How did Columbia become the state capital? WIS Explains

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Published: Sep. 12, 2023 at 8:06 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Historians say virtually none of modern day Columbia would be what it is without the giant stone building in the middle of it all — the state house.

So, why Columbia? Why did early settlers choose this stretch of land?

“There was a lot of work to get to where we’re currently sitting,” State House Tour Office and Gift Shop Manager Becca Rhinehart said.

Centuries of work, really.

Columbia as we know it today is full of life with bustling businesses, higher education and the meeting ground for all things “South Carolina politics.”

It was all the result of a very tedious plan.

“Columbia is the nation’s very first planned state capitol,” Rhinehart explained. “So, from its origins to the execution of the planning, this was the first of its kind in America.”

Planned, meaning nearly every decision about the new city’s layout revolved around the state house.

Columbia was comprised of roughly 40 streets with each one named with purpose.

“Columbia was outlined as a two mile square. we have our wonderful city blocks, we can still navigate today, and the state house was in the center of it,” Rhinehart said. “We’ve kept the bulk of our street names since the origins, our north-south streets were named after people and the east-west were named after imports. So, there would have been things like blossom lumber, that sort of thing.”

Whaley Street was originally named “Indigo” Street after South Carolina’s second most important export crop in the eighteenth century.

Other examples are Laurel Street, named after laurel plants, and Blossom Street named after cotton blossoms.

Today, you’ll notice Washington Street is adjacent to Lady Street.

Washington Street was named after future president George Washington and Lady Street, after First Lady Martha Washington.

“They had planned for growth of their brand new capital,” Rhinehart said.

Yes, she said brand new capital — meaning Columbia wasn’t the original. So how did we get here?

We have to go back to the colonial times before S.C. was even an official state.

“Really, you would want to go back to the 1660s,” Historian, S.C. Department of Archives and History Dr. Edwin Breeden said.

In 1660, after years of civil war in England, Charles III re-claimed the thrown.

In exchange for their loyalty, the new king gifted a plot of land to eight noble men known as “the Lords proprietors.”

They called the land “Carolina” — a word taken from the Latin word “Charles or Carolus” — honoring King Charles.

To profit off their new land, the men created a government.

“The city of Charleston, or as it was originally known, Charles Town, was founded. and when it was established, it was the capital of a new English colony called Carolina,” Breeden said.

Charleston was the first settlement in the colony of Carolina and the first capitol up until the late 1700s.

Tt was here that Carolinians would take care of administrative duties — such as filing property deeds or making laws — but it wasn’t perfect.

“With the colony encompassing that large of an area. distance was one of the biggest challenges,” Breeden said.

“Charleston was far away from pretty much everyone else in the state,” Rhinehart said. “So, from Greenville to Charleston in the 1700s was quite a long haul by horse.”

It would have taken a week to travel that far by horse and over double that for settlers traveling from what is now North Carolina.

Roughly 150,000 square miles of land governed by just one city.

“There was a recognition really, from very early in the in the colonies history that this was a very large area to manage,” Breeden said.

The decision was made in 1712 to split the swath of land into separate parts: N.C. and S.C.

Now the government in Charleston belonged to only S.C.

After years of protests, the capital was still not in the ideal place for everyone to have equal access.

Therefore, the general assembly sought out a centralized location.

“Some people called Columbia nothing more than a pine forest,” Rhinehart said.

In the early 1700s, historians say Columbia was considered the rural frontier — home to only a few plantations and trading posts — but it quickly became more than that.

“Columbia in the center of the state was chosen with this location, lot due to the river systems here,” Rhinehart said. So, to our west, we have the Congaree River that is made from the Saluda and Broad, and at that time, and the 1700s, that’s as far inland as the boats could go. So, coming from the coast, inland Columbia was the natural drop off point, because the rapids grew too strong, and the rivers are shallow. So, this was a really great point for trade and a central location.”

Columbia had not been officially established by this point. In 1786, the S.C. General Assembly voted to legislate the city into existence.

The empty land was sold to farmers and businesses.

“They took their drawings and plans of the city to charleston, and they would have been near the old exchange building, taking notes and trying to get people to move to Columbia,” Rhinehart said.

After years of recruiting and fundraising, the move from Charleston was officially underway.

The money cooped from selling plots of land was used to build the new state house.

It took three years to complete the new wood capital from 1786 to 1789, but during construction tragedy struck back in Charleston.

“The original state house in Charleston actually had a fire,” Rhinehart said. “Their senate chamber had a fireplace, it got a little out of control, and there goes the whole most of that building. They did rebuild, but they were already on their way to making that new capital in Columbia.”

For nearly a century, the young city thrived building its name as the “new” capital of S.C.

However, in 1865, Union General William T. Sherman and his 60-thousand troops stormed Columbia.

At the time, the fire-proof building, soon to be S.C.’s third state house, was under construction and consisted of basically four stone walls.

Sherman ordered his troops to shell the structure in hopes of destroying it.

“They were across the Congaree River and aiming for the side of our building,” Rhinehart said. “We would have been the tallest thing on the landscape, which made it a really great target.

Next to it, however, was the wooden capital.

On the night of Feb. 16, 1865, it was reduced to ash by Sherman and S.C. was once again left without a functioning state house.

“Through 52 years, we had six different architects, different stages, walls, roof ceiling interior, and by 1907, we have a finished state house,” Rhinehart said.

The colossal structure is comprised of fire-proof materials like bricks made from mud of the Congaree River and the state stone, blue granite, produced in a quarry just four miles from the state house.

In 1990, more than 100 seismic isolators were installed under the building making it earthquake resistant.

“They never could have imagined tour buses and so much rocks, but the city has grown well with us,” Rhinehart said.

A virtually indestructible building resembling the resilience of the Palmetto State and all part of the plan.

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