Exit signs from three Interstate highways direct 21st century vehicular traffic to the Palmetto State’s capital city. More than two and a half centuries ago, arrowheads dropped along the banks of the Congaree River pointed to the geographic center of territory the Lords Proprietors named South Carolina.
The state’s central seat of power, Columbia, is defined today by its three rivers as it was 225 years ago when John Gabriel Guignard first surveyed the peninsula-shaped tract at the meeting of the Congaree, Saluda and Broad Rivers. Among the first lucrative businesses established in the area were ferries to convey humans, livestock and goods across the confluence.
In addition to providing hydro-electric power, as the pervasive waters have since the 1890s, the rivers’ aesthetic today draws fishermen, canoeists and kayakers to the tannin-stained waters. Home dwellers, cyclists, walkers and runners share boardwalks meandering through riparian forests, gently cobbled into place by the River Alliance, formed in the mid-1990s to unlock the rivers’ potential for recreational enjoyment.
From the bridge traversing the Congaree River, sojourners can see the city’s original 1906 waterworks, and the first hydroelectric plant, its pump house still in place, now is a nostalgic feature of the city’s Riverfront Park.
Harnessed to power saw mills ripping timber for building materials, to mix with abundant clay deposits for bricks, and to grow an array of crops, reliable water access has proven Columbia’s location as capital city a wise choice.
South Carolina State House, 1860s Columbia’s Main Street, 1876
Since 1856, some iteration of the South Carolina State Fair has showcased outstanding examples of agrarian living in spirited but good-natured competitions. But from the Civil War forward, agriculture in the Columbia area has diminished in economic importance, in spite of rural and urban reliance upon crops for the family table. The 21st century is bearing witness to a renewed awareness of agriculture’s importance.
Just recently the General Assembly discussed serving up collards as the official state vegetable. Large farm and produce businesses stimulate the local economy, and the All-local Farmers’ Market, held Saturday mornings at 701 Whaley Street, provides independent farmers appreciative customers – with no middle man.
Recently, the long-awaited, much debated location of the South Carolina Department of Agriculture’s new farmers market – serving Columbia and all the Midlands – opened at 3483 Charleston Highway in West Columbia. As the farmers’ market location was being debated, City Roots – Columbia’s in-town sustainable farm situated on 2.75 acres along Airport Boulevard near Hamilton Owens Airport – began introducing the community to the century’s best growing practices. And, by leasing 5-foot by 12-foot growing plots, providing soil, compost and water for $20 a year, the City of Columbia is encouraging its citizenry to return to its agrarian roots.
While agriculture’s importance as a factor in Columbia’s economic equation has declined, three others have been stabilizing forces: government, education and military. Designed expressly as the state’s seat of government, Columbia has enjoyed consistent growth and economic reliability, starting with the General Assembly’s first Columbia meeting in 1790. Hotels and restaurants swelled when the legislature was in session, and provided accommodations and hospitality to other visitors when the halls of law were quiet.
South Carolina College, now the University of South Carolina, was chartered in 1801 and built on a 24-acre rectangle just east of the Capitol – and under its shadow – to unite the state, ideologically. Founders believed students studying and living together would bring about good order and harmony. The environment of learning created for the state’s flagship institution of higher education soon spawned others.
Third in Columbia’s successful compound for economic stability is the comprehensive contribution made by Fort Jackson. Since the groundwork for Columbia’s establishment was laid at nearby Fort Granby, the capital city’s military genealogy builds upon those origins of protection.
According to Ike McLeese, Columbia Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, Columbia first began building its reputation as a military-friendly community when Edwin Robertson traveled to Washington, D.C. to inform the War Department, later known as the Department of Defense, that a committee had purchased 1,200 acres east of the city for what they hoped would become a military base. Impressed with Columbia’s desire to become a military town, the U.S. Army began the development of Camp Jackson later that same year.
Ike, now serving his third term as civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army, explains, “Today Fort Jackson covers more than 52,000 acres and serves as the Army’s largest initial combat training facility, producing approximately 51 percent of the Army’s new soldiers and more than 70 percent of new female soldiers a year.”
Ike says the close working and mutually supportive relationship between Columbia and Fort Jackson has continued over the years, and Columbia continually is referred to as the most military-friendly community in the country.
The principles of the Chamber of Commerce date to a time when trade was synonymous with business in Columbia. When England’s Lords Proprietors sent John Lawson to explore upriver from Charleston, he reported vast evidence of promise along the banks, and as far into the forests as he could range.
That report from well over two centuries ago foreshadowed a report from London received in Columbia just recently. fDi Magazine, from the Financial Times Limited, has ranked Columbia third in its Best Small City category. Jim Gambrell, director of economic development for the City of Columbia, received the news as part of the revered international publication’s American Cities of the Future, a systematic rating of cities with the best prospects for inward investment, economic development and business expansion potential.
Growth has been a business builder from the beginning. Sawmills, brick kilns, stone quarries and ironworks segued into enterprises proffering hardware, blacksmithing, tack for horses and mules and seed to feed the burgeoning population. As frontier years gave way to civility, Columbia’s commercial landscape became dotted with real estate and insurance offices, cotton brokerage houses, as well as seed pressing establishments. Main Street hotels, theatres and restaurants began vanishing decades ago, but their resurgence is helping revitalize the commercial corridor. Harkening back to earlier mercantile days, the recent Main Street opening of Mast General Store is rejuvenating the corner on which Lourie’s Clothing Store thrived for nearly a century.
