The original South Carolina Constitution required the governor and other constitutional officers to stay in-state while in office, probably to make sure they did not run off with the state’s money. A popular destination for those in office during the 1800s was the Glenn Springs Hotel in Spartanburg County. The governor went to Glenn Springs for a month every year, and the resort became known as the Summer Governor’s Mansion.
The owners of the Glenn Springs Hotel scheduled annual events to honor the governor and to attract attention. A young woman from Abbeville described her trip to the Glenn Springs Governor’s Ball in 1847 when she was 16 years old. She and several other young women took three days to make the trip on a coach-carriage with high dickey seats and a place in the back for trunks that were filled with dresses. Her dress was made of white swiss muslin that was 5 yards wide. The banquet was served at midnight.
Columbia residents had many hotel and resort destination options during the 1800s, but only a few had the money and the time to travel. Unlike the one-week or two-week vacations we enjoy today, early travelers would load up the family carriage and leave for a season, mostly to resorts or their own second homes in South Carolina or the North Carolina mountains, but their challenge was how to get there.
Before railroads, people traveled by boat or by scheduled stagecoach or by hack (a carriage for hire). Those who lived near the water took ships to Rhode Island and New York for business or pleasure, or they took ships to England and France to study or to buy and sell goods. Those making long trips from Charleston to Columbia or from Columbia to Greenville required large stagecoaches that were pulled by four or six horses, and they generally traveled in “stages” to replace or rest the horses. Those stagecoaches were large enough to hold 10 passengers along with room on the top for the driver and luggage. Stagecoaches ran a regular route, usually back and forth every other day, and once trains were available, stagecoaches connected travelers from train depots to their destinations.
In 1860, a passenger recorded the details of his trip from Columbia to Glenn Springs in his journal. He took the train from Columbia at 7:30 a.m., changed trains in Alston (Peak, South Carolina), traveled to Unionville, ate dinner, then boarded a four-horse stagecoach that took him to the Glenn Springs Hotel. He arrived at 8 p.m., well shaken and stirred.
Travel by stagecoach was difficult. The coaches had no heat or air conditioning. Dust from the wheels and the horses covered everything in the coach, and after a heavy rain, roads were impassable. Passengers often had to get out to help push. If a stagecoach tried to push through a flooded stream, water would come into the carriage. One woman described a harrowing trip from Unionville to Glenn Springs; she constantly was fearful of the vehicle turning over or breaking an axle as the stagecoach wheels dipped into the pitted roads.
Railroads came to South Carolina in 1833 when Charleston persuaded the Legislature to fund the longest train track in the world from Charleston to Hamburg (North Augusta) to better compete with Savannah for cotton shipments. Within 10 years, train tracks connected Columbia to Charleston, where residents could more easily travel to the coast and from there go by ship to other destinations.
The success of the Charleston to Hamburg train route encouraged town governments and the South Carolina Legislature to start other train projects. By 1860 more than 1,000 miles of train tracks were laid in South Carolina. In addition to trains from Columbia to Charleston, tracks ran from Columbia to Augusta, Greenville, Walhalla, Laurens, Spartanburg, Charlotte, Camden, and Wilmington. Some trains carried passengers direct, such as the Charlotte to Jacksonville that went through Columbia, while others took passengers to a depot from where they would board another train to their ultimate destination, an early version of a transportation hub.
The Santee Canal opened in 1800, allowing river traffic from Columbia to Charleston by way of a 20-mile series of locks connecting the Santee River to the Cooper River. The arrival of trains put the Santee Canal out of business, and trains dominated South Carolina travel until the trains themselves were overtaken by the automobile in the early 1900s.
South Carolinians traveled to the North far more often before the Civil War than after. Before the war, Saratoga, New York, was an attractive destination. One South Carolinian who visited Saratoga in 1846 found 500 people staying there and 900 people eating dinner. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the increasing tension between Northerners and Southerners affected travel to resorts throughout the country.
The train system did not fare well during the Civil War. General Sherman’s troops destroyed train tracks as they passed through South Carolina by putting rails in the fire until they were soft enough to twist around trees, often referred to as Sherman’s neckties. Folks used the train to escape Sherman’s troops as he approached Columbia in February 1865, filling trains heading north on the Augusta to Charlotte line. After the war, the tracks that were not damaged were used to take Columbia war veterans to Glenn Springs and to Caesars Head to recover from their injuries.
The hotel on Caesars Head was built in 1850. The carriage trip up the mountain to the hotel was brutal, and some people traveling to Caesars Head stopped in Traveler’s Rest, 22 miles east, to rest before making the hard trip to the hotel.
