Columbia, South Carolina’s Haunted Five

The city of Columbia was born out of conflict over representation between small farmers in Upstate South Carolina and the wealthy planters of the Low Country. As a compromise, Columbia was founded in 1786 on the fall line near the center of the state. Over the following decades, the city developed from what George Washington described on his visit in 1791 as “an uncleared wood with very few houses in it,” into a wealthy, and bustling city by the middle of the 19th century.

As talk of secession began to circulate throughout the South, Columbia became a hotbed for pro-Secession sentiments and the first state Secession Convention was held here until it was forced to move to Charleston due to a smallpox epidemic. The city’s location in the interior of the Confederacy spared it the harsh realities of war until Sherman’s arrival on the city’s doorstep in February of 1865. During Union occupation, fires spread destroying a large portion of the city. Throughout the latter years of the 19th century, the city recovered its importance as an economic engine for the state with the building of textile mills.

As it moves from its industrial past, Columbia has continues in its role as an Upstate economic powerhouse and still crawls with ghosts of its past. 

Hampton-Preston House
1615 Blanding Street

During the 1982 Christmas Season, docents led visitors on candlelight tours of many Historic Columbia Foundation properties including the Hampton-Preston House. State law required the presence of a firefighter if open flame was used and, at the end of the night, the firefighter accompanied the docents as the candles were extinguished. One evening, after seeing that all the candles were out, locking up the house, turning on the security system accompanied by the firefighter, another docent was surprised to see flickering light in the windows of the Hampton-Preston House. Through the window, the docent could see all the candles in the sitting room were brightly burning and she called police. The police arrived to find that the house was still securely locked with the security system on, despite the blazing candles in the sitting room.

Hampton-Preston House, 2017, by Carol M. Highsmith. Courtesy of the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Built by merchant Ainsley Hall in 1818, this magnificent manse was purchased by General Wade Hampton, patriarch of the powerful Hampton family, who had fought in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The purchase was carried out much to the chagrin of Hall’s wife, Sarah, who had been promised the house by her husband. In turn, Hall began work on a large house directly across the street, which is now called the Robert Mills House (see the entry further down the page). The house remained in the Hampton family until the Civil War. After barely escaping the burning of the city by Union forces, the house was saved by a nun from the nearby Ursuline convent who begged to use the house for refuge after the convent was burned. The house later became Chicora College and was restored and opened in 1970 as a house museum.

Docents, staff, and visitors have all reported encounters with possible spirits within the house. Some docents working in the house afterhours have reported a feeling of being watched and a general sense of uneasiness pervading the house.

Sources

  • Hook, Debra-Lynn B. “Spooky tales of South Carolina.” The State. 31 October 1991.
  • Kelly, Sharon. “’Ghost houses’ continuing to baffle Columbians.” The Times and Democrat (Orangeburg, SC). 1 January 1983.
  • Lister, Mrs. Toney J. National Register of Historic Places Nomination form for Hampton-Preston House. 29 July 1969.
  • Workers of the Writers’ Program of the WPA of SC. South Carolina: A Guide to the Palmetto State. NYC: Oxford University Press, 1941.

Olympia Mill
500 Heyward Street

Olympia Mill, 2014, by Batterup55. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When Olympia Mill was constructed in 1899, it was called the largest cotton mill under one roof in the world. This massive mill continued under operation until it was closed in 1996. After sitting empty, it has recently been converted into loft apartments.

As was common at the time, the mill operated using the labor or children, as well as adults. Because of their small hands, children were ideal for certain tasks in keeping the looms running and, as a result, some children were killed or had arms and hands mangled by the high-speed machines. Roger Manley writes in Weird Carolinas that since the mill has been turned into lofts, residents have reported the sounds of children crying and have seen small handprints appear in fogged up windows.

