The Boulevards of Aiken

boulevardsThe existence of Aiken, South Carolina could be called a romantic accident. And the well-documented story also explains one of Aiken's most unique aesthetic features: its beautiful—and sometimes tricky-to-navigate—boulevards.

The love story begins with Captain William White Williams, a cotton merchant from Charleston. In 1820, he built a house in what would eventually be Aiken. The first frame house of its kind constructed in this part of the country, it still stands on the corner of Ray Lane and York Street. The Captain had a lovely young daughter named Sara, who became an important part of the equation that created Aiken.

A Railroad Is Born

Captain Williams was desperate for a fast and inexpensive way to transport cotton from his fields to Charleston. In 1828 he and some of his business associates, including William Aiken, created the South Carolina Railway and Canal Company. Williams and others interested in seeing their little crossroads become a town donated large blocks of land to the railroad.

The line would begin in the hamlet of Hamburg on the banks of the Savannah River, where his cotton would be loaded into boxcars and arrive within a day at the seaport of Charleston to be shipped to Europe.

How, the captain wondered, could he get the train close enough to his fields so he could avoid the additional expense of hauling the cotton long distances by wagon?

Captain Williams: Out of Luck ...

Enter the other major player in this love story: Alfred Andrew Dexter, a young, Harvard-educated surveyor who worked for the Captain's railroad company. He spent weeks investigating where the railroad track should be positioned and concluded that it would be in the rail company's best interest to lay the track about 15 miles south of the Captain's cotton fields. Despite Dexter's best calculations to steer the rail bed toward the Captain's fields, it would be impossible for the train to negotiate the 500-foot, steep grade between Warrenville and his land.

... Until Alfred Met Sara

Then Dexter met Miss Sara Williams, the captain's daughter. Smitten, he begged the captain for her hand in marriage. According to local legend, Captain Williams replied, "No railroad for me, young man, no wife for you!"

Dexter re-thought his "impossible" calculations. He and his assistant, C.O. Pascalis, designed a stationary engine with a winch that was situated on the crest of the hill where Park Avenue curves into Hayne Avenue today. This engineering genius allowed trains to negotiate the "impossible" grade. The stationary engine pulled trains up and down the slope on a cable over a windlass so they could make their way safely between the Warrenville and Aiken stops.

Dexter and Miss Williams were betrothed, and the roadbed for the train was run within 100 yards of the Captain's home.

The 136-mile journey from Charleston (through Aiken) and on to Hamburg was the first successful scheduled railroad service in America. It was also the world's longest railroad at the time it was completed in 1833.

Aiken and Its Boulevards Take Shape

Dexter and Miss Williams were married in January of 1834. With his new wife and his powerful father-in-law to anchor him, Dexter decided to stay. He and his partner Pascalis set about creating a town where there had been only cotton fields and a train stop. They created a geometric street map and plotted the way the town would be laid out directly over the site where the old railroad construction camp had stood. The two also planned for expansive, 150-foot-wide boulevards. This width, they knew, would allow wagons pulled by as many as six horses to turn around without difficulty. They envisioned parkways planted with seasonal flowers and shrubs at the centers of the boulevards.

Aiken became a chartered town in 1835 and was named in honor of the president of the railroad, William Aiken, who had been killed in an accident in Charleston before the project was completed. Today, Aiken's boulevards help distinguish it from many other quaint southern towns. Horse enthusiasts, who still traverse the boulevards with their carriages, certainly find the ample width appealing.

Today: Gorgeous Flowers (And Confused Visitors)

The city meticulously maintains the center parkways, which have been planted over the last 175 years with camellias, azaleas, lorepedlum, gardenias, Japanese maple, and magnolias. Their varied colors match their blooming seasons so that colorful flowers always catch the eyes of travelers.

Downtown, several roundabouts have been installed to transition the one-way traffic across the broad boulevards. Aikenites are used to this tricky maneuvering, but visitors—while they appreciate the beauty of the parkways—often are confused.

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Aiken became a chartered town in 1835 and was named in honor of the president of the railroad, William Aiken, who had been killed in an accident in Charleston before the project was completed.

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Aiken Regional Medical Centers is owned and operated by a subsidiary of Universal Health Services, Inc.(UHS), a King of Prussia, PA-based company, that is one of the largest healthcare management companies in the nation.          

Aiken Regional Medical Centers

302 University Parkway
Aiken, SC 29801

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