by Tom Taylor
Eastern ghost towns are quite different from their western counterparts. Out west things are much further apart, so you can find towns that have been totally abandoned, where no one lives. In our part of the world the population density is much higher. While a town may have died out, there might still be an active community in the area. Another difference between eastern and western ghost towns is that eastern towns can be consumed by vegetation, making it difficult to spot them among the kudzu and other encroaching vines.
Such is the case with the ghost town of Chappells, located in the western part of Newberry County along the banks of the Saluda River. The town has long since gone, but there is still an active post office, and residents still claim a Chappells, South Carolina address. If you know where to look, though, you can still see remnants of the once thriving railroad town.
The history of Chappells predates the Revolutionary War. In the early 1700s, ownership of the land was in dispute until the 1755 Treaty of Saluda Old Town ceded Cherokee land “in the territory embraced by the present counties of Spartanburg, Cherokee west of Broad River, Union, Newberry, Laurens, Greenwood, Abbeville, McCormick, Edgefield, Saluda and a part of Aiken,” according to the historical mural painted located in Saluda, South Carolina.
Thomas Chappell lost no time in capitalizing on treaty. He settled on the north side of the river and was granted permission to operate a ferry across the Saluda River, connecting his land with the Culbreath Plantation on the other side of the river. The ferry became a popular route, and Thomas Chappell soon began operating a store on the north side of the river on his land. This was the first commercial building in the area.
In 1792 Chappell was granted permission to build a bridge across the river. Eight years later, this original bridge was destroyed, and Chappell went back to operating a ferry at that location. The area became known as “Chappell’s Ferry”, and is listed in Robert Mills’ Atlas of South Carolina as “Chaples.”
Other stores were established, and a post office began operation in 1820. The post office operated for just one year, but was reopened in 1830 and has been in continuous operation ever since. Thomas Chappell’s son John took over operation of the ferry and the store, and in 1838 constructed a new bridge across the river.
Things were looking up for the growing town. In 1852, the Greenville and Columbia Railroad came through, and the town soon became known as Chappells Depot. The thriving community had several stores and commerce was starting to take off when the first of several calamities struck. According to John Abney Chapman in his 1892 book the Annals of Newberry:
“Efforts have been made to make Chappell’s Depot, on the G. & C. R. R., a place of business, but with only moderate success. There are some stores there and considerable business is done. On the 19th of February, 1884, the great cyclone or tornado struck it and swept the whole concern away. Some persons were killed and others very seriously injured.”
The tornado of 1884 demolished all of the businesses as well as most of the residences. According to some reports, it toppled a train that was also at the depot at the time of the storm.
The town was rebuilt, though. Eventually there were several stores, a cotton gin, post office, and even a doctor and a bank in the area. A 2003 historical survey of Newberry County by the Palmetto Conservation Foundation describes the town as having “several stores and cotton brokerages, livery stable, butcher shop, bank, hotel, and the Chappell House,” which was a large house that served as a toll gate for both the ferry and the bridge. The report goes on to say that between 1880 and 1920 8,500 bales of cotton were shipped through the town annually.
Unfortunately, the area wasn’t done with disasters. Fires in the early part of the 1900’s destroyed some businesses, and other technological factors came into play as well. In his book The History of Newberry County, South Carolina: 1860-1990, Thomas Pope states that “the improved roads then being constructed proved to be the death knell of the little villages” in Newberry County. A 1926, Sanborn Insurance Map of the area indicates several places of business, as well as the depot. However, much of the area is listed as “vacant.”
The final blow came shortly after the Sanborn map was made. In 1928 a massive flood wiped out the bridge and covered the commercial district with ten feet of water, wiping out most of the remaining businesses. In 1929 the bank closed in the midst of the stock market crash. In 1931 Highway 39 was moved to the west and a new concrete and steel girder bridge was built over the river. The new bridge routed traffic off of the old Main Street, effectively bypassing the remaining businesses. Eventually all closed, leaving only the remnants seen today.
If you visit Chappells today you will find a convenience store and the post office on opposite corners of the intersection of Highways 34 and 39. An old elementary school just north of the intersection now serves as a community center. However, you want to see the old town, travel east on Highway 34 for about a block and look for “Old Main Street.”
Old Main no longer crosses the Saluda River, but ends at a cul-du-sac just before reaching the old railroad. Lining this street are brick remnants of the town’s commercial district. One building, a gas station, sports brick columns supporting a collapsing roof. Only walls remain of several other buildings. An old wooden church building stands further back in the woods, on the verge of collapse. The depot that once served the town and railroad is long gone.
These buildings are on private property, but can be viewed from Old Main Street. The best time to visit is during winter months, when leaves and vegetation are not there to obscure the buildings that once made up the proud town of Chappells.
Tom Taylor is a contributing writer for the South Carolina Heritage Corridor. A Laurens County native, he is a retired educator and school administrator who now resides in Greenville, SC with his wife Laura. Follow more of Tom's travels through his blog, Random Connections.