Richland County, South Carolina

Year Established

County Seat

Significance of County Name

Population (2020)



Perhaps for its Natural Asset:
Rich Land


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1735 / German Lutherans, English, Scots-Irish

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A History of Richland County

South Carolina State Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina

Richland County was probably named for its "rich land." The county was formed in 1785 as part of the large overarching Camden District. A small part of Richland County later went to Kershaw County in 1791. The county seat is Columbia, which is also the state capital. In 1786, the state legislature decided to move the capital from Charleston to a more-central location. A site was chosen in Richland County, which is in the geographic center of the state, and a new town was laid out. Columbia subsequently became not only the center of government but an important trade and manufacturing center.

Cotton from the surrounding plantations was shipped through Columbia and later manufactured into textiles there. Columbia is also known for its educational institutions, particularly the University of South Carolina, which was founded in 1802. General William Tecumseh Sherman captured Columbia towards the end of the American Civil War, and his troops burned the town on February 17, 1865. The U.S. Army returned on more friendly terms in 1917, when Fort Jackson was established. Confederate General, Governor, and U.S. Senator Wade Hampton, III (1818-1902) was a resident of Richland County, and President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) lived in Columbia as a boy.

Other prominent residents include artist William Harrison Scarborough (1812-1871), poets Henry Timrod (1829-1867) and James Dickey (1923-1997), civil rights leader Modjeska Monteith Simkins (1899-1992), religious leader Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1928-1996), and astronaut Charles Bolden.

Richland County, a 762-square-mile expanse of lowland, sand hills, and rolling countryside, is, in essence, the Palmetto State in miniature. Its varied terrain has, from time to time, produced all of the major crops associated with South Carolina throughout its long history, among them, indigo, tobacco, wheat, rice, and cotton; and for two centuries the region has been the stage for events and decisions that have shaped the lives of all South Carolinians.

Created in 1785, in response to inland demands for local government, Richland was named either for good soil found along its Congaree River or a plantation owned by Thomas Taylor, who might well be considered the father of this county. The following year, in an effort to find a more central meeting site, South Carolina's lawmakers decided to set up shop on the banks of the Congaree River, a highly innovative move.

The town thus created (Columbia) is the first instance in modern history of a functioning bureaucracy packing up and transferring its operations to a wilderness setting. Although Richland's original court house was built at Horrell Hill, a dozen miles east of present-day Columbia, by 1800 the little town of Columbia had become the center of county affairs, largely at the insistence of lawyers eager to do business at the new state capital.

Although village life outside of Columbia was rare during the first half of the nineteenth century, that community - thanks to the birth of the South Carolina College in 1801, and the beginnings of a rail network in 1842 - served well as the focus of social and commercial activity. By the eve of the American Civil War, Columbia (population 8,000) was the largest inland community in the Carolinas, making Richland County a regional crossroads of considerable importance.

In decades that followed, despite hard times, the county experienced modest growth as population rose from 23,000 in 1870 to 78,000 a half century later. However, the turbulent 1930s ushered in an era of rapid change as an agricultural community was transformed into a patchwork of suburbs, shopping centers, and industrial/commercial facilities designed to serve both a burgeoning metropolis and a growing state bureaucracy.

By 1980, Richland County was home to 270,000 people, and where there had been 3,200 farms fifty years earlier, there were now only 382. Thus in a very real sense, Richland County not only represents many facets of South Carolina's rich heritage, its recent past parallels that of scores of other communities throughout the United States whose citizens also must grapple with the opportunities and dilemmas presented by growth, expansion, and change.

Richland County of South Carolina, may have been given the name by reason of the lands along its rivers. It was organized in 1785. It is a great county of 751 square miles lying in the middle of the state, a little closer to the northern boundary than to the southern apex of the South Carolina triangle. The Wateree River bounds it to the east and the Congaree River to the southwest, while the Saluda and the Broad rivers, which form the Congaree at Columbia, cut through it northwest and north.

Nearly all kinds of South Carolina soils help to make Richland. The sand hills run through the county and divide it from a point near Columbia to the northeast. Red hill lands are in the north and northwest and wide valleys and swamps to the south and east. Thirty-five percent of the lands are of the Norfolk soil type, 14 percent Congaree first bottom, three percent Johnston first bottom, four percent Orangeburg, three percent Marlboro and 18 percent Georgeville. Anything and everything from the finest cotton to the finest peaches, berries, melons, grains, and grasses grow. In the swamps are noble timbers and for everything produced the growing city of Columbia, county seat and state capital, is an excellent market. From Columbia paved roads run in all directions, sand clay roads supplementing the system.

