Location: Columbia, South Carolina
General Description: Located in the old Columbia Mills Building, the South Carolina State Museum is the largest museum in the Southeastern US. The Columbia Mills Building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the first textile mill to be operated by electricity constructed in 1893 and powered by largest generators at the time produced by General Electric. One of the leading producers of cotton duck fabric it operated continuously until it was closed in 1981. The textile mill was converted into the South Carolina State Museum and opened in 1988 and represents its largest artifact. On four large floors there are exhibits organized in four disciplines: natural history, cultural history, art, and science and technology. Notable exhibits are life-size replicas of the Best Friend of Charleston, the first American built steam locomotive and the CSS Hunley, the first man-powered submarine to sink an enemy ship in the Civil War. The museum also a planetarium, 4D film, and an observatory open to the public.
1) There is a LOT to see in the museum. Following are some of the notable exhibits I remember. The full-size replica of the Best Friend of Charleston was an interesting steam driven locomotive. It carried a cotton bale between the boiler and the passengers to “protect” them if the boiler were to explode. Passengers set on benches facing out to the side instead of towards the front of the locomotive.
2) The exhibits of the main ecosystems found in the state were well done with representative plants and animals in life like settings. The natural history area also had a model of a prehistoric giant shark that was larger than most whales!
3) The full size model of the CSS Hunley has the side cut away so you can see how the sailors sat to turn the crank and propel the submarine. They literally had no room to move, much less stand up. It was no wonder this concept was more apt to drown the sailors then sink any ships which required them to ram a “torpedo” into the hull of ships.
4) They had an interesting array of technological appliances over the years. I certainly saw radios, tape recorders, and kitchen appliances I recognize from my childhood. It is weird feeling seeing things you grew up with are now included in museums.
5) I really liked the extensive exhibit on the history of forestry in South Carolina. Being a forester, I already knew much of this history, but I learned quite a bit about how steam engines were used to harvest the old growth forests in the state. The history emphasized the changes in forestry practices from the cut and leave approach through conservation and planting to modern practices of multi-use. The changing technologies over time was especially interesting.
5) We should have started on the fourth floor which is about the cultural history of South Carolina. By the time we got there I was pretty burned out. I do recall an exhibit about how Columbia became the state capitol instead of either Camden or Charleston. Following the Revolutionary War, in 1786, the site of Columbia was chosen by the state legislators to be the capitol as it was approximately the same distance from the mountains and the coastal towns. Columbia did not exist before this except for a frontier fort on the banks of the Congaree River. It was a planned city of 400 blocks in a two mile square along the river. Half-acre lots were sold to speculators and prospective residents. By the end of the century it had a population over 1000 residents. It is the second completely planned city in the United States. Pretty neat to think that the state legislators of the time were willing to move the center of government to recognize the importance of the frontier in the west.