Aiken owes its existence to the South Carolina Railroad, its personality to its erstwhile “winter colony” of wealthy northern sports enthusiasts, and its economic vitality and relatively cosmopolitan spirit to the U.S. government’s massive Savannah River Site nuclear weapons facility.
(Aiken County; 2020 pop. 31,121). Incorporated in 1835 and named for railroad president William Aiken, Sr., Aiken owes its existence to the South Carolina Railroad, its personality to its erstwhile “winter colony” of wealthy northern sports enthusiasts, and its economic vitality and relatively cosmopolitan spirit to the U.S. government’s massive Savannah River Site nuclear weapons facility.
The railroad tracks that reached Hamburg from Charleston in 1833 passed through sandy farmland, whose elevation of 515 feet soon lured sweltering Charlestonians in the summer and established Aiken’s image as a health resort. Local legend says the location of the town was the result of a romance between railroad surveyor Alfred Dexter and Sara Williams, daughter of planter William Williams. “No railroad for me, young man, no girl for you,” Williams is said to have insisted. Whether because of this bargain or not, the couple did marry and the train did pass through Williams’s property. To pull trains up the steep grade from Horse Creek Valley, a stationary steam engine was placed on a hill just west of the center of town. In 1852 a “cut,” or ditch, was dug by slaves though the center of Aiken, lowering the track and eliminating the need for the stationary engine.
A town plan drawn in 1834 by two railroad engineers included wide streets divided by boulevards that distinguished the central city area. By the 1840s its reputation as a healthful locale for tuberculosis sufferers brought more residents and created a small health industry. Later in that decade, William Gregg founded the Graniteville cotton mill five miles west of Aiken. He built his home on Kalmia Hill, between the town and the mill. Other notable early residents included the botanist Henry William Ravenel; College of Charleston president William Peronneau Finley, who also became the town’s longtime intendant (mayor); and Dr. E. J. C. Wood, a tireless promoter of local institutions. While the town had its rough element, the presence of Charleston summer refugees and health resort patients from the North gave Aiken society more polish than most inland communities. Its year round population in 1849 was 683, but the Aiken Hotel received over four hundred requests for winter reservations in 1854. A seminary for boys was opened in 1853 and the town had five churches by 1858, including a Roman Catholic church.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Camp Butler was established near Aiken, and the Ryan Guards were mustered there in 1861. On February 11, 1865, Confederate cavalry units thwarted Union troopers in a skirmish that probably saved Aiken, as well as Gregg’s cotton mill, from the torch (reenactments of the Confederate victory became a popular annual event in the twentieth century). After the war, in 1866, the town council established a committee to promote Aiken in the North. The effort bore fruit, and the Highland Park Hotel was built in 1869 to accommodate winter tourists. In that same year Pennsylvanian Martha Schofield came to Aiken from the Sea Islands to open a school for former slaves. In 1871 Aiken became the seat of newly formed Aiken County. Most county founders were African Americans who held office during Reconstruction. This difficult era ended in 1876, in part due to racial strife near Aiken at Hamburg and Ellenton, as well as the activity of “Red Shirts” in the county.
Aiken’s “winter colony” entered its golden era in the early 1890s with the arrival of prominent New York businessman Thomas Hitchcock and his wife, Louise. The Hitchcocks invited friends to join them for the winter to pursue a life of vigorous activity centered around horses and golf. For the next sixty years hundreds of leading northern families, including Whitneys, Vanderbilts, Rutherfurds and Iselins, transformed Aiken with their “cottages” (mansions by local standards) and their passion for golf, foxhunting, and polo and pumped large sums into the economy. One Aiken resident of that era recalled that “we lived on Yankees in the winter and blackberries in the summer.” The number of winter colonists dwindled after the mid-twentieth century, but their legacy survived in Aiken’s horse industry and the “Triple Crown” races held annually in March, impressive homes such as Joye Cottage and Rye Patch, the venerable Wilcox Inn, and institutions such as Aiken Preparatory School.
Little changed in Aiken until the 1950s, when the cold war spawned the Savannah River Plant, some twelve miles south of the town. Thirty five thousand construction workers overwhelmed the area, as “trailers” filled virtually every available space. Then, in 1953, came the well educated Du Pont employees and their families, who transformed the community with their cosmopolitan ideas and drive. The quiet town of some seven thousand residents grew to over forty thousand, including those residing in its suburbs. Schools, churches, businesses, and facilities of all kinds sprang up to accommodate the newcomers, and traffic increased. But Aiken managed to preserve much of its charm, retaining its unpaved streets in the “horsy” section and taking pride in its heritage. The downsizing of the “bomb plant” in the early 1990s slowed Aiken’s economy, but predictions of disaster proved premature as city leaders successfully lured new companies to nearby industrial parks, including Kimberly Clark, Owens Corning, and Bridgestone Firestone. Another new aspect of the local economy was the retirement industry, which included several “assisted living” facilities.
Bebbington, William P. History of Du Pont at the Savannah River Plant. Wilmington, Del.: E. I. Du Pont de Nemours, 1990.
Cole, Will. The Many Faces of Aiken. Norfolk, Va.: Donning, 1985.
Dillon, Kimberly Ann. “Reconstructing Aiken: Resort Development in Aiken, South Carolina, 1830–1900.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1997.
Farmer, James O., Jr. “A Collision of Cultures: Aiken, South Carolina, Meets the Nuclear Age.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1995): 40–49.
McClearen, Harber A., and Silas Owen Sheetz. St. Thaddeus of Aiken: A Church and Its City. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1994.
Smith, Harry W. Life and Sport in Aiken and Those Who Made It. New York: Derrydale, 1935.