The state capital of South Carolina did not officially exist until 1786. While the General Assembly didn’t create the settlement of Columbia until 1786, the area formed a key location in the then colonies for nearly 100 hundred years. The fort known as Congarees, located on the Congaree River’s western bank, provides navigable water to the Santee River system. Named for the Native American tribe, the Congarees, the fort received transportation to the main settlement when the colonial government established a ferry connecting the two.
Originally, the state capital consisted of 400 city blocks within two square miles. With each block divided into half-acre lots, the city quickly took shape and by the turn of the century, the population reached 1,000. The early city planners devised a way to create the lovely old town you see today, since it required the property owner to erect a home within three years that measured 30 feet in length and 18 feet in width. Without doing so, they incurred a five percent penalty for each year of no building.
The wide streets of Columbia owe their existence to the fallacy that the mosquito could not fly further than 60 feet. Most of the wide thoroughfares created still stand, including its perimeter and through streets of a width of 150 feet. Other streets in the city were cut to a width of 100 feet.
In 1805, Columbia became a town officially and by 1816, the rapidly developing town consisted of 250 homes. It took a few decades, but in 1854, Columbia elected its first mayor and aldermen. Two years later, it established its police force, but the city did not establish its fire department until 1903. Until then, every resident had to own a water bucket specifically for use toting water to put out fires.
Despite their width, the streets in Columbia didn’t get paved until 1908. The city started paving at least 17 blocks of Main Street. At one point, city officials tried a decorative look for paving Washington Street. They used blocks of wood that buckled and floated away during each of the city’s many rainstorms. In 1925, they admitted defeat and simply paved the street using asphalt.
You can find Columbia City Hall on the National Register of Historic Places. Originally constructed in 1875, architect Alfred Bult Mullett designed the building. Original plans called for a clock tower, but budget shortfalls caused its elimination. The city purchased it in 1934. At the time, it served as the federal courthouse, but became the city hall building in 1937.
When you visit SC, you might wonder why so few buildings remain from their historical beginnings as one of the initial 13 colonies. During the Civil War, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman led his troops through the Deep South, burning all that he saw. On February 17, 1865, Sherman and his forces reached Columbia, SC, and burned and ransacked the city. Few of the original state or religious buildings survived for this reason. Sherman only spared the First Baptist Church.
City residents fought to stave off his progress. The Confederate armed forces even burned the bridge leading to the city in an attempt to keep its residents safe. Sherman’s 60,000 troops felled trees, built pontoon bridges, and waded through creeks and swamps to reach the city, which he shelled while building the makeshift bridges.
Sherman undertook his siege on civilian buildings in an effort to punish the state’s residents. South Carolina had been the first state to secede, and the general took special glee in destroying its state capital. He explained that he felt the war would end more quickly if civilians felt the brunt of its fury. Only one-third of the Southern city survived his gory wake. Residents evacuated as best they could to try to find a makeshift home he and his troops had not already destroyed.
When you visit The State House building, look for bronze stars that cover it. They were placed over each pockmark created when Sherman shelled the city with artillery rounds. The granite of the building took on gouges where hit but survived his rampage. Today, it stands as a testament to new beginnings.
While in this fair Deep South city, also visit its newer sites of interest, such as the South Carolina State Museum; the University of South Carolina, established in 1801; the South Caroliniana Library; the Columbia Canal; Riverfront Park; the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum; the African-American History Monument; and McKissick Museum. Also, visit its zoo for a fun outdoor day.