(Florence County; 2000 pop. 30,248). In the 1850s Florence emerged around the intersection of three railroads: the Wilmington and Manchester, the North Eastern, and the Cheraw and Darlington. William W. Harllee, president of the Wilmington and Manchester, named the town in honor of his daughter, Florence Henning Harllee. On March 9, 1871, the town of Florence was chartered by the state legislature, and the late nineteenth century saw substantial growth. The railroads, consolidated into the Atlantic Coastline Railroad in 1897 (later part of the Amtrak system), constituted the largest taxpayer in the area and helped attract new citizens. A waterworks system (completed in 1903) reduced the danger of fire, an opera house opened to provide entertainment, and newspapers were established. There were Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist, Methodist, and Roman Catholic churches, as well as a Jewish congregation and a large number of African American churches. In 1890 the General Assembly incorporated the city of Florence.
The railroad remained the backbone of the economy in Florence, and cotton was gradually replaced by bright leaf tobacco as the major cash crop of the region. The population of 3,395 in 1900 had more than tripled by 1920. Streets were paved, sewers expanded, and Timrod Park established for beauty and recreation. Downtown Florence expanded with the construction of a combination post office and federal court building in 1906 and the seven-story Trust Building in 1919. The Industrial School for Boys was established in Florence in 1906 (later converted to a residential facility for the mental health department), and Clemson College opened its Pee Dee Experimental Station in 1912. In 1923 a bridge over the Pee Dee River brought an increase of automobile traffic into the city, as did the construction of U.S. Highway 301. The citizens were proud of their growing town and noted with enthusiasm the establishment of the Florence Public Library (1903), the McLeod Infirmary (1934), and the Florence Museum (1939). During World War II, Florence was the site of an army air base. In 1958, at the height of the cold war, Florence was nearly the inadvertent target of an atom bomb that was accidentally dropped by a U.S. Air Force bomber. Fortunately, the warhead was not armed, but the explosion of the trigger device injured six people and left a sizable crater near the neighboring town of Mars Bluff.
The second half of the twentieth century witnessed further growth and progress. Florence claimed a symphony, a ballet, and the Florence Little Theater, which enjoyed a regional reputation. The city limits expanded and new business emerged to take the place of the declining railroads. The presence of several regionally known dental clinics gave Florence the nickname “Tooth City, U.S.A.”; by 1974 some 150,000 persons came to Florence annually for new teeth. DuPont, La-Z-Boy East, Nucor, ESAB Welding and Cutting Products, General Electric Medical Systems, and Roche Carolina were among the major industrial employers, with additional manufacturing firms in the county also contributing to the welfare of the city. The McLeod Regional Medical Center served the eastern part of the state, and the Carolinas Hospital System expanded its range of services. Blue Cross/Blue Shield completed the medical services available in the city.
The progressive reputation of Florence earned it All-American status in 1966, and the population exceeded 25,000 by 1970. During the 1950s and 1960s the Florence Morning News advocated the peaceful integration of the public schools and facilities, as the African American population in the city limits reached nearly forty-seven percent. A new civic center provided a home for a professional ice hockey team (the Pee Dee Pride), and Freedom Florence, a softball complex, brought international tournaments to the city. In 1970 Francis Marion College (later University) was established in Florence, supplementing the programs of the Florence-Darlington Technical College. A new city-county complex was built to anchor the downtown skyline, and a large shopping mall went up near the junction of two major tourist arteries, Interstates 20 and 95, which intersected on the western outskirts of Florence. A regional airport also provided service for business and pleasure. By the twenty-first century Florence could take pride in its accomplishments, its growth, and its people. From its origins as a railroad crossroads, Florence had grown into a regional center of business and industry, education, tourism, and health care.
King, G. Wayne. Rise Up So Early: A History of Florence County, South Carolina. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1981.