As was the case with several other upcountry towns, the arrival of the Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line Railroad was responsible for Seneca’s establishment.
(Oconee County; 2020 pop. 8,564). Founded on August 14, 1873, as Seneca City, the town’s name was taken from an earlier Indian village and the nearby Seneca River. As was the case with several other upcountry towns, the arrival of the Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line Railroad was responsible for Seneca’s establishment. The Air Line route intersected the Blue Ridge Railroad on land purchased from Joseph Newton Brown of Anderson. Town lots went on sale on August 30, 1873, and the state legislature granted the town a charter on March 14, 1874. In its first year the town had a population of two hundred, half black and half white. One of the first structures was a union church used by all denominations, to which the town contributed $500 toward its construction. By 1880 census takers counted 382 residents in Seneca City, including 15 merchants. On February 19, 1908, the original charter was given up and the town was reincorporated simply as Seneca.
Most trains stopped at Seneca, and it quickly became a commercial center, especially for marketing the area’s cotton crop. Although the town suffered three fires in its first forty years, Seneca recovered without any lasting ill effects. At the cotton weighing platform at the railroad freight station, wagons often lined up for several blocks waiting to unload the year’s cotton harvest. The Keowee Hotel had a fine reputation for food and hospitality among railroad passengers. In the early twentieth century a popular public park was developed across from the railroad station, with a gazebo, landscaping, and even a colony of prairie dogs brought in by a local resident who had traveled in the West.
The town built its first school building in 1874, with the upstairs used by local Masons for meetings. From 1898 to 1939 Seneca was also the site of the Seneca Institute, a well-known African American college.
The economy was based on agriculture until cotton mills appeared at the nearby villages of Newry and Lonsdale, which drew their workforces from the surrounding countryside. Seneca benefited from the change, and in 1911 a newspaper reported that the town’s population had grown to fifteen hundred and declared Seneca to be “the commercial center of Oconee County.” New businesses continued to appear, including in 1898 the Oconee Telephone Company, which Southern Bell purchased in 1919 when there were 102 telephones in Seneca. By 1924 Seneca even had its own airport, Tribble Field.
Manufacturing continued to replace farming during the second half of the twentieth century. In August 1973 Seneca celebrated its centennial with parades, exhibits, and other public events. Even after centennial celebrations dwindled, Seneca did not forgot its heritage. A seven-block area was designated a National Register Historic District in 1975. The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, consecrated in 1882, was converted into the headquarters of the Blue Ridge Arts Council. The 1909 house of Dr. William J. Lunney was deeded to Oconee County in 1970 and soon thereafter became the Lunney Museum.
Holleman, Frances. The City of Seneca, South Carolina. Greenville, S.C.: Creative Printers, 1973.