‘Our progress has no speed limit’

cclick@thestate.com July 3, 2008 

North Columbia was a place apart until 1954, a town with the name of “Eau Claire,” its own amenities and services, and a catchy slogan, “Our progress has no speed limit.”

Eau Claire was incorporated in 1899, in part to prevent the building of a public cemetery in the area of Hillcrest and Monticello roads according to documents in the files of the Columbia Historic Foundation.

There were fears that a large number of blacks might be buried in the then almost all-white enclave.

So the first ordinance on the books stated that no one could be buried in Eau Claire except in existing family and church cemeteries.

The town, which grew to 12,000 before it was merged into the city of Columbia in 1954, was known for its institutions of higher learning, three freshwater springs, and Hyatt Park, a popular turn-of-the-century entertainment venue for whites that included an open-air auditorium, zoo, water tower, fountain and vaudeville theater.

Named for F.H. Hyatt, an Eau Claire mayor and prominent landowner, the park included a casino, which survived until World War I, an ice-skating rink in winter and a pool in summer.

The virtues of country living were evident from the moment a visitor passed under the railroad trestle on North Main Street that marked Eau Claire’s southern boundary.

Residents of Eau Claire could enjoy the amenities of elegant columned homes or cottage-style houses amid the serenity of a rolling green landscape.

And they easily could hop on the electric street car run by South Carolina Electric Co. for a quick ride into downtown Columbia.

Columbia College students could ride for 5 cents and be downtown in 15 minutes.

Until 1917, when the company extended service to the Ridgewood Golfing Club at the end of Ridgewood Avenue, Eau Claire was the last stop on the street car line.

The push to join Columbia came in the 1950s, although the Eau Claire Loyalty Committee suggested that unfavorable comparisons to Columbia were in error.

“Frankly, do you believe that citizens of Columbia dress better, eat better or have better social or cultural advantage than citizens of Eau Claire? As a matter of fact, for possibly years to come about the ONLY difference citizens of Eau Claire will realize from annexation will be higher taxes.”

The prospect of higher taxes and the integration of the public schools in the 1970s altered the community and cleared a path for the diversity that marks it today.

As whites trickled away, African-American residents — some fleeing urban renewal projects in Wheeler Hill and on Blossom Street — began buying up the suburban real estate and making North Columbia their home.

Many older white residents stayed, setting in motion the diverse path the community would take into the 21st century.

“We are diverse,” Henry Hopkins, executive director of the Eau Claire Community Council, said. “Good, goodness alive. Shucks, you name it. We got it.”

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