A Planned City
The first occupants of the area that became Columbia were a people called the Congaree. The Congaree were a group of Native Americans who lived along the Congaree River. In May 1540, a Spanish expedition led by Hernando de Soto pass through what is now Columbia while moving northward. The expedition produced the earliest written historical records of the area.
Columbia was an area of the state that set up the overall development of the state, as a fort was built on the west bank of the Congaree River, this was the start of a navigation route in the Santee River system. With the ferry being started by the colonial government in 1754, this connected the fort with the growing settlements on the higher ground on the east bank of the Congaree River
State Senator John Lewis Gervais who was from the town of Ninety Six introduced a bill that was ratified by the legislature on March 22, 1786, to establish a new state capital moving it from Charleston. There was a huge argument over the name for the new capital, one legislator insisted it be called “Washington”, but “Columbia” won by a vote of 11–7 in the state senate and the South Carolina General Assembly established the site of Columbia as the Capital of South Carolina.
The site was decided on due to its central location in the state. The State Legislature first met there in 1790. After remaining under the direct government of the legislature for the first two decades of its existence, Columbia was incorporated as a township in 1805 and then as a city in 1854.
Columbia received a big incentive to develop a direct water route to Charleston via the Santee Canal, the canal connected the Santee and Cooper rivers in a 22-mile-long section. It was first chartered in 1786 and finished in 1800, making it one of the earliest canals in the United States. The canal ceased operation around 1850 with expanded railroad traffic.
City officials designed a town of 400 blocks in a 2-mile square along the river. Each block was divided into lots of 0.5 acres and sold to speculators and potential residents. The Buyer was required to build their house at least 30 feet long and 18 feet wide within three years or face an annual 5% penalty. The perimeter streets and two through streets were 150 feet wide. The remaining squares were divided by main road 100 feet wide. The width was determined by the idea that either dangerous or annoying mosquitoes could not fly more than 60 feet without dying of starvation along the way. As the second planned city in the United States (Savannah, GA was first), Columbia began to grow rapidly.
By 1816, there were 250 homes in Columbia with a population of just over 1,000. The governing body of Columbia was allowed to tax property owners up to 12 cents per $100 of property, additionally taxes were imposed for ownership, a carriage was $5 and a wagon was $3 per year. One of the first public employees in Columbia was call a “Warner”, this person would go to each property owner’s home warning them that it was time to work on or clean the public streets. For $2 a year, a home owner could be exempt from working on the streets.
In the early days, every home owner was required to keep a fire bucket for every chimney they had in the home. Policing the city of Columbia was not easy in the early 1800’s, the legislature appointed a city marshal who would just walk through the city twice a day. In 1854 the city elect a mayor and two years later the city had a police force which consisted of a full-time police chief and nine deputies. Their starting pay was $16 a month.
Columbia did not get paved streets until 1908, 17 blacks on Main Street were paved. The city did try something different on Washington Street, Washington was paved with wooden blocks. This didn’t last especially when the wooden blocks began to buckle and some of the blocks floated away during heavy rains. These wooden blocks were replaced with asphalt in 1925.
An 1872 Map of Columbia
Columbia Past & Present