Sources

  • Hamilton, Cynthia Rose. National Register of Historic Places Nomination form for Olympia Mill. Listed 2 February 2005.
  • Manley, Roger. Weird Carolina. NYC: Sterling Publishing, 2007.

Robert Mills House
1616 Blanding Street

The Robert Mills House, 1970. Photo by V.D. Hubbard for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Usually houses are named for former owners, but rarely for their designers. This home, however, is known for its architect, Robert Mills, one of the first great American architects known best for his designs for the Washington Monument. Mills designed the house for merchant, Ainsley Hall. Sadly, Mr. Hall did not have a chance to live in his new home as he died before it was completed. With the death of her husband and litigation over her husband’s estate, Mrs. Hall was forced to sell the incomplete house to the Presbyterian Church. It is believed to be her spirit that leaves impressions on the bed in one of the second-floor bedrooms.

Sources

  • Fant, Mrs. James W. National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the Ainsley Hall House. 16 May 1970.
  • Hook, Debra-Lynn B. “Spooky tales of South Carolina.” The State. 31 October 1991.

South Carolina State Museum
301 Gervais Street

South Carolina’s economy has been powered by textiles since the 18th century, so it’s no surprise that the state museum’s largest artifact is the Columbia Mills building that houses the museum itself. Built between 1893 and 1894, the Columbia Mills opened as the first totally electrically powered mill in the world. It remained running until it closed in 1981, and the building was donated to the state.

South Carolina State Museum, 2010, by Abductive. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After the mill’s conversion to a museum, a ghost, nicknamed “Bubba,” was reported on the third floor. Witnesses have seen a man in overalls and boots wandering about the exhibits. Two visitors walking towards an elevator saw a man climb on just ahead of them. When they hurried to board the elevator before the doors closed, they discovered an empty car.

Author Tally Johnson posits that up to four spirits may haunt the museum. Johnson encountered one spirit near the museum’s replica of the CSS Hunley. Johnson had accompanied his god-daughter to the museum, and she had gotten away from him. Seeing a man standing near the replica, Johnson asked if he had seen the child. The man did not reply but turned and walked towards the replica where he vanished.

Sources

  • Brown, Alan. Haunted South Carolina: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Palmetto State. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2010.
  • Johnson, Tally. Civil War Ghosts of South Carolina. Cincinnati, OH: Postmortem Press, 2013.
  • Johnson, Tally. Ghosts of the Pee Dee. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2009.
  • National Register of Historic Places Nomination form for Columbia Mills Building. Listed 24 May 1982.

Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Cemetery
1100 Sumter Street

Among the many historic churches in the state of South Carolina, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral ranks among the most important. Sitting just across Sumter Street from the state capitol, the church has had a seat front and center to the panoply of South Carolina’s history. Modeled on York Minster Cathedral, Charleston architect Edward Brickell White designed this edifice in 1840. Construction began in 1845 with additions added throughout the 19th century.

During General Sherman’s occupation of Columbia after its surrender in 1865, fires broke out throughout the city and quickly devoured much of it. The grand statehouse across the street withstood six artillery strikes and was soon alight. While some public buildings were “put to the torch” by Sherman’s troops, there is controversy as to how many of the fires started. Legend holds that to spare the church from destruction, all signs of the church’s Episcopal denomination were removed, and papier mache crosses placed on the roof to disguise the church as Roman Catholic. Supposedly, this spared the church the fate of its neighbors.

Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, 2018, by Farragutful. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The church’s cemetery holds the graves of some of South Carolina’s elite of the including three Confederate generals, Wade Hampton I and his son and grandson (who occupied the Hampton-Preston House), poet Henry Timrod and assorted governors. According to Jody Donnelly of Spirits and Spectres of Columbia tours, there are also ghosts under the cemetery’s ancient oaks. He tells a story of a love triangle that ended when one man shot the other. The woman ended up nursing the man who was shot, and they fell madly in love. Both were buried here, but their grave is visited by the specter of the shooter.

Sources

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