From the end of the Civil War until 1900, hotels promoted themselves in newspaper advertisements in cities around the state, often emphasizing their proximity to train stations. In 1894, the owners of the Glenn Springs Hotel built a 12-mile train track spur from Spartanburg to Glenn Springs to capture as many customers as possible. Hotels often were promoted as health resorts, like the Greenbrier in West Virginia, then called the Old White Hotel, which opened in 1858. Guests from all parts of the South went to the Greenbrier, including John L. Manning who had been the governor of South Carolina from 1852 to 1854. On the Greenbrier campus is South Carolina Row, a series of cottages so named because of Governor Manning’s visits.
Every town in South Carolina had boarding houses for business travelers, and most larger towns had hotels and a few had luxury hotels that catered to travelers from Charleston and Columbia as well as visitors from the North. To improve the road system between North Carolina and South Carolina, the Poinsett Highway was completed in 1820, connecting Columbia to Saluda Mountain. The Poinsett Bridge, designed by Robert Mills, still exists. A length of 130 feet over Little Gap Creek, it is the oldest surviving bridge in the Southeastern United States. By 1828, another highway, the 75-mile long Buncombe Turnpike, connected the Poinsett Highway with Flat Rock, Hendersonville, and Asheville.
Flat Rock called itself the “Little Charleston of the Mountains.” Flat Rock thrived as a destination for the wealthy from Charleston and Columbia. The railroad arrived in 1879, a welcome relief for those who spent two days in a carriage from Greenville to Flat Rock. The Saluda Grade was the steepest standard gauge railroad in the United States. To get from Melrose, North Carolina, to Flat Rock, a “help engine” had to be attached to the rear of the train to help push the train up the Saluda Mountain Grade.
Chick Springs Hotel in Greenville was a mineral springs hotel in the Upstate that competed with Glenn Springs Hotel for guests. Both resorts had mineral springs that guests drank from to improve their health. Opening in 1840, Chick Springs was 5 miles east of the village of Greenville. Gov. John L. Manning stayed at Chick Springs while governor in 1853 and attended a dance in his honor.
The Highland Park Hotel in Aiken opened in 1870, and within four years, the hotel doubled its capacity to 350 guests. It was open from November to June each year, first serving visitors from South Carolina and later attracting wealthy Northerners who wintered in the area.
Spartanburg experienced rapid growth during the years after the Civil War. A total of 1,000 people lived in Spartanburg in 1870, and by 1890, the number grew to 7,000. Spartanburg became the hub of the Piedmont with trains passing through Spartanburg on the Atlanta to Charlotte line, on the Richmond to Danville line, and on the Port Royal to Western Carolina line. The Merchants Hotel in Spartanburg took advantage of this growth by opening in 1880 with 75 rooms lighted with gas.
Glenn Springs Hotel in Spartanburg County opened in 1835 but did not flourish until the train arrived in 1860, bringing guests from a distance, often 1,000 guests per season. Unlike the Highland Park Hotel in Aiken, the Glenn Springs Hotel was closed during the winter months and was open from May until October each year. Glenn Springs was a mineral springs hotel that heavily advertised the curative properties of the water as well as the social activities available at its luxury resort.
The Mansion House in Greenville was a popular resort hotel for wealthy planters traveling to Asheville. Built in 1824, the three-story brick hotel was located on Main Street. A barber shop was on the first floor, a bar and billiard parlor, and reading rooms. The hotel had 70 rooms and most had open fireplaces. By 1857, travelers could leave Columbia at 6 a.m. and arrive in Greenville at 4:30 p.m. after stopping 22 times at train depots along the way.
As popular as the South Carolina beaches are today, it is surprising there was little or no vacationing along the coast between the Civil War and 1900. The people who stayed in Myrtle Beach, Pawleys Island, or Litchfield were those whose families owned property. The only luxury hotel of any size on the coast was the New Brighton Hotel on Sullivan’s Island, a three-story hotel with 112 rooms on 11 acres that opened in 1884. The hotel was built by a man from Boston who welcomed guests from the South during the summer months and who tried to lure tourists from the North during the winter months. The hotel had a casino and a performance hall.
In Summerville, the Dorchester Hotel was completed a few years after the New Brighton Hotel. Finished in 1888, the four-story hotel featured a winter conservatory filled with exotic plants and ferns. The train took passengers from Charleston to Summerville in 35 minutes, and, of course, the train took guests from Columbia to Summerville as well.
Pleasure travel after the Civil War was train-based until automobiles became available after 1900. Some wealthy Columbia residents bought large tracts of land and built homes to hunt and to entertain friends. Wade Hampton II bought 450 acres in Cashiers Valley that later became High Hampton. Other residents preferred to stay at luxury hotels, returning every year. William Dunlap Simpson, South Carolina governor and chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court, was a frequent guest at the Glenn Springs Hotel in Spartanburg County.
Columbia always has benefited from its location in the middle of South Carolina, close to the coast and close to the mountains. This advantage was magnified in the late 1800s as roads and railroads were built and improved in South Carolina, often basing their routes on Columbia’s location. Residents of Columbia could go in any direction and find vacation options, just as we enjoy doing today.