The West Ashley Greenway: A Historic Thoroughfare turned Athletic Amenity

The West Ashley Greenway, which runs for eight miles through the heart of Saint Andrew’s Parish and greater West Ashley, is a free recreational amenity and one of the best kept secrets in the Charleston suburbs, boasting beautiful views, well maintained trails for jogging, walking, or cycling, and with an interesting backstory dating back centuries.

The Greenway shown on a Google map and on the Mill’s Atlas of Charleston District, 1825. Library of Congress.

The trail begins at South Windermere Shopping Center off of Folly Road near Wappoo Creek and continues to Johns Island past several subdivision and luxury apartment complexes- and some rural sites- between the Stono and Ashley Rivers, with several access points and places to park along the trail.

The Greenway runs on a linear trajectory that follows the former path of the Croghan’s Branch of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad, which chugged its way through the plantations of St. Andrew’s Parish that had already been in use for over a century by the antebellum steam era. According to historian H.A.M. Smith, Fenwick’s Point lay near the start of today’s trail at Wappoo Creek.  Oliver Jordan’s Creek and Colleton’s Creek framed Mrs. Woodward’s estate, and west of that was the large Bluff Plantation of the Lucas family. John Lucas came to St. Andrew’s from Antigua and later passed the plantation to his son George Lucas; whose daughter was the famed Eliza Lucas Pinckney who experimented with indigo production in the colonial era.  Godfrey’s plantation (also called Quarterman and Geddes Hall) was next, bounded by Littlebury, with Silk Hope Plantation at the John’s Island end of the today’s trail.

A turn of the century map by H.A.M. Smith showing the historic plantations in St. Andrews Parish.  The rail line/Greenway is shown in red.

The Atlantic Coastline Railroad was begun in the 1830s and became an important thoroughfare from Charleston to Savannah for steam powered rail engines and cars that carried passengers, livestock, cotton, and wholesale goods between the two southern cities.  During the American Civil War, the Charleston to Savannah line became an important logistical rail for the Confederacy, transporting civilians, troops, ammunition, and fuel for the war effort. Parts of the line were badly damaged by the Union forces, who recognized the strategic importance of rail shipping (historians often attribute the Confederate loss in part to the lack of standard gauge and widespread rail in the American South.)

An 1863 Union map showing the “C and S Rail” and the “Road to Savannah” (US 17), in relation to the Charleston peninsula. United States Coast Survey. Charleston Harbor and its approaches showing the positions of the Rebel batteries. [N.Y., J. Bien, lith, 1863] Library of Congress.

Joseph Taylor purchased and rebuilt the line in the late 1860s, and it was operated by Atlantic Coastline, CLX, and other companies to transport crops and livestock.  On each side of the rail line from St. Andrew’s Parish into Johns Island, passengers in the early twentieth century would have seen “acres upon acres” of “truck farm” produce- cabbages, potatoes, carrots, beats, and tomatoes.  A 1908 article described, “truck lands [that] lie along the shell road . . the facilities for shipping truck at St. Andrew’s are excellent, as a branch of the Coast Line, having Johns Island Station on the main line as its northern terminus, runs through this fine farming country to the Wappoo Bridge. On this track are located packing and shipping sheds at frequent intervals, and here the cars are loaded to their capacity and in charge of a shifting engine are conveyed to the main line, where the through freight trains are made and rushed through to New York without delay. Some of the planters in this section are Messrs Croghan, Voorhes and Ravenel.”

Walker, William A. Map of Charleston and its defences. [S.l, 1885] Library of Congress.

Seaboard Coast Rail took over the line but abandoned it in 1981, following the sad fate of so many other American lines in the late twentieth century. Following the successful “Rails to Trails” movement of converting disused rail lines into public parks and amenities (such as the Highline in New York City), Charleston decided to create the West Ashley Greenway. According to the City of Charleston’s Special Projects Coordinator Mathew Compton, “Charleston Water Systems (then CPW) acquired the property in 1984-85 for use as a utility corridor. The City of Charleston entered into lease discussions with them in 1988-89, and began work on the initial unpaved trail in late 1989. Our records show that the facility was opened for public use in 1990. The original intent was to leave the facility unpaved, but that limits the trail utilization to exercise only, omitting convenient commuter cycling use. The first paved segment was opened in 2007.” .  Sports fields and a historic marker for the ACL Croghan Rail line mark the beginning of the trail at Albemarle Road.  The Greenway continues west at South Windermere Shopping Center, which offers trail parking and several cafes and a pet shop to stock up before the trek.  The rail trail passes next through several new subdivisions including Byrnes Downs along the west side of US 17, which was once part of the Coburg Dairy Farm; “Bessie” the Coburg Cow in front of the Harris Teeter at Coburg Road is the best visual reminder of this stretch of West Ashley’s agricultural past. The dairy farm opened in the 1920s but later moved to a new facility further from the city, leaving the 1950s neon sign and famous cow behind as a landmark.

The subdivision plat for Byrnes Downs, showing ACLRR (Greenway) right of way passing through.

To the north of the Greenway, the West Ashley Bike Way begins in the Ashleyville neighborhood along the Ashley River, before continuing southwest past midcentury neighborhoods East Oak and West Oak Forests before terminating just above the longer rail trail Greenway at Wappoo Drive.

Higgins Pier, named for African American educator and community leader Leonard Higgins, marks the beginning of one the “blue trails” of the upper Greenway, which are designed for hikers on the trail to enjoy views of West Ashley’s many waterways.  The Bikeway does not currently connect to the longer original Greenway, but they nearly converge at Wappoo Drive before the Greenway continues for several more miles toward Johns Island.

The Greenway path alternates between asphalt paving and hard packed dirt and the whole length is well maintained for strollers, bicycles, and pedestrians traveling by foot. Past Farmfield Drive, the Greenway passes the Charleston Tennis Center (with restrooms for trail goers) and continues westerly through alongside new communities and marshes stemming from small tributary tidal creeks of the Stono River. There is additional parking and trail access at Carolina Bay Drive nearer the western end of the Greenway, which ends at McLeod Mill Road on Johns Island.  There are plans to continue the rail trail further onto the islands in the future.

Author: Christina Butler

Owner of Butler Preservation L.C., Professor of Historic Preservation at American College of the Building Arts, author of Lowcountry At High Tide (USC Press, 2020).