A History of Columbia, South Carolina


First Plan of Columbia - 1786

By 1785, bowing to increased pressure from the upcountry, the South Carolina Legislature decided to move the state's capital inland from Charleston. This process began officially on the 27th of January, 1785, when a petition from the inhabitants of the area between the Broad and Catawba rivers was presented to the South Carolina House of Representatives which read in part:

"Therefore your petitioners humbly pray, that the seat of government may be fixed as centrical as possible for the ease and convenience of the community at large . . ."

Following the request of this petition and numerous other similar ones, the General Assembly spent a year investigating the possibility of moving the capital of the new state to a more central location. Finally, on March 14, 1786, the House of Representatives accepted the report of the committee appointed to locate (as near as they could ascertain) the center of the state in order that the seat of government be moved there. Their conclusion was:

". . . that they have been very assiduous to accomplish the business they had in charge, that they examined and compared all the different maps of the state which they could possess themselves of, and are of opinion that the center of the state is included in the circle whose circumference strikes through the High Hills of Santee crosses Santee at the confluence of Congaree and Wataree rivers and crosses the Congaree River at the confluence of the Saludy & Broad River and diameter of which circle is thirty miles . . ."

Senator John Lewis Gervais had introduced a bill on March 6, 1786, to officially move the capital from Charleston to the center of the state. The exact location of the future capital was hotly debated; however, Senator Gervais and Representative Henry Pendleton finally carried the day with their suggestion of a site near Friday's Ferry on the Congaree River which included the plain of a hill then owned by Thomas and James Taylor. The Congaree River had always provided transportation to the upcountry, up to the rapids at the junction of the Broad and Saluda rivers. This location had proven to be a natural spot for a trading center as early as 1718 and the town of Granby had developed on the western shore of the Congaree River by 1748.

As part of an attempt to ridicule the upcountry wilderness settlers, Charlestonians suggested that the site be called, "Town of Refuge," but Gervais responded that he "hoped that the oppressed of every land might find a refuge under the wings of Columbia." The name Columbia finally prevailed, winning over its rival name, Washington, which had been suggested as a way to honor George Washington, by an 11-7 vote in the Senate. The General Assembly met in Columbia for the first time in January of 1790, in a temporary wooden State House. During the writing of the State Constitution of 1790, Charles C. Pinckney tried to have the capital moved back to Charleston; however, this attempt was defeated by a vote of 109-105, and Columbia became the permanent capital.

Columbia is a derivation of the Columbiad or having to do with Christopher Columbus, discoverer of America, which became a refuge for people fleeing persecution.

The Senate bill introduced by Gervais, on March 6, 1786, also authorized the General Assembly to elect commissioners who would lay off 650 acres of land in lots of one-half acres near Friday's Ferry on the land of James and Thomas Taylor. The House of Representatives then proceeded to the second reading of Senator Gervais' bill to "appoint commissioners to purchase land for the purpose of building a town," and another debate ensued.

The House added a stipulation which made the streets no less than sixty feet wide. Proposed on March 14, 1786 by Dr. John Budd of Charleston, the wide streets were thought to be of benefit in preventing the spread of diseases and fires, and were a wise precaution for a city situated in a warm climate. Dr. Budd also stated that no one could predict the future volume of street traffic, and wide streets would more easily accommodate such growth. Two other changes by the House placed the site of the new town "within two miles of the confluence of the Broad and Saludy (Saluda) rivers" and two miles square in place of 650 acres on Taylors Hill. The bill passed by a vote of 65 to 61.

The final bill, ratified on March 22, 1786, read that the commissioners were:

". . . authorized to and required to lay off a tract of land two miles square, near Friday's Ferry, on the Congaree River, including the plain of the hill whereon Thomas and James Taylor, Esquires, now reside, into lots of half an acre each, and the streets shall be of such dimensions, not less than 60 feet wide, as they shall think convenient and necessary, with two principal streets, running through the centre of town at right angles of one hundred and fifty feet wide; which said land shall be, and the same is declared to be, vested in said commissioners, and their lawful successors for the use of this state."

