Special Reports

April 25, 2013

Little-known tales of the Vista

Every town has its historical secrets and rarely told tales. Columbia – and particularly the Vista – is no exception.

Every town has its historical secrets and rarely told tales. Columbia – and particularly the Vista – is no exception.

•  There were at least four brothels in the Vista before and during the Civil War. One was atop what is now Kelly’s Pub at Park and Washington streets and three on Gervais Street: over what is now Pearlz Oyster Bar, Whit-Ash Furnishings and the Bella Vista Bridal & Wedding Boutique.
•  The warehouse building that houses Jillian’s and Wet Willie’s on Gervais Street burned during the Civil War because of an ammunition explosion. The walls remained and are original.
•  The depot building that’s home to the Blue Marlin restaurant on Lincoln Street was the white passenger station for the Seaboard Airline Railroad. African-Americans were relegated to the baggage building in back, now the Blue Marlin’s banquet room. The last passenger train used the station in 1991 before it moved south, to Pulaski Street.
•  Two large drainage tunnels run underneath the Vista to the Congaree River. One is near the Colonial Life Arena and the other runs parallel to Lady Street. Both are large enough to walk through.

The Confederate Printing Plant (now the Publix grocery store) was burned during the Civil War. A second story was built on the original walls, and it became the state liquor dispensary.

•  An overhead railroad trestle used to run through the Vista, starting near the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center and continuing through the Olympia and Whaley neighborhoods. A vestige of it can be seen near Whaley Street.
•  Columbia’s first burial ground – a potter’s field – was located under the Vista Commons apartments on Pulaski. It was moved when the railroad came through.
•  The foundations of the Civil War-era bridge, burned when Gen. W.T. Sherman approached the city are still visible under the Gervais Street bridge.
•  The basement of the building where Starbucks is located was used as a morgue during the Civil War.
•  The second floor of the Whit-Ash building once was a drug distribution wholesaler. Permits for the legal sale of cocaine and marijuana are still posted on the walls.
• The state’s first farmers market was on Assembly Street. Farmers from out of town camped near three springs at Lincoln and Lady streets. A spring still runs through the basement of a building there.
•  The city’s first fire headquarters, located on Senate Street near the State House, was widely touted at the time as the most advanced fire department headquarters in the country in 1952, because from there firefighters could control the street lights in the downtown grid.
• When the Big Apple was a nightclub, dancers there created the Big Apple dance, which led to the national Lindy hop and jitterbug craze.
•  The corner of Washington and Park streets once was the center of Columbia’s African-American downtown. Before segregation, this area included the N.C. Mutual Insurance Co., a garage owned by the husband of Civil Rights leader Modjeska Simpkins, the home of the state’s first African-American attorney, Nathaniel Jerome Frederick, and the Big Apple, a synagogue that became an African-American nightclub.

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