Georgetown’s designation as a port of entry by royal authorities in 1732 greatly improved its prospects. Port activity in Georgetown thrived and the town briefly supported its own shipbuilding industry to meet demands of area planters.
(Georgetown County; 2020 pop. 8,794). Located at the confluence of the Sampit River and Winyah Bay, Georgetown was founded by Elisha Screven in 1729 and is the third oldest town in South Carolina. Screven vested control of the town with three trustees in 1735. Two years later, all 224 lots had been sold, though not occupied. The General Assembly governed from 1785 until Georgetown was incorporated in 1805. In 1892 the city was reincorporated under a mayor and council.
Georgetown’s designation as a port of entry by royal authorities in 1732 greatly improved its prospects. Although rice had been grown in the area since the 1730s, it was indigo that produced the largest fortunes between 1745 and 1775. Port activity in Georgetown thrived and the town briefly supported its own shipbuilding industry to meet demands of area planters. The town matured culturally, as evidenced by the construction of the large brick Anglican Church of Prince George Winyah in 1747 and the stylish town houses built by area planters. During the Revolutionary War, Georgetown was occupied by the British from July 1780 to May 1781. Following their departure, the town served as the main port of supply for the American army of General Nathanael Greene.
After the war, rice replaced indigo as the major cash crop of the district and remained so until the Civil War. But by the 1830s, Georgetown rice planters began taking their business to Charleston. The economic loss to Georgetown was offset somewhat by lumber and turpentine production in the 1850s. And although the town lost part of its commerce to Charleston, Georgetown still supported a variety of businesses, including druggists, dentists, confectioners, jewelers, and carriagemakers. The 1850 census showed Georgetown with 604 whites, 924 slaves, and 100 free persons of color. In the town, slaves performed domestic and menial labor, including working on the docks or in sawmills. Free blacks were often barbers, tailors, carpenters, smiths, and livery stable operators. Jews were also prominent in Georgetown, comprising ten percent of the town’s white population as early as 1800. They were well received, becoming members of the Masons, the Library Society, and other social clubs. There have been six Jewish mayors.
During the Civil War, Georgetown was at the mercy of blockading federal ships, which frequently sailed upriver past Georgetown’s docks to raid area plantations. Even so, local planters still managed to supply rice to the Confederacy. The torpedo that sank the USS Harvest Moon in Winyah Bay in March 1865 was made in the Kaminski building (now the Rice Museum). Federal troops occupied the town in February 1865. During Reconstruction, blacks controlled political life. In 1871 Georgetown native Joseph Hayne Rainey became the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress (1871 to 1879). After 1876 blacks and whites shared political power under a policy known as “fusion.” Fusion worked well in Georgetown until the Constitution of 1895 effectively disfranchised African Americans in South Carolina.
In 1883 Georgetown acquired its first railroad. This, along with renewed shipping activity, helped revive the economy. Most prominent in promoting growth and industry was William Doyle Morgan, who served as mayor from 1892 to 1906. Demand for lumber also added to the general prosperity, and three mills were in operation by 1890. The most important spur to growth came in 1903, when the Atlantic Coast Lumber Company (ACL) built a large mill on the Sampit River. This infusion of northern capital brought jobs and doubled the town’s population. In addition to its mill, the ACL built twelve blocks of housing for its workers, ran a company store, and later a hotel. The company quickly became the mainstay of the Georgetown economy. Additional investments in the local economy were made by the U.S. government, which spent $2.5 million for harbor improvements and jetties between 1886 and 1905. Georgetown’s turn-of-the-century prosperity seemed to manifest itself everywhere. By 1919 the city had four banks and many Front Street businesses possessed new cast-iron storefronts. Streets were paved, sewer lines laid, electric lights and telephones were installed.
The Georgetown economy suffered terribly with the onset of the Great Depression, particularly from the closing of the ACL in 1932. New Deal public works projects provided some relief. The Lafayette Bridge in 1935 and the paving of U.S. Highway 17 linked Georgetown and the Waccamaw Neck. A Civilian Conservation Corps camp near town was constructed as well as a new high school.
Georgetown expanded in both area and population after 1935. The city annexed former rice plantations to create new subdivisions. The population doubled from six thousand to twelve thousand in the 1950s. In 1935 International Paper (IP) began building the largest pulp and paper plant in the world on the Sampit River, infusing jobs and capital into the economy. IP tapped nearby forests of yellow pine to produce kraft (strong) paper. The company remained the largest employer in the county until the mid-1980s. In 1985 the mill was reconfigured at a cost of $600 million to produce white paper products. In 1968 the State Ports Authority recruited Korf Industries of Germany to Georgetown to build a steel reprocessing plant on the site of the old ACL mill, adjoining the Historic District. Georgetown Steel became the third largest employer in the county.
In the final decades of the twentieth century, the success of the state’s coastal area in attracting permanent residents and tourists had profound effects on Georgetown. With the widening of Highway 17 and the building of new bridges over the Waccamaw, the Pee Dee, and the Sampit Rivers, Georgetown’s access to the beaches was enhanced. Capitalizing on the boom, the city undertook a down- town revitalization project. Harborwalk, an eleven-hundred-foot boardwalk overlooking the Sampit River, was constructed in 1988 and featured four parks linking it to the business district. A $6 million, five-block streetscape project in the business district was completed in 1993. The influx of people and general prosperity was also reflected in the restoration of colonial and antebellum residences in the Georgetown Historic District. Georgetown continues to maintain its quality of life while progressing into the twenty-first century.
Bridwell, Ronald E. “The Gem of the Atlantic Seaboard.” Georgetown, S.C.: Georgetown Times, l991.
Georgetown County Library. A View of Our Past: The Morgan Photographic Collection Depicting Georgetown, South Carolina c. 1890–1915. Georgetown, S.C.: Georgetown County Library System, 1993.
Rogers, George C. The History of Georgetown County, South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970.