One important factor that has shaped the Columbia metropolitan area is the river system. The confluence of the Broad and Saluda rivers, flowing out of hilly terrain west and north of Columbia to form the meandering Congaree River, located in a flat terrain, is part of the expansive Santee River basin that drains central South Carolina. This river system provided Columbia with an important link with Charleston and made the area accessible for transportation of farm products. Ultimately, it made the Carolina midlands the state's center for trade, transportation, governmental affairs, cultural enhancement, manufacturing, and the home office of many businesses.

The village of Granby grew up beside Friday's Ferry about 1760. At the time of the Revolutionary War it was the most populous place on the Congaree River and one of the key points in the British defense. A strong house on high ground above the village was built and named Fort Granby. The capture of Fort Granby by the Patriot Lt. Col. Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee made the British position in central South Carolina untenable and helped to hasten the British evacuation. After the Revolutionary War, the town of Granby grew into a trading center for the present counties of Lexington, Newberry, and Saluda. It was the only important town between Camden and Augusta, and after 1800 it was also the terminus of the Santee Canal water transportation route. By 1796, three bridges had been built across the Congaree at Granby, and in 1796, it became the county seat of Lexington County.

When President George Washington visited the Columbia area, he was most favorably impressed by Granby and its citizens. He predicted that a great future lay ahead for the town of Granby, though he was not favorably impressed by Columbia itself. However, as the Capital City grew, merchants of Granby established businesses there. Columbia was free from the danger of floods and was less subject to disease and fevers. Eventually, the Granby court house was moved to the town of Lexington, and the old town sank into decay. Buildings were demolished or moved while others burned or rotted. Granby slowly disappeared. Several cemeteries and the Granby Monument are all that remain today.


Plan of the Town of Columbia - 1791


Columbia was one of the first planned cities in the United States. The Commissioners designed the new capital to be two miles square with two principle streets 150 feet wide. All the rest of the streets were 100 feet wide spaced ten streets per mile. These provisions called for 400 square blocks, each approximately four acres in size, to be divided into eight rectangular one-half acre lots. The State House was built at the intersection of the two principle streets, which were named Assembly and Senate in honor of the legislative bodies. All the north-south streets were actually laid out slightly northwest-southeast so they could run parallel to the Congaree River.

The remaining streets were named as follows - north-south streets east of Assembly Street were named for South Carolina Revolutionary War Generals: Richard Richardson, Thomas Sumter, Francis Marion, William Bull, Andrew Pickens, William Henderson, John Barnwell, Richard Winn, and Henry Laurens. Harden Street was the east boundary. Richardson Street was renamed Main Street, with the Capitol Complex now carrying the name Richardson Square, and Winn Street was changed to Gregg Street honoring Maxcy Gregg the Civil War hero. Going westward, toward the Congaree River parallel to Assembly, the streets were named for Continental Generals who fought in South Carolina: Horatio Gates, Benjamin Lincoln, Christopher Gadsden, Anthony Wayne, and Casimir Pulaski. The remaining north-south streets were named for Isaac Huger, Orho Williams, Mordecai Gist, Thomas Pinckney, and Owen Roberts. Gates Street subsequently was renamed Park Street. Pinckney and Roberts streets for the most part no longer exist, because of encroachment by the waterworks and other public buildings.

The east-west streets lying north of Senate were named for statesmen and heroes. Gervais was named for John Lewis Gervais the statesman, and Lady and Washington were named for General George Washington and his "lady," Martha Washington. Plain was named for the Taylor plantation "The Plain." Later it was changed to Hampton Street honoring General Wade Hampton, the Civil War commander. Taylor was named after Thomas and James Taylor, the original owners of the Columbia property. Walnut and Laurel carried tree names after the most commonly used native woods. Walnut was renamed Blanding in honor of Colonel Abraham Blanding, a civil engineer and lawyer who designed the first Columbia waterworks. Richland Street was named after another Taylor plantation. Richland County also carries this name. Lumber was named after the product of trees, probably in lieu of pine, the most commonly used wood at that time. Lumber Street was changed to Calhoun, honoring the eminent statesman and Vice President, John C. Calhoun. Upper Street, the upper boundary, was later renamed Elmwood Avenue for the Elm tree.