A century and a quarter ago, a planter of Richland, the first General Wade Hampton, produced 600 bags of cotton, weighing from 250 to 300 pounds, without fertilizer within six or seven miles of Columbia. That was a year or two after the invention of the cotton gin and this great planter was one of the first in the South to perceive its significance. Farmers of vision and enterprise have never failed the county. That part of Richland in the hills of "the Dutch Fork" between Broad and Saluda rivers is peopled by a race of small farmers who sustain themselves at home and set an example to others everywhere.

On a tract of some 2,400 acres owned by the state six miles north of Columbia one could see a field of 135 acres, sandy land, on which this year was growing a crop of 30 to 40 bushels of corn to the acre and it has produced annually since it was brought into cultivation after the clearing of the black jack timber about 20 years ago from 20 to 40 bushels an acre. This field is cultivated by the State Hospital and on similar sand hill land, also cultivated by the State Hospital, Dr. J. W. Parker, the superintendent, in 1857, gathered 359 bushels of corn on two acres, of which one acre gave 200 bushels and 12 quarts. A long time Dr. Parker's crop was a world record. The tract still produces mighty crops. The county has 230 crop-growing days.

The history of Richland is interwoven with the history of Columbia. The southern section of it contained extensive plantations whose owners dispensed the typical hospitality of the South in fine old houses in groves of oak and approached by avenues, some of which remain. Outside of Columbia are State Park on which is a part of the buildings of the State Hospital occupied by negro patients. Another section of this property is the hospital for tuberculosis patients maintained by the state, while in the hills west of the Broad River are two state reformatories, three miles apart, for youthful delinquents, one for colored boys and the other for white girls.

Twelve miles northeast of Columbia the Clemson College experiment station of central South Carolina is now beginning operations. It has a tract of more than 500 acres and is expected to be especially valuable as a center of instruction in the fruit growing to which the sand hills are so well adapted.

Other towns of the county besides Columbia are Arden, 924 inhabitants, and Eau Claire, 2,566, suburban to the capital; Eastover, 326; White Rock, 88.

The county has five accredited high schools, and 130 miles of railroads. The population of the county 1920, was 78,122, estimated 91,146 in 1925.

Columbia is headquarters of hydroelectric power developments and of these Richland County is the beneficiary. Power for factories may be had anywhere.

The climate is invigorating and the sand hills have been health resorts from the early days of the county's settlement. Whatever Camden, Aiken, or Southern Pines have in fresh and dry winter air to invite fugitives from biting northern temperatures the Richland sand hills offer.

Immediately above, published in "South Carolina: A Handbook," prepared by The Department of Agriculture, Commerce, and Industries and Clemson College, Columbia, South Carolina, 1927. In the Public Domain. [with minor edits]

Aerial View of South Carolina State Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina

Charles C. Wilson of Columbia, who was the last architect of the State House (the State Capitol Building), proclaimed South Carolina's State House "one of the most notable buildings of the world." Its Corinthian capitals, which had been designed by Major John R. Niernsee, were, said Wilson, "wonderful, nothing finer in France or Italy." The building was Niernsee's "life work." But his death prevented him from completing it, and subsequent architects departed from vital particulars of his plans.

Original Construction

The move toward construction began on December 15, 1851, when the State laid the cornerstone for a "Fire Proof Building" to house its records safely. In 1852, the General Assembly appropriated $50,000 to complete that building and to begin the next section for use as the "New State Capitol." P.H. Hammerskold was the project architect, but in May of 1854, the State dismissed him for "concealments and misrepresentations and general dereliction of duty."

On August 3, 1854, the State appointed Niernsee as architect. Niernsee examined Hammerskold's work and found it and the materials Hammerskold had used both defective and wholly unsuitable. The work was dismantled; the loss totaled $72,267.

On November 27, 1854, Governor John Laurence Manning recommended erecting a new State Capitol with north and south exposures at the intersection of Senate and Main (then Richardson) Streets. He thought that, "if change of location be made, in the end, perhaps it may not be a subject much to be regretted that delay and disaster attended the first efforts to construct a new Capitol for the commonwealth." The General Assembly acted on Governor Manning's recommendation, changed the site, and ordered a design with wings extending east and west.

Niernsee planned to complete the building in five years. By 1857, it rose to the top of the basement window-heads. On October 1, 1860, Niernsee reported that the structure had risen nearly sixty-six feet above the foot of the foundation and that the "absolute value of the work put into the building" was $1,240,063. "The Corinthian granite capitals, some 64," he said, were "being executed in a style and finish heretofore unequalled in that line."

