The Legacy of Coker Spring

cokerspringLocal historian Will Cole wrote in his book The Many Faces of Aiken, "Take a drink of Coker Spring water, and no matter where you may roam, you will return to Aiken."

Springs occur when underground water travels from its source to the surface of the earth. Sometimes water can be forced to the surface by an aquifer (a pool of water restricted by a layer of rock, gravel and sand). Springs forced to the surface by elevated sources are called artesian wells. Volcanic activity is another way that water can be forced up from beneath the earth's surface to form a spring. These are heated and the sources for hot springs.

A Water Source Since Prehistoric Times

Coker Spring, located on Coker Spring Road in Aiken, South Carolina, is a fresh water spring that is formed by a "junction" where the water table intersects the ground surface. Archeologists have discovered evidence that in prehistoric times, Coker Spring served the first Native American people who lived around the area that eventually came to be called "Aiken." As fresh water sites have always been, this spring was most certainly a place where people and animals stopped for refreshment over many millennia.

The road that ran in front of the spring was part of the "Old Tory Trail." It branched off the larger Pine Log Road, and British troops used the trail to travel between Fort Moore and Fort Grandby, near Columbia. They too would stop for a drink of fresh water at Coker Spring. The road that runs in front of the spring still remains unpaved.

Who Owns It?

Ephraim Franklin, the first recorded "owner," acquired the spring in 1787 as part of a 285-acre land grant. A land grant is a gift of land given by a governmental authority. Grants were given during the 17th and 18th centuries in South Carolina to either develop a plot of land or as a reward for military service. The reason the plot was granted to Mr. Franklin is unknown, but it probably was granted by the federal government of the newly formed United States of America rather than the Royal Crown in Britain, who gave land grants in an earlier era. The property later was purchased from Franklin by Joseph Cosnahan.

Meanwhile, Coker Spring continued to be the primary source of drinking water for the early settlers of the town of Aiken, although an ever-growing dispute brewed regarding the legalities of the actual ownership of the land. When the town was chartered in 1835, an attorney from Charleston named William Peronneau Finley owned the land on which the spring flowed. He eventually deeded Coker Spring to the town in 1844, but with some unresolved stipulations.

In 1852, the rights of ownership were argued in the Court of Appeals and the Court of Errors in Columbia. Apparently, Mr. Finley's partner, James Black, had sold parcels of land to several men who couldn't agree on the exact terms of settlement.

A Vibrant Center

Around the time of the Civil War, a school for girls run by a Madame Bonnetheau was situated in close proximity to the spring. This provided young men in Aiken ample reason to stop often for a sip at Coker Spring. It was also a regular stop on the stagecoach route from Abbeville to Charleston. Train passengers who disembarked in Aiken could catch the stagecoach to the Eastern Coast at the Coker Spring stop.

In 1880, the first springhouse, a small structure that maintains a constantly cool temperature inside throughout the year, was built of brick and covered with stucco. Sturdy retaining walls were constructed to extend along the left and right sides for stability. Through the end of the 19th century, Coker Spring was a vibrant center—not only for water, but for social activity, too. Women often used the water to wash their laundry; it was also the site of picnics and romantic encounters.

Artesian wells replaced Coker Spring as the city's main water source when Aiken's City Council established a central waterworks in 1892. In 1894, the first icehouse was located just below the spring, with the ice held in lead-lined vats. Later, as people began to have wells and running water in their homes, the springhouse fell into ruin. It was renovated in 1972 and Coker Spring became part of the National Register on January 18, 1978. It's currently undergoing yet another facelift, led by Aikenites concerned with educating new generations about Coker Spring's long and important history.

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In 1880, the first springhouse, a small structure that maintains a constantly cool temperature inside throughout the year, was built of brick and covered with stucco. Sturdy retaining walls were constructed to extend along the left and right sides for stability.

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