The east-west streets lying south of Senate Street were named as follows: Pendleton for Judge Henry Pendleton; Medium, Green, and Devine were named for citizens of the newly-formed town. Later, Medium was changed to College Street honoring the South Carolina College, and is now part of the University of South Carolina campus. In recent years Green street has been changed to Greene, honoring Nathanael Greene, the Revolutionary War hero. Devine was misspelled for years as D-i-v-i-n-e. Many thought that it was named for the cotton bloom considered 'divine' because of its critical importance to the early SC economy. The remaining east-west streets were named for well-known commodities. Blossom was named for the cotton bloom honoring the developing cotton industry. Wheat, Rice, Tobacco, and Indigo were named for important crops of that time. Today, Rice is taken up by railroad tracks. Indigo was changed to Catawba Street named after a native tree. Later, Indigo was renamed Whaley in honor of W. B. Smith Whaley, the industrialist who owned a number of cotton mills in the area. Lower Street was so named because it was the lower boundary of the town. It now carries the name Heyward in honor of Duncan Heyward, a former South Carolina Governor.

The War of 1812 demonstrated to American leaders the inadequacy of the nation's internal transportation system. John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina, strongly supported Henry Clay in his political drive to provide federally-funded internal improvements. But, even after the economic success of the Erie Canal launched the Canal Age, it was the states and not the federal government who funded most of these internal improvements. South Carolina was no exception. In 1818, South Carolina committed the equivalent of $1,900,000 toward improvement programs. One major project was the Columbia Canal which was begun in 1820 and completed in 1824. The canal was needed to overcome a total river fall of 34 feet. This drop in topography created rapids beginning two miles above the city and ending one mile below. The Columbia Canal was originally 3-1/8 miles long, beginning in the area between Lumber and Richland streets and ending across from Granby's Landing.

However, the Canal Age was short-lived. The growth of railroads soon made water transportation and the canal system obsolete. Although no longer a water trade route, the Columbia Canal eventually became used as a source of hydroelectricity. In 1891, the original canal was enlarged and extended several miles northward to increase its power-generating capacity. In 1893, the Columbia Mills Company selected a site beside the canal on Gervais Street to locate their duck cloth (coarse cotton) manufacturing plant. The powerhouse constructed at the canal supplied power for fourteen alternating-current motors within the mill. Manufacturing at the world's first electrically-operated mill began on June 11, 1895. The Columbia Mill later became Mt. Vernon Mill and is now the site of the South Carolina State Museum. The power plant built at the base of the Columbia Canal has generated electricity to make gun powder, run a grist mill, operate a state dispensary, pump water for Columbia, and even drive a sawmill. It has been in continuous operation since the 1890s providing electricity for Columbia. The plant is currently operated by the South Carolina Electric and Gas Company.

On December 17, 1860, the Secession Convention met in Columbia at the newly-constructed First Baptist Church on Hampton Street between Sumter and Marion Streets. Before adjournment, the most "ablest and dignified body of men" declared their intention to withdraw from the Union. Because of a case of Smallpox, the convention was moved to Charleston, where on December 20, 1860, they voted unanimously to secede making South Carolina the very first state to withdraw from the Union. When the news arrived in Columbia and other parts of the state, celebrations were held by hoisting palmetto flags, ringing church bells, firing cannons, lighting bonfires, and holding parades. On February 4, 1861, the Confederate States of America was created. Seven Southern states left the Union. The American Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter. Four more states seceded from the Union after the war began.

Columbia remained outside the war zone for almost the entire duration of the Civil War. Nevertheless, a military atmosphere pervaded the town because of its training academy, prisoner of war camps, Confederate offices, and army hospitals. The population of Columbia had soared from 8,000 to 20,000 during the war years, as many refugees came from Charleston and Georgia to find work. Goods manufactured in the midlands for the Confederate Army included cannon balls, swords, bayonets, silver-plated copper buttons, wool hats, leather shoes, tents, knapsacks, socks, yarn, and medicines. Confederate notes and bonds were printed in Columbia after the minting operation was moved from Richmond, Virginia. The building is still standing today at the northeast corner of Gervais and Huger Streets. In addition, the city became a safe depository for many public and private artifacts. Items such as the bells of St. Michael's church in Charleston, rare books from the Charleston Library, silver plated items, valuable papers, and bank funds were all sent to Columbia for safe keeping. Valuable possessions were sent from as far away as Georgia. Even large quantities of whisky had been shipped to Columbia by the Charleston merchants for safe storage.

