Columbia, south carolina new stories from old towns

Recently the travel bug struck again and I decided to check out that two hour radius for someplace new-to-me to explore. I travel south on Interstate 77 quite often to visit friends and family in Georgia and Florida, so I have passed Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, many times. Yet, I have never stopped farther off the interstate than a gas station or coffee shop right at the exit. I decided it was time to change that!

The city was founded in 1786 near the banks of the Congaree River, named for the Native American tribe that first lived in the area. As with any of the original colonies, South Carolina has a long and storied history, filled with ups and downs, so I knew that my first stop should be the South Carolina State Museum.

Interstate traffic was relatively light for a Saturday morning so I arrived before it opened.

Changing up my plans slightly I decided to stretch my legs and go for a walk along the Historic Columbia Canal at Riverfront Park. The canal was constructed in the 1820s by indentured Irish workers to connect towns in upstate South Carolina with the port of Charleston. Flowing into the Congaree River, boats could then travel down the Wateree River, across Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie, and down the Cooper River to Charleston.

The park was beautiful and filled with walkers, runners, fisherman, and even a bride having her bridal portrait taken. The paved trail runs for two and half miles but because of the growing humidity and my list of places to visit I didn’t wander far. The canal was eventually used to power the first electrically operated textile mill (which now houses the SC State Museum) and the city’s original waterworks and hydroelectric plant, which is still in operation. After crossing the canal I walked around the original plant building, which is open to the public and gives you a wonderful view of the Congaree.

After a refreshing walk I drove a few blocks to the South Carolina State Museum. There is an admission fee (free parking) but you more than get what you pay for. Housed in a former textile mill building it is four floors chock full with artifacts, information, and fun. Included with your ticket is a visit to the Boeing Observatory. With additional ticket purchases you can enjoy the Planetarium and 4-D Theater. I could have easily spent most of the day there but decided to go with a general admission ticket and wander through the exhibitions. I highly recommend starting on the top floor with the Cultural History exhibition and Boeing Observatory.

As a lifelong history buff this is where I spent the bulk of my time. The exhibitions take you from the time of the Native Americans to life in the mills. What I loved most was that it wasn’t just a bunch of text and objects in glass cases. There were quite a few life-size exhibits such as a Native American home, a replica of the C.S.S. Hunley submarine, a general store, one-room schoolhouse, and Standard Oil gas station complete with a 1922 Anderson Touring Car.

After a leisurely lunch I walked back to my car and continued exploring. My husband and I always look for local used bookstores anywhere we travel and since he couldn’t come with me this time I decided to find him a book. Across the Congaree River in West Columbia I wandered through Ed’s Editions. Their collection wasn’t as big as some stores I’ve visited but the prices were reasonable. I bought Cecil a copy of the African Queen by C.S. Forester, which the classic Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart movie is based on.

The Congaree River was calling my name so I walked down the street to the beautiful Gervais Street Bridge, which is “one of four open spandrel arch bridges of reinforced concrete in South Carolina.” Its construction was completed in 1928 and features cast iron light fixtures. Standing on the bridge I watched kayakers and tubers float by. Even with the traffic whizzing past me it was a peaceful place.

Having walked off lunch I drove back downtown to check out some unique public art. Unveiled in 2001, the world’s largest fire hydrant or “Busted Plug Plaza” was created by South Carolina artist Blue Sky. It’s almost 40 feet tall and was made to look like a truck had just knocked into it. Originally water sprayed up from the base but the pumps gradually failed and it is no longer a fountain.

Even with the overcast skies, I was hot and sweaty by this point and ready for some refreshing ice cream. Columbia’s downtown Main Street is very similar to Greenville’s in that there is a lot of tree cover and nice, wide sidewalks. It was quite busy but I managed to find a parking space and walked down to a local ice cream shop – Sweet Cream Company. Each ice cream flavor is handcrafted in store using unique flavors. I chose a scoop of chocolate and a scoop of lemon poppy seed. I was not disappointed! The ice cream was so creamy and flavorful – highly recommend a visit.

I was running out of time so I decided to save a visit to the Historic Columbia House Tours for next time and opted to walk around the stunning South Carolina State House for my last stop. The original State House was constructed of wood and opened not long after Columbia was named the state capital in 1786. It was eventually destroyed by fire.

Planning and construction for the current State House began in the 1850s but was disrupted by Union General William T. Sherman’s invasion of the state in 1865 during the Civil War. Everything was destroyed except for the foundation and exterior walls. According to the tour guide, “From 1867 to the mid-1880s, little work was done to complete the building other than to make it functional. A majority of the present interior décor was completed from 1885 to 1895. The dome, porticos and exterior steps were the last features added and the building was declared completed by 1907.”

With it being a Saturday I was unable to tour the interior but the grounds are always open to the public. The trees and landscaping are lovely and the grandiose building is quite something. There are monuments throughout the grounds, including one to those who fought in the Spanish-American War and one dedicated to the history of African Americans in the state.