Work on the new State House was suspended when Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's army destroyed Columbia on February 17, 1865. Shells from General Sherman's cannons, which were of light calibre, damaged the building only slightly, and brass markers were subsequently placed on the west and southwest walls of the building to show where the shots had landed. Ten were fired in all. Six "struck the western front," with little damage "except one which shattered the moulded windowsill and balusters of the 2nd window (from the northern end) of the Hall of the House of Representatives." Four struck the interior of the building.

More devastating was the fire that destroyed the old State House. Niernsee reported it cracked five "bells of St. Michael's Church, Charleston," which had been "sent up here some time ago" and "deposited under one of the sheds." It consumed the valuable State House library, offices, and workshops, a vast quantity of finished marble and rough material, estimated by Niernsee to be worth $700,000, and Niernsee's library of architectural and scientific books, engravings, and several thousand drawings, the result of his practice of twenty-five years. "These," said Niernsee, along with "one of the latest and best busts of Calhoun" and all the valuable detail State House drawings, contracts, and so forth, which had accumulated during Niernsee's ten years on the job, "were utterly swept away during that terrible night - an irreparable loss."

All that remained of Niernsee's drawings were several prints of a perspective view and one full-sized detail of a Corinthian capital. This perspective and evidence in the building itself, however, indicate Niernsee's concept of the completed structure. His plan did not contemplate a dome that looked anything like the dome on today's building. His was a lofty and finely proportioned tower, which rose one hundred eighty feet from the ground through the center of the building supported by piers and arches; it was "a rectangular lantern," somewhat pyramidal in outline, and thirty feet square at the base; its projected cost was $200,000.

Niernsee returned to Columbia to resume his work as architect of the State House in 1885, but he died on June 7th. He was succeeded by a former associate, J. Crawford Neilson, of Baltimore. On October 1, 1888, his son, Frank Niernsee, took over and worked largely on the interior until construction was again suspended, this time about 1891.

In 1900, Frank P. Milburn became architect. He hired the contracting firm of McIlvain and Unkefer, replaced the roof, and built the present dome and north and south porticos for about $175,000. Senator J. Q. Marshal of the State House Commission protested Milburn's appointment, however, and launched an investigation of the work. The investigation ended when the State brought suit against Milburn and his contractor, but the case ended in a mistrial and was not retried.

A joint legislative committee, after calling in Captain S.S. Hunt, the superintendent of construction of the United States Capitol, characterized the dome as infamous. "No uglier creation could be devised," it lamented, "and it is nothing short of a miserable fraud."

On April 8, 1904, the State elected Charles C. Wilson of Columbia as architect. Wilson worked on the terrace and steps of the north front and made sundry improvements to the interior. His work continued for several years and cost about $100,000.

Wilson, who admired Niernsee's design, described the style as "Roman Corinthian, with considerable freedom and distinguished originality in much of the detail. The workmanship of Maj. Niernsee's time," he said, "is exceptionally fine, indicating not only his great genius but the enthusiastic cooperation of mechanics of the highest skill and integrity... All credit for this noble and dignified building is due to the original designer and architect, Maj. John Niernsee. It is due him and to future generations of South Carolinians that it be protected from further departure from his design, and in good time, in the state's future prosperity, it is not too much to hope that it may yet be restored to his ideal."

Although all legislative records for the building are not available, those that are show the General Assembly appropriated at least $3,540,000 for its construction over the years. The granite for the structure, according to Alexander S. Salley, who wrote a history of the State House in the early twentieth century, came mostly from the Granby quarry, which was located about two miles south of the State House.

The Renovation

Inside and out, from foundation to dome, the State House, as a result of the 1995-98 renovation, is in better shape than ever before. The work balanced the need to meet modern code requirements and improved efficiency against a respect for historic form and appearance. Most visitors will never see the structural improvements, the sophisticated electrical wiring, alarm systems, or the state-of-the-art earthquake isolators that were installed. However, everyone will notice the renewal of the House and Senate chambers, the 19th century treatment of the lobby, the vaulted brickwork in the hallways of the lower floor, the restored marble floors and refurbished interior of the dome.

The Stevens and Wilkinson architectural firm of Columbia developed the renovation plan; Caddell Construction Co. Inc., of Montgomery, Alabama was the prime contractor for the project. The cost of the renovation was $51,530,000.


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