Toward the close of the Civil War, Union General William T. Sherman made his infamous march through the South. As Sherman and his troops crossed South Carolina, they pillaged and destroyed mansions, homes, barns, fields, and forests. It was reported that huge columns of smoke and burnt chimneys marked his sixty mile wide path. When Sherman left Savannah, GA, most South Carolinians thought he would strike Charleston. Consequently, many citizens left Charleston for Columbia or sent their goods there for security reasons. Not until Sherman left Orangeburg in partial ruins on February 13th and turned his 20,000 troops and 250 wagons toward Columbia did most citizens realize that this city was his next target. By then all of the railway lines had been destroyed and there was no communication possible except by word of mouth. As he approached Columbia, the Congaree River Bridge was burned. The following excerpt is taken from Sherman's personal diary:

"Early next morning (February 16) the head of the column reached the bank of the Congaree opposite Columbia, but too late to save the fine bridge which spanned the river at that point. It was burned by the enemy. While waiting for the pontoons to come to the front, we could see people running about the streets of Columbia occasionally small bodies of cavalry, but no masses. A single gun of Captain De Gress' battery was firing at their cavalry squads, but I checked the firing, limiting him to a few shots at the unfinished state house walls, and a few shells at the railroad depot to scatter the people who were seen carrying away sacks of corn and meal that we needed. There was no white flag or manifestation of surrender."

In Sherman's diary the enemy he referred to was a group of South Carolinians defending their city. Today, six brass star markers on the South Carolina State House facade indicate the damage to the structure done by Captain De Gress' twenty-pound Parrot cannons in 1865. The shells were fired across the Congaree River from what is now West Columbia. The Congaree River at that time was too broad and swift for a safe crossing; Sherman ordered his troops to go north and cross the Saluda and Broad rivers, which were less treacherous. It is also reported that Sherman and his troops spent the night on an island close to the present site of the Riverbanks Zoo. Articles written by Henry A. Rogers, describe Sherman's stay in Columbia:

"On February 17, Sherman and his men entered Columbia and remained there three days destroying the great beauty of many fine town houses and public buildings. Controversy still reigns as to whether Sherman gave the order for the city to be burned or whether drunken soldiers did it out of wantoness of spirit. Nevertheless, the once magnificent and proud capital city of the first state to secede from the Union stood in ashes and shambles when the Union army departed on February 20."

Advised by Confederate General Wade Hampton, III, to surrender the city of Columbia, Mayor Thomas J. Goodwyn sent a message to General Sherman at 9:30 a.m. on the morning of February 17, 1865. At 10:00 a.m., Confederate General Beauregard and his staff rode northward out of Columbia. At the same time Mayor Goodwyn, riding in a carriage that bore a white flag, proceeded down Broad River Road to meet Sherman as he crossed the river. By 11 a.m., General Sherman, flanked by three of his generals, and leading the Fifteenth Corps, crossed the Broad River near the Saluda factory on a pontoon bridge and entered the city of Columbia.

Lingering behind his troops at Main Street and Elmwood Avenue, Confederate General Wade Hampton looked northward until he saw the mayor in his carriage carrying the white flag of surrender. The mayor was flanked by columns of Federal troops, approaching Columbia. Hampton then turned, with a feeling of sadness and false sense of assurance that the capital city of South Carolina was safe and secure, to ride eastward to join the Confederate troops as they rode out of Columbia. It was just before noon when the Federal troops began marching toward the Capitol on Main Street. Most of these troops bivouacked around the outskirts of Columbia, while General Sherman was escorted to the Duncan Blanton home on Senate Street.

