A Brief History of Columbia
For nearly a century before the creation of Columbia by the General Assembly in 1786, the site of Columbia was important to the overall development of the state.
The Congarees, a frontier fort on the west bank of the Congaree River, was the head of navigation in the Santee River system. A ferry was established by the colonial government in 1754 to connect the fort with the growing settlements on the higher ground on the east bank.
State Senator John Lewis Gervais of Ninety Six introduced a bill that was approved by the legislature on March 22, 1786 to create a new state capital.
There was considerable argument over the name for the new city. One legislator insisted on the name Washington, but Columbia won out by a vote of 11-7 in the state Senate.
The commissioners designed a town of 400 Blocks in a two-mile square along the river. The blocks were divided into half-acre lots and sold to speculators and prospective residents. Buyers had to build a house at least 30 feet long and 18 feet wide within three years or face an annual 5 percent penalty.
The perimeter streets and two through streets were 150 feet wide. The remaining squares were divided by thoroughfares 100 feet wide. The width was determined by the belief that the dangerous and pesky mosquito could not fly more than 60 feet without dying of starvation along the way.
Columbians still enjoy most of the magnificent network of wide streets.
The commissioners comprised the local government until 1797 when a Commission of Streets and Markets was created by the General Assembly. Three main issues occupied most of their time: public drunkenness, gambling and poor sanitation.
As the second planned city in the United States, Columbia began to grow rapidly. Its population was nearing 1,000 shortly after the turn of the century.
Columbia received its first charter as a town in 1805. An intendent and six wardens would govern the town.
John Taylor was the first elected intendent. He later served in both houses of the General Assembly, both houses of Congress and eventually as governor of the state.
By 1816, there were 250 homes in the town and a population over 1,000.
The town's governing body was empowered to tax these citizens by up to 12 cents per $100 of property. An extra 5-cent levy could be charged to those who wished to be exempt from patrol duty. Additional taxes could be levied for ownership of a carriage, $5; a wagon, $3; and $4 for a mechanic's license.
For another $2 per year, a citizen could be come exempt from working on the streets. When the Legislature was in session, the town council constantly heard complaints about weeds and bushes growing in the streets.
One of the first municipal employees was the "Warner", someone who went through town warning citizens when it was their time to work on the public streets and roads.
In the early days of the town, every citizen was required to keep one fire bucket for each chimney in his house. Five small fire brigades were organized in 1816 with each male citizen expected to serve. Volunteer departments later replaced these brigades.
Policing the new town was also a hit and miss proposition in the early 1800's. The legislature has appointed a marshall who walked through the town twice a day. An official town guard was created in 1824. Citizens could buy an exemption from serving in the guard for $5.
Columbia became chartered in 1854, with an elected mayor and six aldermen. Two years later, they had a police force consisting of a full-time chief and nine patrolmen. The starting salary for the patrolmen was $16 per month.
Abram Blanding, the town's first school teacher and attorney, built Columbia's first waterworks. Pumping water with a steam engine to a wooden tank, water was carried by cast iron and lead pipes to the homes and businesses of the city.
The city purchased the system from Blanding at a third of his investment in 1835. As a tribute to Blanding, the town council later changed the name of Walnut Street to Blanding Street.
Growth continued, with the first annexations of the suburbs in 1870.
Columbia had no paved streets until 1908, when 17 blocks of Main Street were surfaced. There were, however, 115 publicly maintained street crossings at intersections to keep pedestrians from having to wade through a sea of mud between wooden sidewalks.
As an experiment, Washington Street was once paved with wooden blocks. This proved to be the source of much local amusement when they buckled and floated away during heavy rains. The blocks were replaced with asphalt paving in 1925.
The first paid firemen were hired in 1903. A car was purchased for the chief that same year, evidently the first vehicle owned by the city.
In 1934, the federal courthouse at Main and Laurel was purchased by the city, and in 1937, it officially became Columbia City Hall. Built of granite from nearby Winnsboro, Columbia City Hall is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Designed by Alfred Bult Mullett, President Ulysses S. Grant's federal architect, the building was completed in 1875. Mullet, best known for his design of the Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., had originally designed the building with a clock tower. Large cost overruns probably caused it to be left out.
Copies of Mullet's original drawings can be seen on the walls of City Hall alongside historic photos of Columbia's beginnings.