A brief history of the town that would become West Columbia
By Paul Armstrong
Brookland town officials posed in front of municipal offices in 1937.
From The State, November 11, 1937, page B-1.
In the 1880s, a US Post Office was established in the small settlement west of the Congaree River that is now West Columbia. Though the area was known commonly as Brookland, the US Post Office Department decided to name it the New Brookland Post Office because there was already a Brookland Post Office. Michael H. Witt, who operated a store in the area, was named as postmaster on July 21, 1887.
Along with Witt’s store, there were several established businesses in the modestly populated area by the early 1890s. These included the Brookland Canning Factory, a butcher shop, a livery stable, and a hall for public entertainment, dances, plays, etc. There was also a park at the corner of Meeting and State Streets that had been donated to the community by John Guignard. In 1891, The State newspaper called Brookland, “the thriving little town across the river in Lexington County”. Significant growth, however, would soon come from a development on the opposite side of the river.
The Columbia Mills Company was formed in February 1893 and built the world’s first all-electrically powered textile mill near the west end of Gervais Street. The plant, which went into production in June 1894 and employed 300 people in the first year, was less than 500 feet from the only bridge over the Congaree River.
So, the Columbia Mills Company decided to build their mill village in Brookland. During 1893 and 1894 they constructed 40 houses for the mill employees to live. As was the custom at the time, families could occupy the houses rent-free as long as a certain number of family members were employed in the mill. The village was originally known as Aretasville in honor of the president of the Columbia Mills Company, Aretas Blood, but that moniker did not last long as the village soon became part of the incorporated town of Brookland.
Most of the Columbia Mills employees who lived in Brookland walked to and from work each day. To do so, they traversed a path of approximately one mile that included crossing the toll bridge over the Congaree River that had been built in 1872. This narrow roadway connected Meeting Street in Brookland to Gervais Street in Columbia and was the only bridge over the Congaree at the time. It was replaced in 1927 by the modern Gervais Street Bridge that is still in use today.
Photo taken circa 1900 shows the only bridge over the Congaree River from 1872 to 1927.Courtesy of the Richland County Library’s Bicentennial Photograph Collection
Although Brookland’s population grew considerably in the 1890s primarily due to the creation of the mill village, it remained a small town for the next five decades. Its population increased by an average of less than one percent annually during the first half of the twentieth century. The bustling city we know today as West Columbia is vastly different from the sleepy town of Brookland prior to the explosive growth of Columbia’s suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. The Brookland of the 1930s had less than three residents for every 100 Columbians whereas there are now more than 13 West Columbians per 100 Columbia residents.
Incorporation, First Mayor, Etc.
The growth spurred by the mill village led to a need for municipal organization. So, in December 1894, the Town of Brookland was incorporated by act of the state legislature and the first municipal elections were held on February 2, 1895. The citizens elected Michael H. Witt as their first intendant (mayor) by a vote of 54 to 18 over Edward W. Shull.
Newspaper article headlines about Brookland’s first municipal election.
From The State, February 3, 1895, page 5
The town was chartered by the state as Brookland although its post office was still officially the New Brookland Post Office. Many people referred to the town as New Brookland and many references to it under that name can be found in the newspapers, city directories, etc., even though it was officially Brookland. The town was re-chartered as a city in 1911 and was classed with municipalities having between 1,000 to 5,000 inhabitants.
The first town hall was located on Center Street near State Street and was replaced in 1925 by a new building which is still standing at 430 Center Street. It served as city hall, firehouse, and jail. As municipal services expanded, a building at 103-109 State Street was also used for city offices.
Brookland City Hall and Firehouse Building on Center Street built in 1925
In its first two decades as an incorporated town, Brookland was plagued with many multi-structure fires. Two of these blazes, on October 2, 1895 and February 26, 1906, each destroyed 11 buildings and damaged several others.
But the worst fire occurred on the evening of March 4, 1905 and nearly wiped out the town. This disastrous fire destroyed at least 47 buildings, including the US Post Office, Brookland Baptist Church, 31 residences, 11 businesses, and three halls used by fraternal organizations. Of the 31 residences that burned, 15 were mill village houses belonging to the Columbia Mills.
