A History of Aiken, South Carolina

Aiken County Court House - Aiken, SC (2007)

Few cities have enjoyed as colorful and vibrant a history as Aiken. From its origins as a terminus for the "Longest Railroad in the World" to a period of popularity among the social elite for its horsing activities and climate, Aiken has never forgotten to pay tribute to its defining moments. Once called the "Sports Center of the South," Aiken, South Carolina is a special place - one of America's most interesting communities. A city of spacious parks, distinctive architecture, and civic pride, the old is harmoniously blended with the new, making it an ideal place to live, and the county seat of Aiken County, South Carolina.

Aiken's life began officially on December 19, 1835, the date of the town's charter. It was named for William Aiken, Sr., President of the South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Company, whose son later became governor of South Carolina. Between January of 1830 and October of 1833, William Aiken was instrumental in building what was then the longest railroad in the world, the Charleston & Hamburgh Railroad - 136 miles long - one terminal being Charleston, South Carolina and other Hamburgh, South Carolina - just opposite of Augusta, GA.

Prior to this event, what became the town Aiken was merely a " crossroads." This was the first effort in America to build a railroad expressly for locomotive power. The original train, known as the "Best Friend," was the first locomotive constructed for regular railroad service in the United States. The construction of the railroad was supervised by a young engineer from Boston, Alfred A. Dexter, who was also authorized to plan and make a plat for Aiken. This plat, dated September 24, 1834, provided for boulevards 150 feet wide, laid out in a checkerboard pattern with streets running north and south and avenues named for South Carolina counties running east and west. This first street map laid out the then proposed town as it exists today with wide streets and parkways planted with flowering trees and shrubs.

Aiken made little commercial progress until 1845, when William Gregg built nearby a village and the first cotton mill in the south. The mill and the town were called Graniteville because much of both were constructed from locally quarried granite. Gregg was convinced that the South's road to progress lay in industrial development and particularly in spinning and weaving her own cotton. The first cloth came off the looms in 1848 and since then the plant has operated continuously. Industry increased as kaolin mining was begun by Southern Porcelain Manufacturing Company in nearby Bath in 1856.

In February of 1865, near the end of the American Civil War, when Union General William Tecumseh Sherman entered South Carolina on his march toward Columbia, he sent a detachment of the Fifth United States Cavalry under the command of Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick to destroy the cotton mill at Graniteville. Confederate Major General Joseph Wheeler was ordered to oppose the raid. Click Here for more information on the Battle of Aiken, SC.

Even in its infancy, Aiken was known and recognized as a health resort. The town's beauty (and the railroad) brought the lowlanders. They came from Charleston and the coastal plantations to escape the summer heat and "noxious vapors" of the marshlands. As the years progressed many visitors of wealth and culture came to winter and established residences in Aiken. The Golden Era for the winter colony began in 1890s when Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Hitchcock began to lure their New York friends to the resort. They built magnificent homes and estates and brought with them their fine horses. The first horses provided the aristocratic sports of Polo and riding to the hounds. Many mementoes and relics of this era can be found at the Aiken County Museum and the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame.

Henderson House - Aiken, South Carolina

Polo was played in Aiken in 1882, six years after the game was introduced in the United States. In 1889, the Aiken Polo Club joined the United States Polo Association, becoming its tenth member and for many years Aiken was known as the Polo Center of the World. Today, polo is still played at Whitney Field, the site of the longest consecutive period of play on one field in the United States. Club Polo, interspersed with exciting medium goal tournaments, make Aiken's future secure in its second century of play. The horses fared so well in the mild winter climate that trainers congregated here to tone their steeds for the spring races. They still do. Almost every major race in the country has at least one Aiken-trained horse in it. Aiken's love for horses comes to a crest during Aiken's Triple Crown - three successive weekends of Harness Racing - Aiken Trails and the Aiken Steeplechase.

Building in Aiken continued through the prosperity of the twenties and into the depressed thirties. World War II slowed growth, but the leisurely pace and quiet atmosphere changed quite suddenly in the 1950s. Aiken began to experience it's most dramatic period of growth when the Atomic Energy Commission began construction of the Savannah River Plant on a nearby site of almost 200,000 acres. The plant was operated by E. I. DuPont de Nemours & Company for the U.S. Department of Energy for thirty-seven years. Today, Savannah River Site is operated by Savannah River Nuclear Solutions and employs about 6,000 people.

From this beginning, 65-70 manufacturing concerns have settled near the city, manufacturing a wide range of products. Supporting the industrial sector are many fine retail, commercial and service companies. Schools, churches, utilities, and businesses have expanded. A Technical College, specializing in the job needs of the Aiken area, and the regional campus of the University of South Carolina, a fully accredited four-year university, are located here. The center of medical care in Aiken is the HCA Aiken Regional Medical Centers, multi-million dollar hospital that was completed in 1976.

Recreational activities abound. The Recreation and Parks Department covers over two hundred acres of parks, playgrounds, athletic fields and courts. and indoor facilities open to the public. More than seventy instructional programs and special events are planned each year. In Aiken, golf rivals riding as the favorite sport. The Palmetto Golf Course, founded in 1893, is almost as old as golf in America. The Highland Park Country Club course was designed and opened in 1903. Other courses in the area include Midland Valley Country Club near Graniteville, Houndslake Country Club, Woodside Plantation (golf and country Club), and Cedar Creek (golf and country club). The city, enjoying a new wave of prosperity, continues to grow as employees of new industries and visitors appreciate our unique way of life and choose to make Aiken their home.

U.S. Post Office - Aiken, South Carolina

Established in Barnwell District (county), Aiken was granted a U.S. Post Office on September 9, 1834, and its first Postmaster was Mr. Thomas R. Roberts. In 1871, the town of Aiken was now in Aiken County. It has been in continuous operation ever since inception.

Click Here to view / download a 2011 map of Aiken & North Augusta, SC. Adobe PDF file - 16 pages. Fairly large file.

© 2019 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved