleanor Roosevelt to Rock Hill as well.

Locomotives and famous passengers are only part of the city's history.

"The men and women of the railroad really built this town," said Williams & Fudge CEO Gary Williams, speaking to a group that included former and current railroad employees.

In the crowd stood people such as Bob Brissie, who retired in 1994.

For 20 years, Brissie kept records and sent out bills alongside other railroad workers.

"Brings back a lot of memories," he said of Thursday's ceremony, minutes before the marker was unveiled.

Kent also was recalling his days on the railroad. Still a company man in his green Southern Railway baseball cap, he said many of the people who came to the railroad during his time stayed there.

When Southern Railway merged with the Norfolk & Western Railway in 1982, both of the city's rail lines became part of the Norfolk Southern Railway system.

"The people were always good to me with the railroad," Kent said. "We helped each other. It wasn't my job/your job."

When he thinks back on his best decisions, Kent ranks giving his life to God as No. 1, and marrying his wife and having children as No. 2.

And the railroad?

"This was three or four," he said.