Columbia Mills

1893–1981

An expansion and upgrade of the Columbia Canal in 1891 by the Columbia Water Power Company had significantly improved the power generation potential of the waterway, making it suitable to power modern, large-scale manufacturing for the first time in its history. The success of the Columbia plant revolutionized textile mills by opening the electric era.

The first textile mill in the world to be powered exclusively by electricity, the Columbia Mills Company was chartered in 1893 with an initial capitalization of $700,000. An expansion and upgrade of the Columbia Canal in 1891 by the Columbia Water Power Company had significantly improved the power generation potential of the waterway, making it suitable to power modern, large-scale manufacturing for the first time in its history. To avoid flooding, however, the site of the Columbia Mill was on a bluff, six hundred feet from the canal, which made traditional mechanical power transmission impractical. Instead, company directors (all from the North) opted to use electric motors as the motive power for their factory. Sidney B. Paine, a General Electric salesman, proposed using polyphase alternating current and induction motors. Unlike direct current shunt motors, induction motors provided a reliable current, did not spark, and were well protected against dirt. Such motors would keep the textile machinery moving at a constant speed and, more importantly, would not set the lint-filled building on fire.

Work on the mill began in April 1893, and operations officially commenced in April 1894. Lockwood, Greene and Company designed the plant, and William A. Chapman and Company of Providence, Rhode Island, supervised construction. Two 1,000-horsepower turbines at the end of the Columbia Canal supplied electricity to operate fourteen 65-horsepower electric motors located throughout the mill. The motors were placed on the ceiling, thereby taking no floor space and allowing more room for textile machinery. A mill village for employees, “Aretasville,” was built across the river in West Columbia and named for Aretas Blood of New Hampshire, the president of the Columbia Mills Company. The success of the Columbia plant revolutionized textile mills by opening the electric era. The new mill specialized in duck, a durable plain-weave cloth widely used for belting, awnings, and tents, and sailcloth, a heavy duck made to withstand the elements in all kinds of weather. Mount Vernon–Woodberry Cotton Duck Company of Baltimore acquired Columbia Mills in 1899. By 1907 the mill operated more than thirty thousand spindles and had twelve hundred employees. Production continued until 1981, when operations were relocated to a smaller plant. Mount Vernon Mills donated the old building to the state, which transformed it into the South Carolina State Museum in the late 1980s.

Kohn, August. The Cotton Mills of South Carolina. 1907. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1975.

Passer, Harold C. The Electrical Manufacturers, 1875–1900. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953.

Smith, Fenelon DeVere. “The Economic Development of the Textile Industry in the Columbia, South Carolina, Area, from 1790 through 1916.” Ph.D. diss., University of Kentucky, 1952.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Columbia Mills
  • Coverage 1893–1981
  • Author
  • Keywords Columbia Mills Company, electricity, Columbia Canal, South Carolina State Museum
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date June 25, 2022
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 11, 2016
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