An abundance of pine trees made Summerville a popular destination for Charlestonians in the late 1700s but it was the South Carolina Railroad that literally built the town.
Summerville, the “Flower Town in the Pines,” was first established in the late 1700s when people from the Charleston area made their way Northwest seeking respite from miserable summer heat and the threat of diseases including malaria and yellow fever.
Houses were built around present day St. Paul’s Church, an area known as Summerville Village. Around 1828 John Peake, a railroad engineer for the South Carolina Railroad, traveled to Summerville Village to decide on a route for railroad tracks.
His home, known as White Gables, still stands today.
According to Dr. Ed West, a Summerville historian and volunteer at the Summerville-Dorchester Museum, the South Carolina Railroad cut down most of the trees in one area near the railroad tracks. They constructed broad boulevards and set the foundation of a town square. In 1831 the railroad sold those lots to Charlestonians.
West said residents grew worried about the number of trees that were being cut down to build the railroad. To protect the trees, the village became an official town in 1847. The first law they passed prohibited people from cutting down certain trees without permission.
Much of Summerville’s history is connected to Maroon communities that developed in nearby swamps, according to West.
“The plantation system drove many, many people into the woods,” West said.
When people did manage to escape enslavement, they often fled to the wilderness because the underground railroad did not reach this far into the deep South. Those survivors started new lives inside of secluded areas including Beech Hill Road and Four Holes Swamp.
West described the Maroon communities as “the heart of the culture that developed up here in the outskirts of the town.”
During the Civil War, Summerville was home to refugees. West said starting in 1862, as the Charleston peninsula was under attack, its residents fled to Summerville. Injured soldiers were sent to the Summerville General Hospital located near present-day North Maple Street.
Before it recovered from the War Between The States, Summerville was struck by a devastating earthquake-estimated at between 6.6 and 7.3 on the Richter scale.
Historians claim that the natural disaster did more damage to Summerville and Charleston than did the Civil War and all of the hurricanes and fires thereafter. In addition to the earthquake, much of Summerville’s downtown area was destroyed by a fire.
Good fortune followed. Summerville was declared “The Healthiest Place in the World,” during the Paris Expo of 1888. The International Congress of Physicians gave Summerville the title because of the town’s reputation as an ideal place for the treatment of lung disorders.
Before long, visitors were flocking to Summerville in the hope of restoring their health. This lead to the construction of grand inns, hotels, and winter homes for wealthy Americans. Around that same time, Dr. Charles Shepard, a scientific philanthropist, established the Pinehurst Tea Plantation in Summerville. For 27 years he cultivated prize winning tea. According to local historian Barbara Hill, the Tea Plantation drew multitudes of visitors including Presidents, William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt.
The plantation was closed after Shepard died. Decades later some of the remaining tea plants were moved to Wadmalaw Island to become part of the Charleston Tea Plantation production of American Classic Tea.
According to the Town of Summerville, the town’s population remained close to 3,000 for nearly a century. By the 1970s the town’s population doubled to 6,000. After that the Flowertown in the Pines experienced rapid growth as more and more families moved to Summerville for its beauty, charm and family friendly-atmosphere. Today the population is more than 50,000.