The Friends of the Aiken Railroad Depot is an organization that is concerned about the past, as well as the future. Its purpose is to support the operation of the Aiken Railroad Depot, a facility that preserves an important part of local history, while continuing to evolve and improve.
“Our most recent improvement was the refurbishment of the exterior of our caboose; we totally restored it on the outside,” said Tim Simmons, who is the Friends of the Depot's president. “In the year to come, we'll be working on the inside. The caboose won't just be something that can be looked at and learned from. People also will be able to use it for children's birthday parties, ice cream socials and things like that.”
Other plans call for the interior of the Railroad Depot's two dining cars to be renovated.
Located at 406 Park Ave. S.E., the Railroad Depot is a replica of the train station that was constructed in the late 1800s and later torn down. The new version opened in 2010 after more than 10 years of planning and fundraising. It is the home of the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum.
“Aiken is named after William Aiken, whose South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company built the railroad here,” Simmons said. “Engineers who worked for the railroad laid out the town's streets and parkways.”
The socialites who made up Aiken's Winter Colony traveled to South Carolina by rail in private cars, and they also used the railroad to transport their horses.
“They had a major impact on the community,” Simmons said.
The Railroad Depot's mezzanine has dioramas and other displays that tell the story of the close relationship between Aiken and the railroad.
“Anytime you have a facility that is for the benefit of all citizens, you need a citizens' group that has a special interest in it to make it more effective,” Simmons said.
The Friends of the Depot has approximately 30 board members, and the group's bylaws allow for up to 35. They are divided into various working committees.
“We handle the gift shop,” Simmons said. “We also help the City with events here. The most recent was National Train Day on May 10. We were involved in the storytelling, we organized train rides, and we sold hot dogs and cotton candy.”
In addition, “we have a construction committee that works with the City on designs for projects, and we provide volunteers to do some of the work,” Simmons said. “We also have an artifacts committee that determines how the wonderful items that are donated to us can be best utilized. We are very active.”
For more information about the Aiken Railroad Depot and the Friends of the Depot, call 803-293-7846 or visit www.aikenrailroaddepot.org.
Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard.