10 Best “Secret” Historic Sites in the Carolinas
It’s no secret that the Carolinas are full of history. From Colonization, Revolution, Independence, Expansion, Civil War and Reconstruction the Carolinas have seen it all.
Historic sites dot our landscape but some are better known than others. Some are only known to people who live nearby. Some are part of other sites and have had their history forgotten. That’s what we’re looking at today. Historical sites in the Carolina’s that are forgotten or secret.
Note: When making this list, I restricted the inclusion of Revolutionary War Sites to just one. If I hadn’t, this whole list could be populated with battlegrounds, after all there were more Revolutionary War battles fought in South Carolina than any other state.
Greenville, South Carolina – You may notice as we go on, that lots of sites on this list are related to transportation. Not just in the Carolinas, but all across the country improvements in transportation and wanting faster more efficient routes paved the way for expansion and innovation. But sometimes transportation was more about connecting small communities together in a way they hadn’t been before. That’s the case with the first historical site on our list: Campbell’s Covered Bridge in Greenville, SC.
Built in 1909 by Charles Irwin Willis, Campbell’s Bridge is the last remaining covered bridge in South Carolina. The bridge was integral to uniting the isolated communities of the Dark Corner and allowing the region to eventually become one of the fastest growing areas in South Carolina.
Today it’s part of a small park owned and maintained by the Greenville Parks Department. The remaining foundation of a nearby grist mill houses picnic tables, and a path leads down to the creek bed where you can wade or just relax by the running waters. Admission is free and leashed dogs are allowed.
Pineville, North Carolina – North and South Carolina can only boast about being the birth state of three US presidents. Out of those three, one was impeached and the other we don’t know where exactly where he was born, leaving just James Polk – the one term wonder who in 4 years dramatically increased the land area of the United States.
Located 5 miles from Carowinds, The James Polk Birthplace sits on the last undeveloped 20 acres of the farm where the 11th President of the United States was born. Although none of the buildings are original, they are local and from the correct time period. Each was moved to the site of the original home and rebuilt to resemble where Polk lived the first 11 years of his life before moving to Tennessee. The visitors center has a short film about his life and presidency and you can take a self guided tour on your phone. The historic site connects to the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, a popular hiking and biking trail running through Charlotte.
Hendersonville, North Carolina – Originally a tobacco farm in the 1870’s and later a boarding house, the Historic Johnson Farm traces the evolution of Western North Carolina from its agricultural and trade based roots to its modern tourist economy.
In an early form of AgroTourism, guests at the boarding house would spend their days helping out on the farm and relax on the back porch at night. The original farm house still stands today and tours are available Monday through Friday, but you need to call ahead and the cost is $10. But guests are free to roam around the outside and take a self guided tour on their phones. Buildings includ not only the main house, but a barn filled with goats and donkeys, a 1920’s boarding house where the Heritage Weavers and Fiber Artists of Hendersonville is located, and a number of smaller buildings. Admission to the grounds is free.
Blacksburg, South Carolina – Long before anyone came up with the idea of a state park, the residents of Kings Mountain were eking out an existence as yeoman farmers. They may have been poor, but they owned their own land and managed to scrape out a living on the mountain for generations. But over time, erosion took its toil on the soil and every season the farms were less and less productive. By the time of the Great Depression, the farmland on the mountain was completely depleted. The Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Park Service, and other New Deal agencies came in and rehabilitated much of the land and built the state park.
Later in a nod to the farmers who once lived in what would become the park, a replica of a 19th Century Yeoman Farm was built not far from the main gate. A place for reenactments and outdoor learning the farm consists of a homestead, barn, cotton gin, blacksmith shop and weave shop. Some of the buildings are over 150 years old and were brought to the site and rebuilt. There are even some horses and donkeys in the pasture. Adult admission is $3.00 and includes the main park.
Bonus – Kings Mountain National Military Park, the site of the pivotal Revolutionary War battle is just up the road.
Walhalla, South Carolina – And now we get back to our transportation theme. This time it’s an unfinished railroad tunnel that was intended to be part of a shortcut through the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Ohio River Valley. Before the tunnel, rail traffic had to bypass the mountains completely, taking a longer route through Georgia. Work began in 1856 but was suspended in 1859 after a million dollars had been spent. Only 1600 feet of the tunnel was ever dug. It was later used by Clemson University for cheese making experiments before being turned into a park and tourist attraction. Admission is $5.00 per car. Picnic tables and restrooms are on site.
Bonus: After visiting the tunnel, take a walk to nearby Issaqueena Falls.
Greenville, South Carolina – This one is a little different from the others. Most people don’t think of it as a historic site. Paris Mountain is more known for great hiking trails, swimming at Lake Placid, and picnicking at one of the many shelters. But there’s a tremendous amount of history within the park boundaries
What most people don’t realize is that all those things: the trails, the beach and bathhouse, and most of the picnic shelters were built by the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. The parks system has done an outstanding job preserving the legacy of the CCC in the Carolinas and remains one of the best remaining examples of CCC work.
As a bonus, the lakes and the dam predate the 20th Century being built by the Paris Mountain Water Company to supply clean water to fast growing Greenville. Before that, it was the site where Richard Pearis, the first European resident settled. Adult admission is $6.00.
Greenville, South Carolina – After the War of 1812, there was a massive push to improve South Carolina’s transportation infrastructure. See transportation again. “Internal Improvements” was the phrase of the day, and everyone was looking for ways to move goods around the state easier. The South Carolina Board of Public Works was created, and in 1818 one million dollars was allocated to build roads and canals around the state.
One of the major undertakings was The State Road which ran from Charleston up through Columbia into the Upstate and finally connecting with the Buncombe Turnpike at the North Carolina state line. Building the road through the Upstate required the construction of three bridges, the last remaining is the Poinsett Bridge. The Gothic Arch stone bridge sits in the middle of 120 acre park owned by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Admission is free and it’s open in daylight hours.
Bonus: Legend has it that the bridge was designed by South Carolina architect Robert Mills who is famous for designing the Washington Monument and the US Treasury Building as well as numerous public buildings around SC.
Chester County, SC – This one goes along with the Poinsett Bridge as both were built during the “Internal Improvements” movement. While the Poinsett Bridge was part of the State Road, the Landsford Canal was part of the vast network of canals built to make South Carolina’s waterways navigable.
Built alongside a particularly rough section of the Catawba River where exposed bedrock and an elevation change created a series of rapids that made the river impassable. A total of four canals were opened in 1823 on the Catawba and Wateree Rivers. The system at Landsford is the furthest north and the last still accessible today. It was built along a 2 mile stretch of river and included a total of five locks including lifting locks and a guardlock to help maintain canal water level. The ruins of the lifting locks and guardlocks can still be seen today. A number of bridges crossed the canal and their stone foundations are still visible. As well as the foundations of a mill that was located at near the half way point of the canal.
The land where the canal was built is near a ford that played a roll in the American Revolution. Thomas Sumter used the area as a staging ground before the Battle of Hanging Rock and Lord Charles Cornwallis crossed the Catawba at Landsford in October 1780 after withdrawing from North Carolina following the Battle of King’s Mountain.
Other points of interest at the State Park are one of the largest known stands of rocky shoals spider lilies and a nesting pair of Bald Eagles. During May and early June, the waters of the Catawba River are full of white blooms that can be seen from an overlook along the Nature Trail as well as the Canal Trail.
Greenwood County, SC – Of all the Revolutionary War sites in the Carolinas, Ninety Six is the only one that made this list. We chose it to represent all of the many sites in the North and South Carolina not only because it was probably the second most important town at the time of the Revolution, but because it has been largely forgotten and overshadowed by other sites.
Plying a prominent roll in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution especially after 1780 when the town was fortified by the British and became their most important post in the sate. From Ninety Six, the British hoped to gain control of the interior of South Carolina and recruit new Loyalists to their cause. Most inland battles are related to Ninety Six in one way or another, either troops set out from there or retreated to the safety of the British Garrison.
The town of Ninety Six was not only an important administrative and economic hub of the Carolina frontier, but it was the site of two Revolutionary War sieges including the first land battle in the south and the longest siege during the war. In fact the earthen fortifications from the 1781 are still apparent on the battlefield and are some of the last remaining Revolutionary War fortifications left in the country.
Pickens, SC – One of the best kept secrets in Upstate South Carolina is Hagood Mill Historic Site. Not only is it a restored and fully functional water powered grist mill, but it’s an entire complex of historic buildings. The site recreates a small rural town from the 1800’s. You’ll not only find the mill but a blacksmith shop, cotton gin, moonshine still, and a pair of historic cabins. The mill and cabins are open during operating hours and you can walk inside and get a glimpse of how people lived before the modern era.
A monthly Folklife Festival id held on the third Saturday of every month. The mill spins to life grinding flour, meal, and grits while musicians entertain the crowds on the nearby stage. The blacksmith shop and cotton gin are opened up and offer demonstrations. You can even take home some grits or corn meal stone ground that very day. Spinning and weaving demonstrations take place at the old cabins. History comes to life and you can experience an old time county festival first hand.
A bonus attraction at Hagood Mill is the Petroglyph Center showcasing rock carvings found on a bolder not 100 feet from the mill in 2003. These were the first rock carvings of human figures ever discovered in South Carolina. Researchers haven’t been able to conclusively date the carvings, but believe the “stick like figures” on the rock date to prehistoric times. The Petroglyph Center is a museum built around the bolder that not only has a light show to help you see the carvings better but an outer room with exhibits and artifacts from around the Carolina mountains.
The site is open from Wednesday through Sunday