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Columbia: History


Located at the middle of South Carolina, the city of Columbia was carved out of the countryside by order of the state legislature, which wanted to establish a new capital more centrally situated than Charleston. By that time, the area had been important in the state's development for more than a century. Early settlers were mostly Scots-Irish, German, and English farmers who moved to the hills of northwestern South Carolina, having little in common with the wealthy planters of Charleston. "The Congarees," a frontier fort on the river's west bank, was the head of navigation on the Santee River system. In 1754 a ferry service was initiated to connect the fort with the settlement that was developing on the east bank's higher ground.

The new capital, named Columbia in honor of Christopher Columbus, was set on Taylor's Hill where the Broad and Saluda rivers merge to form the Congaree River. The General Assembly moved to Columbia in 1791. History tells of a visit by George Washington during that year as part of his tour of South Carolina.

Development of America's First "Planned City"

One of the first planned cities in America, Columbia was laid out in a two-mile square surrounding the site of the State House. The city's streets, designed in a grid, were named for heroes of the Revolution and for the state's agricultural products, such as rice, wheat, blossom, and indigo.

By the early 1880s the town had become an agricultural center, and soon the state had become the leading cotton producer in the nation. The first textile mill was introduced in 1832, and saw mills, cotton gins, tanneries, carriage manufacturers, and iron foundries were soon to follow. With the establishment of steamship connections to the Congaree and Santee rivers, many of the city's cotton merchants handled shipments that earlier had moved overland to the port at Charleston. South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) was founded in 1801, and the ensuing close relationship between the college, the city, and the legislature endures to the present day.

By mid-century, the local economy was strengthened by growing accessibility to the eastern United States via the railroad. A distinctive style of architecture, known as Columbia Cottage, had emerged. To help assuage the often unpleasant summer heat, builders designed a structure to maximize the effect of natural breezes. The building featured a raised cottage with an enclosed basement above the ground, halls from front to back, windows that reached the floor, and ceilings often 15 feet high.

Civil War Brings Destruction

Columbia, with a population of 8,000, was the site of the First Secession Convention and was instrumental in establishing the Confederacy and keeping it supplied with uniforms, swords, cannonballs, and other supplies over the course of the Civil War. The city was destroyed by the fiery rampage of General William T. Sherman in 1865, which left almost everything in ruins except the university. Reconstruction was a time of great hardship, but by the 1890s the city finally reemerged as a center of agricultural commerce.

Major Fort Important to City

By 1900 large cotton mills had been built and nearly 9,000 people worked in the city's mill district. The period prior to World War I and until the Great Depression of the 1930s was one of prosperity. Trade was growing, banks and hospitals multiplied, and the city became the state's business center. East of the city the U.S. Army built Fort Jackson, presently one of the country's largest infantry training bases. Thanks to a diversified economy, the city survived the Great Depression without as much pain as some other areas of the country. Between 1940 and 1950 the population grew by more than one-third, in part due to Fort Jackson's role in the training of soldiers for World War II.

Economic and Social Progress Made Since Mid-Century

By the post-War 1950s, small and medium-sized factories were developing, and new industries such as electronics, military equipment, textiles, cameras, and structural steel further diversified the economy. During the period of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s, Mayor Lester Bates and a biracial committee of 60 citizens worked together to quietly and systematically encourage the desegregation of the city. By 1963 the university was integrated, and in 1964, 24 African American students entered previously all-white public schools.

The 1970s saw the creation of downtown's Main Street Mall and the completion of Riverbanks Zoological Park. In subsequent years Riverfront Park was developed, the Koger Center for Performing Arts opened, and new interstate highways made the city even more accessible regionally and nationally. Today, more people are moving to Columbia and its crime rate has fallen 25 percent. The city is making strides to revitalize old neighborhoods, improve its city center streetscapes and make the area's river system more accessible and enjoyable for its residents. Foreign investors are realizing the benefits of locating their manufacturing and production businesses to the area and Columbia is becoming a leading research and technology center of the region.

Historical Information: South Carolina (State) Department of Archives and History, Archives and History Center, 8301 Parklane Rd., Columbia, SC 29223; telephone (803) 896-6100. South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Museum Library, Columbia Mills Building, 301 Gervais Street, Columbia, SC 29214-0001; telephone (803)737-8095


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