Columbia’s downtown, its wide Main Street punctuated by the State Capital complex, has been the pulse of the city’s business, civic and cultural life from the start. With the University of South Carolina campus just east of the State House and the Coliseum, Koger Center and Colonial Life Arena to the west, much of the city’s hospitality and entertainment occurs within these thoughtfully-planned blocks.
L to R: Robert Mills Historic Home, built in 1823, was for a time home to Columbia Thelogical Seminary, Columbia’s City Hall and Opera House, 1920s, South Carolina College’s Science Hall (now USC’s Longstreet Theatre), 1920
Just out Elmwood Avenue is Riverbanks Zoo, one of the nation’s top zoos. One million visitors a year visit to see the 2,000 or more animals in environments as close to their natural habitats as possible, from African plains to coral reefs. A short distance from Main Street, the Township Auditorium recently was restored to its 1930s grandeur, and once again, delighted audiences and welcoming touring shows.
The presence of downtown churches, from the late 1700s, has been a bellwether of civility and tolerance for Columbia. They began springing forth about the time Columbia as a frontier evolved into Columbia as a capital city. Their architectural contributions to our distinguished skyline may have inspired the city’s first skyscraper, today referred to as the Barringer Building.
A Madrid newspaperman visiting Columbia late last century noted that churches on nearly every Sumter Street corner each represent a different denomination. St. Peter’s Catholic Church is just a few blocks over on Assembly Street. Not just for Sundays, the urban roles assumed by these churches that have spawned other faith communities now include outreach programs, childcare and cultural offerings during the week.
And church sports leagues mirror the local friendly furor fans exhibit seasonally for their favorite teams. A climate for competition, dating back at least to 1801 when the legislature granted licenses for billiard tables, still envelops the city. Play on USC fields permeates games played throughout the city, at every level, from pro and semi-pro teams to Little League and T-Ball.
In fact, a hard, round ball became the icon for Columbia’s flash onto television and computer screens throughout the country in 2010 when the USC baseball team prevailed to become national champions. In recognition of such an accomplishment, the team’s flag flew briefly above the State House dome, manifesting the symbiotic relationship between the state capital, the University of South Carolina and the city that nurtures them all so proudly – Columbia.
- 1786 Columbia was established as the nation’s first truly planned capital city. It also was the first city named for Christopher Columbus, who is depicted in a bronze sculpture located in Riverfront Park.
- 1790 The first meeting of the General Assembly was held in the new state capital.
- 1791 George Washington stopped by on his tour of The South’s Revolutionary War sites.
- 1806 John Taylor was elected as Columbia’s first intendant.
- 1806 Benjamin Waring built what was believed to be the first paper mill in the nation, just above the old Congaree Bridge.
- 1824 The Columbia Canal was completed. It was one of several the state constructed to better link transportation and freight conveyance between the state’s geographic center and the Port of Charleston.
- 1825 Columbia’s first pageant marked the occasion of the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit.
- 1840 The first free-standing library building in the country was built. The South Caroliniana Library, an architectural gem designed by Robert Mills, was the anchor of South Carolina College’s (now The University of South Carolina) Horseshoe.
- 1855 E. J. Arthur was elected mayor in Columbia’s first civic election.1856 The first State Fair was held at the first fairgrounds, located in the Elmwood Park area.
- 1875 The first African American was appointed to serve on the South Carolina College faculty. Richard Greener had been Harvard’s first African American graduate.
- 1891 Reconstruction of the Columbia Canal, which was destroyed in 1865 by Gen. Sherman, was completed. It supplied hydroelectric power, allowing water-borne freight safe passage around shoals and rapids at the head of the Congaree River.
- 1891 First issue of The State newspaper was published.
- 1895 The first textile mill in the world powered by hydroelectricity was opened. The building is now the South Carolina State Museum’s largest artifact – and its home.
- 1899 The first movie shown in Columbia was shown at Merchants and Manufacturers’ Hall.
- 1900 On June 4, Columbians saw the first automobile driven on their city’s streets.
- 1903 The city’s first skyscraper was completed and occupied by builders National Loan and Exchange Bank.
- 1906 Elmwood Park was annexed into Columbia on Dec. 16, making it the first time the city’s original 1786 municipal boundaries were extended.
- 1910 On Dec. 7, the first airplane was seen flying in Columbia airspace. Students were allowed to miss school to crane their necks skyward and watch for the barnstorming avi-antics of Eugene B. Ely, flying under the auspices of Glenn Curtiss.
- 1917 J.E. Young, proprietor of a wholesale fruit and grocery establishment at 827 Gervais Street, bought the first $10,000 war bond. His business also was thought to have had the city’s first cold storage units.
- 1922 The city’s first traffic light was installed at the corner of Sumter and Hampton streets.
- 1923 The first known night flight over Columbia occurred. Paul Redfern celebrated July 4 by flying over what now is the State Fairgrounds with only lanterns to illuminate his landing strip.
- 1929 On Oct. 24, the first Big Thursday game was held between USC and Clemson. It also was Black Thursday, the day the stock market crashed.
- 1930s The Big Apple, which originated in Columbia at Fat Sam’s – formerly the House of Peace Synagogue – became a national dance craze.
- 1936 Delta Airlines flew its first air express flight from Owens Field (now Hamilton Owens Airport.)
- 1951 Columbia was named an All American City, in large measure for its implementation of a city manager form of government. The honor was bestowed again in 1964, a reflection of its peaceful integration.
- 1955 Miriam Stevenson became the first Columbian named Miss Universe.
- 1963 Robert Anderson, James Solomon and Henri Monteith registered as the University of South Carolina’s first African American students.
- 1994 Kimberly Aiken was the first Columbian named Miss America and the fifth African-American to win the crown.
- 2010 Columbia elected Steven Benjamin its first African American mayor.