Nestled not far south of the North Carolina state line from Charlotte is a place of great contradictions, ample history, and limitless promise. Though actually the fifth-largest city in the state of South Carolina, Rock Hill still has a small-town feel to it through and through, and despite having a new technology and research hub—the Knowledge Park—it also boasts some of the finest and most beautiful old churches you could desire to view.
A leader in the arts and sports, this community also has a long history of being a leader in industry and once had some of the busiest textile mills of the region. It came into existence through something of an accident. Neighboring Ebenezerville refused the railroad a right-of-way because its citizens feared the noise and dust the trains would bring, so instead Rock Hill—at the time (1848) a small farming village—inherited the arrival of the railroad, and like so many towns in the South to which the trains came, it saw its fortunes and future change nearly overnight.
For a city in South Carolina, one of the most notable things about Rock Hill was its late start in life. South Carolina is known for its very old and well-established cities, the greatest of them being Charleston, once the wealthiest city in the thirteen original colonies. To see a major city in this state established a mere decade or two prior to the outbreak of the Civil War is somewhat surprising, and Rock Hill’s history is really a tale of the post-war South. That makes it, of course, more essential to study since it is for the South Carolina somewhat unique, even though it has a very similar history to the mill towns large and small—from Winston-Salem to Bynum—of North Carolina.
For it was the mills, textile mills mostly, which took advantage of the raw materials they required, ready labor, and the logistical prowess of the railroads to make North and South Carolina resurgent economic powers despite the depletion of their plantation economies in the war. Textiles, furniture, and tobacco made the post-war Carolinas able to grow the financial base which empowered them in banking and later in other industries, making them what they are today. With Rock Hill, the proximity to Charlotte was also a key draw and remains such, but at the apex of its textile industry Rock Hill readily came into its own: in 1880 the population was a humble 809, but a decade later 2,744. The city only continued to grow throughout the twentieth century.
Such economic prosperity of course made the downtown of Rock Hill a gem, and the facets of that gem that shone the brightest were its churches. Always a devout city, its fine churches rival any city’s—even Charleston’s. Today, many of these congregations survive and flourish, but some have for a variety of reasons moved to new church homes. One has been repurposed as a community center, preserving its architecture despite its losing its status as an active house of worship.
Two of the very finest of these churches are the First Presbyterian and the First Associate Reformed Presbyterian. Built of red brick and incorporating Gothic Revival as well as a bit of Romanesque Revival style in their architecture, these beautiful churches prove that even a single “persuasion” can contribute two separate leading churches to the fabric of a city. The Methodists, not to be outdone, have a beautiful and sprawling Gothic Revival church in their Saint John’s Church, also right downtown.
These churches along with downtown retail businesses made for an inviting, walkable city that may have been pious but wasn’t above showing its wealth as well. Romanesque Revival architecture especially became in vogue, and many of the downtown buildings sport rustic stonework, fancy brick, and other embellishments to proclaim that this city, though young, had the ability to fund such lavishness.
The town’s mills were sited not far from downtown, and Winthrop University, founded in 1886 as a teachers’ college for women but later becoming a co-ed “normal and industrial college,” is seated at a short distance from the city center as well. The school’s campus is everything you would hope a Southern university’s campus to be: grand brick buildings, a lush grassy campus canopied with shade trees, a modern student center with ample windows allowing in Southern sunshine. Winthrop excels both in academics and athletics and has over the years become one of the fine, smaller and thus intimate, liberal arts universities for which the South—especially the Carolinas—is known.
Not far from the downtown core of Rock Hill and Winthrop sits old, closed cotton mills from days when the textile economy fueled the city. Yet these mills are to live again: Redeveloped as part of the city’s sweeping and comprehensive twenty-year redevelopment program into Knowledge Park, the new tech and research hub will furnish space for technology start-ups and for additional class and lab space for Winthrop’s programs. It will also provide retail space and promises to involve the community in this push towards the future.
Knowledge Park strives to be more than just another cluster of start-up companies or labs for established ones or university researchers but instead an ambitious effort to bring tech into everyday life while honoring the history of these mills—which were of course actually leading-edge technology of their own time though it may be easy to view them as antiquated now. The mills provide sizable space including large open but roofed areas that are dynamic and able to be developed into versatile uses.
Technology is not the only field Rock Hill is looking to for its economic future, though. The city has invested a great deal in tourism and recreation, sponsoring and promoting various festivals to draw visitors from near and far to its downtown. One of the most impressive and daring gambits has been Manchester Meadows, an expansive park for soccer where no expense was spared, no detail overlooked.
The park is for a soccer player a dream come true with numerous manicured fields, a large and well-equipped core facility for offices and concessions, and two tournament-level competition fields with ample spectator seating. The complex was built for a two-fold purpose: to provide a first-rate facility for area youth soccer but also as an attraction, to draw in soccer tournaments and promote the sport in the region—and the region itself in the minds of soccer directors as a place to come for tournaments and training. It has certainly worked. Manchester Meadows is a great success and builds upon the strong soccer culture of the area, with Winthrop at the lead in collegiate soccer as well.
Many cities in the South will look back with fond memories to their industrial past—at cotton mills, textiles, tobacco, or coal mining—and consider what they have lost in more recent decades. But instead of lamenting these changes, Rock Hill has discovered how the past and its unique local resources—including aspects such as Winthrop University—can be mined for its future. Between its proximity to Charlotte, one of the South’s leading major cities, and its home-grown beauty and industrious nature, Rock Hill showcases an example of what’s possible and how bright a future can be for those who desire it.
SEE MORE OF MIKE WALKER’S ROCK HILL PHOTOS HERE