Located in the Midlands, Camden boasts more than sixty well-preserved buildings in its historic district that attest to a rich past and to a lifestyle respectful of that heritage.
(Kershaw County; 2020 pop. 7,288). Located in the Midlands, Camden boasts more than sixty well-preserved buildings in its historic district that attest to a rich past and to a lifestyle respectful of that heritage. Settlement of Camden evolved from instructions by King George II in 1730 to locate a backcountry township on the Wateree River. Fredericksburg, laid out in 1733 and 1734 on swampland, proved uninhabitable, and immigrants soon dispersed into the surrounding countryside. About 1750 a colony of Irish Quakers settled on scattered plantations and befriended Catawba Indians of the area. In 1758 Joseph Kershaw, the “father of Camden,” established a store on Pinetree Creek, a Wateree tributary. Located on the path between Charleston and the Catawba Nation, Kershaw’s store was a convenient place to collect and process local produce, especially wheat, before it was forwarded to Charleston. Here the village of Pine Tree Hill developed as a milling and trading center. Within a decade the thriving settlement was renamed in honor of Charles Pratt, Lord Camden, a champion of colonial rights, and a formal plan was drawn up to guide development. In 1791 Camden was the second town in the state to be incorporated by the General Assembly.
During the Revolutionary War, British troops under Lord Cornwallis occupied Camden for nearly a year during their campaign to subdue the backcountry. Among those imprisoned by the British in the Camden jail was the young Andrew Jackson. Two major battles were fought near the town: the Battle of Camden on August 15–16, 1780, which saw a disastrous American defeat; and the Battle of Hobkirk Hill on April 25, 1781, in which the victorious British suffered such heavy casualties that they withdrew from Camden a few weeks later.
The evacuating British destroyed much of the town, including its jail, flour mills, and several private homes. But Camden recovered quickly. A series of fires in following years redirected growth northward from the old town center. Prosperity increased as the area’s plantation economy grew, based on cotton and slave labor. Anxiety arose briefly among the white population in July 1816 when an alleged slave insurrection was uncovered. Seventeen slaves were arrested and tried as ringleaders in the conspiracy, five of whom were convicted and executed. Besides free whites and African slaves, a sizable free black community was present among the Camden citizenry by 1830. The prosperous town entertained George Washington in 1791 and the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825. Other arrivals helped the town progress further. The Bank of Camden was organized in 1822, and a branch of the South Carolina Railroad reached Camden in 1848.
The Civil War halted economic prosperity as Camden’s leading citizenry embraced the Confederate cause. The town experienced invasion twice in 1865, first by a detachment of General William T. Sherman’s men in February, then by troops under General Edward E. Potter in April. Public buildings, the depots, and the Wateree bridge were destroyed, as was much private property. The town was garrisoned by Federal troops for nine months after the close of the war. The first local public school for African American children was begun on a square of town property in 1867. In 1880 northern missionaries established Browning Home, a private school for the children of freedmen. The school became Boylan-Haven-Mather Academy and was open until the mid–twentieth century.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Camden possessed three railroad lines. Two textile factories at the edge of town attracted workers from impoverished farms. A graded public school system was inaugurated in both white and black schools. The Camden Town Council coordinated programs to vaccinate citizens, pave streets, and expand water and light services. In 1913 the Camden Hospital opened, thanks in part to the Wall Street financier and native son Bernard M. Baruch, whose donation to the project was made in memory of his father, a former Camden physician. In 1915 a Carnegie grant made possible a handsome public library building, which later housed the Camden Archives and Museum.
Another northern invasion, this one consisting of wealthy tourists, began in the 1880s when the area’s mild winters lured visitors to Camden as a health retreat and then as a tourist resort and a sports mecca. Three grand hotels and numerous smaller establishments catered to affluent guests. Although the hotel era ended with World War II, its effects lingered. Tourists renovated antebellum homes and became seasonal or permanent residents, thereby helping to preserve the distinctive architecture of Camden. Golf and polo were introduced to entertain tourists. Equestrian interest evolved into a multimillion dollar industry. The Carolina Cup steeplechase, begun in 1930 at the Springdale Race Course, became an annual spring event. The Colonial Cup, an international steeplechase held in the fall, was inaugurated in 1970 on the same course.
Depressed economic conditions in textiles and agriculture in the 1920s and 1930s had a negative effect on much of the Camden populace. The onset of World War II brought many changes. In 1941 a school for pilots opened adjacent to the Camden airport, and both British and American airmen received flight instruction there. The facilities of Southern Aviation School afterward became the home of the Camden Military Academy, a private secondary school, while an updated Woodward Field continued airport operations. After the war, home building expanded and job opportunities increased, especially after 1950 when the opening of a Dupont plant nearby spurred industrialization. Citizens also worked to improve cultural and recreational opportunities. The Camden and Kershaw County Fine Arts Center united the talents of citizens into a variety of cultural activities, while 178 acres of city parks provided year-round recreation. In association with the National Park Service, Historic Camden opened on the site of the original town, re-creating glimpses of colonial life for visitors. Community leaders continued to focus on economic development to build a modern city, while remaining respectful of its past.
Daniels, John H. Nothing Could Be Finer. Camden, S.C.: John Culler, 1996.
Ernst, Joseph A., and H. Roy Merrens. “‘Camden’s Turrets Pierce the Skies!’: The Urban Process in the Southern Colonies during the Eighteenth Century.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 30 (October 1973): 549–74.
Kirkland, Thomas J., and Robert M. Kennedy. Historic Camden. 2 vols. 1905. Reprint, Camden, S.C.: Kershaw County Historical Society, 1994.
Montgomery, Rachel. Camden Heritage: Yesterday and Today. Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1971.