Brookland Develops and Becomes West Columbia
But with each fire, Brookland would bounce back and rebuild. And as the decades went by, it developed into a thriving municipality with vigorous business, educational, church, and leisure aspects of life. By the 1930s there were quite a few strong business concerns in Brookland such as Roof Basket Works, Stein King Beer Company, Brookland Ice and Fuel, Hite’s Sign Company, Lexington Building & Loan, and Thompson Funeral Home. The Brookland-Cayce school system provided a proficient first-through-eleventh grade education and there were churches of practically every major denomination.
Brookland also came to associate more and more with its larger neighbor across the river. Its residents often went to Columbia for shopping and entertainment and over 50% of them worked in the capital city. By the mid-1930s, a sentiment was growing to change the city’s name to West Columbia to reflect this relationship. In 1937, Brookland officials decided to petition the state legislature for a name change. As a result, an act changing the name of Brookland to West Columbia passed both houses of the General Assembly. It became law on April 21, 1938 after being signed by Governor Olin D. Johnston.
- “A Lively Race”. The State, Columbia, SC, January 19, 1895, page 5.
- Ancestry.com. Appointments of U. S. Postmasters, 1832-1971 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010, page 197. https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/1932/ (accessed April 19, 2020)
- “Brookland Across the Bridge.” The State, Columbia, SC, March 11, 1891, page 9.
- “Brookland Elections.” The State, Columbia, SC, May 14, 1899, page 2.
- “Brookland Fights Fire Fiend Again.” The State, Columbia, SC, February 27, 1906, page 1.
- “Brookland Gets Charter.” The State, Columbia, SC, September 26, 1911, page 1.
- “Brookland Has a Second Destructive Fire.” The State, Columbia, SC, April 13, 1898, page 8.
- “Brookland’s Election.” The State, Columbia, SC, January 31, 1895, page 8.
- “Brookland’s Mails.” The State, Columbia, SC, December 25, 1891, page 8.
- “Columbia’s Neighbor Across the Congaree River.” The State, Columbia, SC, January 29, 1922, page 3.
- Douglas, C. M. The Columbia City Directory, 1895. Columbia, SC: The State Company, 1895.
- “Half of Brookland Consumed by Fire.” The State, Columbia, SC, March 5, 1905, page 1.
- Hill’s Columbia City Directory, 1938. Richmond, VA: Hill Directory Company, 1938.
- “Industries of Columbia.” The State, Columbia, SC, June 4, 1895, page 1.
- “It’s an Electric Mill.” The State, Columbia, SC, June 3, 1894, page 2.
- “It’s Mayor Witt.” The State, Columbia, SC, February 3, 1895, page 5.
- “It’s West Columbia.” The State, Columbia, SC, April 22, 1938, page 2.
- “Mayor and Aldermen Selected by Columbia’s Thriving Suburb”. The State, Columbia, SC, May 15, 1900, page 2.
- Neumann, Caryn E. "Columbia Mills." South Carolina Encyclopedia, 2016. http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/columbia-mills/ (accessed April 19, 2020)
- “New Brookland and Cayce Thriving, Progressive Places.” The State, Columbia, SC, November 11, 1909, page 11.
- “New Brookland, Live, Progressive, and Growing.” The State, Columbia, SC, June 28, 1936, page 1-D.
- “New Brookland Visited by Fire.” The State, Columbia, SC, March 31, 1909, page 1.
- “No Mushroom About This.” The State, Columbia, SC, January 22, 1894, page 8.
- “Notice of Opening Books of Subscription of the Columbia Mills Company.” The State, Columbia, SC, January 28, 1893, page 4.
- “The Brookland Fire Brought Large Loss.” The State, Columbia, SC, March 6, 1905, page 8.
- “The Cotton to the Canal.” The State, Columbia, SC, February 3, 1893, page 8.
- “The State’s Survey.” The State, Columbia, SC, April 25, 1894, page 4.
- United States Census Bureau. "Census of Population and Housing". https://www.census.gov/prod/www/decennial.html (accessed April 29, 2020).
- United States Census Bureau. "Population and Housing Unit Estimates". https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/popest/data/tables.2018.html (accessed April 29, 2020).
- “Will Make Cloth This Week.” The State, Columbia, SC, July 2, 1894, page 8.