Things change as time goes by, and big changes were ahead when the first railroads appeared in the Pee Dee. One might think that if a railroad junction were to be created, it would be in an established town.
However, the Wilmington and Manchester – the first railroad – ran from Wilmington to the village of Manchester in Sumter County. Charleston interests, alarmed by the business the Port of Wilmington might snatch away from Charleston, got together and decided to create the North Eastern Railroad, which ran northward on the west side of the Pee Dee River.
About the same time, a group decided to build the Cheraw and Darlington Railroad, which ran between the two towns and was extended to meet the North Eastern. It was all in search of farmers’ production to carry as freight.
As it turned out, the three connected in the middle of several plantations with no community in sight. It was in Darlington County, which intersected with the part of Marion County that was west of the Pee Dee. Counties might have been referred to as districts at the time.
The junction was approximately two miles west of the first Florence station site, and the Florence name was moved to the junction. The new village of Florence came to life quickly, and the North Eastern bought a lot of property around the junction and had roughly four or five streets laid out.
Florence became an important railroad junction for the Confederates during the Civil War. After the war, the village continued to thrive as railroad shops opened and brought many new residents into the village. By the 1880s, the village had grown to near the size of neighboring towns such as Darlington and Marion. Ambitious Florence leadership began to urge elevation of Florence to county seat. The best case for this was the west Marion area that was across the river from the county seat with no public bridge over the river.
As agitation for a new county increased in the early 1880s, Belton O’Neall Townsend, a young Florence lawyer, ran for mayor with creation of a new county as a main basis of his campaign, according to Wayne King’s history of Florence County. Despite his running on a popular idea, Townsend was defeated by W.H. Day. The Marion Star was pleased, commenting that it was all for progress in Florence, “but not on the downfall of its neighbors.”
Sentiment for a new county picked up steadily, though, and a Committee of Fifty local leaders organized to lead the way. That committee appointed a subcommittee of R.G. Howard, Z.T. Kershaw and Townsend, who huddled in Columbia to work on a new bill for the proposed county. They used as models bills that had created other counties.
Rep. Z.T. Kershaw of Marion County introduced a bill to create the new county. It passed the House but was defeated in the Senate, as was Kershaw in the next election. So the work continued.
In December 1888, Rep. R.G. Howard of the Marion West Bank and Sen. Thomas Moody of Marion County introduced the bill that had been created by the subcommittee. On Dec. 17, 1888, the bill passed the Senate, and two days later, it passed the House. Gov. John Richardson signed it into law on Dec. 23, 1888, and Florence County came into being.
It took parts of four counties to create enough square mileage to make up a county. Marion’s west bank was part of it, as was the part of Darlington in which Florence was located. Williamsburg County contributed a sizeable amount of ground, and finally a corner of Clarendon County joined in to meet the required area. More of Williamsburg County joined Florence County in later years, including Lake City.
It was not the end of takings from the counties. A few years later, part of Darlington County went to create Lee County, and approximately half of the remainder of Marion County went to create Dillon County.
Not everything went smoothly, though. Officials were appointed by the governor to fill needed posts. Not long after that, the building in which county offices were located burned, and there went the earliest records of Florence County.
The city financed building a courthouse and jail, and everything has gone pretty well since.
Thom Anderson is a former editor of the Morning News.