As the Federal troops entered the city, whisky stores were reportedly broken into and kegs were opened on the streets. Plundering by both citizens and soldiers became rampant. General Hampton's Millwood and Sandhills homes were burned along with many other dwellings owned by prominent citizens. By sundown, fires began breaking out all over Columbia. A strong wind was whipping up a dust storm out of the northwest. In addition, pieces of cotton from broken bales blew like a snowstorm covering trees and shrubbery. Flames spread like a prairie fire over the downtown area of Columbia. Panic followed as buildings were engulfed in a holocaust. The streets of Columbia had turned into chaos. Of the 124 city blocks then occupied, 84 were burned to the ground.

To this day, the First Baptist Church is standing as a historic reminder of 18th Century architecture - illustrating columns, brickwork and interior decoration of the period.

A message received by Sherman on Friday morning, February 17, 1865, was a plea for protection from the Mother Superior of Ursuline Convent. In requesting special protection for the convent school and its girls, she informed Sherman that she had formerly taught at the school in Ohio where his daughter, Minnie, was a student. Sherman sent word to her that "we contemplate no destruction of any private property in Columbia." However, during the holocaust which followed, Ursuline Convent at the southeast corner of Main and Blanding Streets was destroyed. The nuns and their pupils fled to St. Peter's Catholic Cemetery on the southwest corner of Assembly and Taylor Streets, where they escaped the heat of the flames as they huddled by the tombstones on that cold winter night.

On Saturday, February 18th, the Mother Superior of Ursuline Convent made a second plea to General Sherman, this time for shelter and protection. He replied that they could stay in any home they wanted. She selected John S. Preston's (brother-in-law to Wade Hampton) home, which was built in 1818 for Ainsley Hall and his wife. Upon Hall's death in 1823, the house was purchased by Wade Hampton I, and became the townhouse for three generations of Wade Hamptons. Today it is known as the Hampton-Preston Mansion. As Sherman's troops left Columbia, the nuns and their pupils moved into this spacious antebellum house. They found the rooms inside the mansion in shambles and learned that the troops had planned to burn this mansion as they left Columbia. Thus the Mother Superior of Ursuline Convent is credited with saving this magnificent home from a devastating fire. Facing Blanding Avenue, the mansion sits on a four acre block bounded by Pickens, Laurel, and Henderson Streets. Today, the Hampton-Preston Mansion is held in public trust by the Richland County Historical Preservation Commission and open to the public for tours.

Another historic antebellum house that escaped the fires was the Robert Mills House on Blanding Avenue. It is situated on a four-acre block bounded by Blanding, Pickens, Taylor, and Henderson Streets and faces the Hampton-Preston Mansion. During Sherman's occupation of Columbia, the Robert Mills House was the Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Consequently, it was spared from destruction. The house takes its name from the famous federal architect Robert Mills, who designed the Washington Monument, the United States Treasury Building, and the Old Patent Office Building in Washington, DC. Columbia can boast of another Robert Mills building. Located on the South Carolina State Hospital grounds at Elmwood Avenue and Bull Street, the second Mills House served as a hospital during Sherman's invasion and therefore was spared from the fires. Both of these buildings have been restored to their original beauty and serve as a showcase for the architecture of the period.

Celia Mann was a slave in Charleston who purchased her freedom with money she earned as a midwife. Prior to the Civil War, she walked to Columbia and bought a cottage located on the northeast corner of Richland and Marion streets. She was residing there when Sherman marched through South Carolina, and the house was not burned. She lived to see the war end, but died a few years afterwards. Her family maintained ownership of the cottage until a grand niece sold it to the Columbia Housing Authority in 1970, under the condition that the house would be preserved and its history passed on to others. Today it is known as the Mann-Simons Cottage, is fully restored, and serves as a Museum for African American Culture.

Some ingenious ways were devised to preserve personal property as well as buildings. The owner of a bob-tailed horse, John A. Crawford, Esq., appreciated his horse highly. Although not a race horse, if any one attempted to pass this animal on the road, it would step out in a way that showed it could get over ground in a hurry. Realizing that Sherman's men were approaching, Crawford muffled his horse's hoofs and led the animal up the stairs to the second story of his dwelling, thereby foiling possible theft by robbers. The house still stands today on the southeast corner of Blanding and Bull streets.

