In the 1850s, when the first railroad line opened through what is now the city of Florence, it could be quite an adventure riding a train into, out of or through the new village.
Early on, there were few if any luxuries aboard the trains, so for a real meal or a fairly comfortable place to sleep, one had to leave the train and find it among the few service-related establishments in the tiny village. So having a supper stop in Florence was no surprise.
But consider this experience. In 1860, about the time the Civil War got well underway, a train headed from Charleston to Cheraw made a supper break in Florence. The passengers got off the train and dined at one of the tiny village’s establishments. Then the conductors herded them back onto the train, only to find that the engineer was missing. According to Wayne King’s history of Florence County, a “torchlight search” set out to find the missing train driver. They found him. Yep. They found him asleep on a log with a heavy dose of alcohol in him.
Still, they put him at the controls of the locomotive and apparently made it to Cheraw all right, although they were an hour late. I guess considering the fact that the tracks would keep the train under control, the only real danger was that he would run through the station, but apparently that didn’t happen.
The train changes were not all convenient. The village’s schedule from Cheraw to Marion required passengers to spend eight hours in Florence waiting to change to a train to Marion. One passenger in 1860 spent his eight hours firing a rifle near the station. That would sound shocking to many, but there might be some politically inclined here who would defend a passenger’s right to use a rifle around the train station today.
In another case, visitors were accused of stealing corn and were placed aboard a train for Augusta by a furious party of Florentines. They were promised 29 lashes if they returned to Florence, which I would guess they did not do.
One well-remembered arrival in Florence was that of Joshua H. Hudson, who was traveling to a teaching job in Bennettsville. He detrained in Florence and wrote a description of the area around the Florence station, which then was at the crossing of Hoffmeyer Road, as skimpy. Ironically enough, later after having read law and become a circuit judge, Hudson was the main speaker at the new courthouse dedication when the new Florence County was formed. Shortly after Hudson’s arrival, the station had been moved to its later Front and Church location.
As in other wars, little to no shooting was heard in Florence, but in the Civil War as in others, Florentines were reminded of the war by trains carrying military equipment, and soldiers passed through regularly during the war. I remember as a kid seeing numerous arms- and personnel-loaded trains come through during World War II.
Besides the troop trains, around the station Gen. Robert E. Lee could have been seen at least twice during the Civil War and once afterward. Lee was traveling from the Confederate capital at Richmond to Charleston to take command of the rebel forces in that area, then back to Richmond. In addition, Gen. U.S. Grant passed through. After the war, of course.
One story involving Lee was said to have happened either at the Florence station or Mars Bluff. Florence seems more likely. After the war, Lee was traveling back north on his last sizable journey when a train came from Wilmington, North Carolina, to meet him. A group of boys in Confederate uniforms lined up on the platform to play Confederate music. He failed to recognize them and went immediately to his Wil-mington train. Well, after all he had told Southerners their war was over and they should raise their children to be Americans rather than Southerners.
The junction became a target late in the war when Gen. William Sherman sent a unit of his invading army to Florence. It got here but was quickly run out by Confederate cavalry that appeared on a train. At that station, strange things could happen to an invading army or a friendly stranger.