The Iselins: Winter Colonists and Philanthropists
C.O. and Hope Goddard Iselin—a couple whose story sounds like a romance novel—were members of a select group of American Industrial Revolution aristocracy who built mansions in Aiken, South Carolina as their winter residences.
The headline of the announcement in the May 5, 1896 New York Times read, “Hope Goddard Engaged to C.O. Iselin, Well-Known Yachtsman to Marry Heiress of millions.”
Twenty-six-year-old Hope Goddard was in line to inherit a huge fortune. Charles Oliver Iselin was a 40-year-old millionaire, made wealthy by his grandfather’s investments in coalmining and railroads. But Charles Iselin earned his own kind of fame—he lived the life of a dashing sportsman, described by Time magazine as "probably the most famed yachtsman in the U.S." during the latter part of the 19th century.
New York Yacht Club Legacy
Charles belonged to the elite New York Yacht Club. This privilege made him eligible to participate in the America’s Cup, the most celebrated regatta in the history of sailing with the oldest active trophy in international sports. The race is named the "America's Cup" in honor of the schooner America, which was the first yacht to win the trophy in a match against Britain in 1857. Charles Iselin is remembered for his unique skills that helped keep this trophy in the New York Yacht Club for many years.
After Charles and Hope married, she became the first U.S. woman to crew for an America’s Cup Race. Her involvement created great controversy in the 1890s. Hope also played in a 1900 golf tournament hosted by the Prince of Wales. She went on to soundly defeat the Russian Grand Duke during that event. Hope and Charles often could be seen sharing the British Royal Family’s private box at the famed Ascot horse race course in England.
Charmed by Aiken
The couple had many extravagant homes in the north, including "All View,” a castle-like estate with sweeping panoramic water views of New York City. Fredrick Olmstead, who designed Central Park, was their personal landscape architect.
But the Iselins also were drawn to Aiken, the little town with mild winters and dirt roads. They built their winter residence in Aiken around 1900 and named it “Hopelands.” They spent their winters racing thoroughbreds and modifying the gardens at Hopelands, planting hundreds of camellia bushes around the massive old oak trees. However, their enchantment with the small southern town inspired the Iselins to do more than just visit. Hope and Charles organized the Aiken Hospital and Relief Society in 1917 to build and buy equipment for the town’s first hospital.
The Iselins Give Back to the Town They Love
According to often-told stories, Hope won a considerable sum of money playing poker with her friends. She wanted to donate her winnings to a local church, but the church turned down her “ill-gotten gains.” So she and Charles decided to put the money to good use by starting the Aiken Hospital and Relief Society. Hope also was on the board of the Schofield School in Aiken. She supported the charter of that institution and dedicated herself to the education of African-American students, who were still segregated from public schools at that time.
Charles died in 1932, but Hope continued to be involved with her horses and invest in philanthropic causes in Aiken. When she died at age 102 in 1970, she left the 14 acres of Hopelands Gardens to the city so that everyone could enjoy the beauty of the landscape she cultivated for almost 70 years.
Today, her former stables are the home of the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum. Every summer, concerts are performed in Hopeland Gardens on the permanent stage that was constructed next to one of the ponds.