After leaving Columbia, Sherman and his troops went to Winnsborough (Winnsboro) in Fairfield County, crossed the Wateree River at Rocky Mount in Chester County, and marched on toward Cheraw and then Bennettsville. By the time they crossed into North Carolina, the Federal troops under Sherman's command had destroyed and pillaged a sixty mile wide path all the way across the South Carolina.

During the early nineteenth century, many South Carolinians thought the state should be manufacturing more of its own cloth rather than selling so much of its cotton harvest to the New England states and Europe. But even by 1860, there were only three operating cotton mills in the state; only one of these was in Columbia. After the Civil War, entrepreneurs from the north, and from Europe, built many textile mills throughout the state, along with neighboring mill houses, stores, and schools.

The Olympia Mills section of Columbia, located just south of the historic district along the Congaree River, is an excellent example of a neighborhood that was almost completely dependent on the local mill for its economic livelihood. Mill sites were usually chosen based on proximity to a power source, whether water power or electricity, and access to transportation, primarily railroads. Mill villages often consisted of small lots with small houses crowded together, because the builders wanted to insure that everyone had quick and easy access to the mill, the school and churches, and the company store.

Mill villages as well as other local communities tended to retain their identity over the years even as the city of Columbia expanded around them. Because many people in mill villages were related to each other and knew their neighbors very well, these neighborhoods tended to remain as tight-knit communities with their own local flavor and customs. In recent years, the city limits of Columbia have expanded greatly and the metropolitan region now covers a large part of two counties, Richland and Lexington. As with most metropolitan areas, Columbia today is a composite of many different neighborhoods and customs, providing a diversity that enriches the city as a whole.

Elmwood Cemetery is bounded on the south side by Elmwood Avenue (Highways 126 & 76) and on the west side by the Columbia Canal. The original plot of ground now occupied by Elmwood Cemetery (once called Tickleberry) was thought to be haunted. It was not converted to a cemetery until 1852, when a child of a professor at the South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) became the first occupant. The cemetery filled up rapidly, as many bodies were transferred from other depositories.

The introduction of streetcars changed the face of Columbia. In 1886, the Columbia Street Railway Company, with a capital stock of $50,000, purchased six cars, and twenty-five to thirty horses. The first lines established began at the railroad station on Gervais Street. The total rail line extending from this point measured only four miles. A double track extended up Main Street to Laurel Street, where one track continued up Main Street to Elmwood then turned to go by the old Fairgrounds and the cemetery. The second track went out Laurel Street to Barnwell, then to Blanding, and then east to the Charlotte, Columbia, and Augusta Railroad depot. A branch from Laurel Street ran up Pickens Street to the state hospital. By 1888, only two years after the first cars ran, eight hundred passengers were using the street railroad every day.

Five years later, electric streetcars were introduced to the city. The line was extended from Blanding to Gregg and south to Taylor, then east to Heidt and south on Heidt to Gervais. The Gervais Street Branch was extended in 1895 to the Shandon Pavilion, near present-day Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. In addition, a new line ran off Elmwood south on Gadsden to Richland, where it turned east until it reached Main Street. One year later, the line from Shandon was extended northward on Harden to Gervais, then west along Gervais to Main, forming what became known as the "belt line." Riding along the belt line became a popular form of recreation, especially for children. Whenever the cars broke down, the superintendent of transportation took a horse and buggy along the route collecting the children and returning them to their homes.

Columbia, South Carolina - circa 1909

Over the next sixteen years, two important rail line stems were constructed extending off the belt line. A line from Scott's Alley (one block north of Elmwood) on Main ran to Hyatt's Park and by 1912 all the way to College Park. The other major stem ran from the Shandon Pavilion out Devine Street, then to Garners Ferry Road and finally to Camp Jackson in 1917. Although the electric streetcar lines produced significant changes to city life, by 1920 the street railway ceased to be a major means of transportation in the city as automobiles made their debut.



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