Transportation, industry, conflict central to Florence's storied history

FLORENCE, SC (WMBF) - Long before modern day Florence, the city, the county and much of the region was inhabited by the Pee Dee Indians. It wasn't until the Revolutionary War that the seedlings for modern day Florence were planted.

You can't drive into or through Florence without recognizing a certain name: Francis Marion.

"Well Francis Marion, of course, is an extremely significant historical figure, a lot more so nationally than people even realize with the impact he had on the success of the Revolutionary War," said Agnes Willcox, Chairwoman of the Florence Historic Foundation.

Francis Marion was a Revolutionary War militia leader, and a native of South Carolina. Having spent time fighting American Indians in the area, he was quite familiar with the swampy land of the area, and was given the name the Swamp Fox. He never commanded a large army or even led big battles, but his expertise of the region and ability to hide from the British secured his place in local history.

By the 1800s, a few plantations, growing mainly corn, started to pop up around the region.

"The area that you know of as the City of Florence was the back part of one of the plantations, and it was a very swampy part, which we can attest to to this day by the fact we still have a lot of drainage problems," Willcox said.

The official start of Florence came in 1853, and literally arrived by rail as three major railroads came together. As for the name of the city, that came from the president of the Wilmington and Manchester railroad line.

"One of his staff said, 'Well why don't we name it for your daughter Florence?'" Willcox explained.

By the time of the Civil War, the local railways were becoming an important part of the city's growth.

"Florence was fairly important because it had three railroads - the Northeastern railroad coming out of Charleston, SC, you had the Wilmington and Manchester, of course, coming out of Wilmington, North Carolina, and the Cheraw and Darlington Railroad," said Carl Hill with the War Between States Museum. "There was a lot of vital supplies that traveled through and were stored in Florence for the war effort."

Growth continued after the war, and the city of Florence was officially chartered in 1890. The importance of the local railways continued to drive growth into the 20th century.

Transportation needs boomed around the time of World War I, and Florence was important train stop situated right in the middle of the East Coast travel corridor.

"It was a thriving industry, and clearly had a lot to do with the development of Florence as a regional area," Willcox said.

Air travel came to Florence in the First World War as well: in the late 1920s, mayor H.K. Gilbert created the first airfield, known as Gilbert Field. By World War II an army base occupied the airfield and further fueled the city's growth.

All the while, rail traffic continued to boom, and by the 1940s, Florence was the largest rail station in the state with 14 passenger trains and 48 freight trains passing through the city each day.

It was once again transportation that led to more growth in Florence. This time it was in the 1960s and 70s with the construction of Interstates.

"It's always had to do with transportation," Willcox said. "You know, I-20, I-95 coming together here has certainly had a major role to play in the development of Florence."

Through transportation, industry and healthcare, the city of Florence continues to grow, but you don't have to look far to find signs of the city's past.

The War Between the States Museum is full of relics from the Civil War. The Francis McLeod House was home to the founder of one of Florence's biggest employers, the McLeod Regional Medical Center. St Johns Episcopal Church constructed in 1889 is the oldest church in continual service in the city, and the Florence National Cemetery, established in 1865, was originally a burial ground for Union prisoners who died in the Florence Stockade during the Civil War.

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