Newcomers’ guide to Columbia: Here’s (almost) everything to know if you’re new to Soda City

·8 min read

From barbecue to those wretched trains, if you’re new to Columbia there are some things you really need to know.

Whether you’ve just moved into a dorm at one of the city’s half-dozen colleges, you’re training at Fort Jackson, you’re visiting family or friends, or life has otherwise led you to town, we’re here to help you fit in with these essential tips and bits of history.

What’s in a name?

Cola, Colatown, Soda City, the Capital City, Columbi-YEAH!

Columbia is a city of many names. Pick the one you like.

Charlotte is the Queen City. Charleston is the Holy City.

But Columbia has a bit of an identity challenge. It isn’t quite as pretty as Charleston, as rich as Charlotte or as polished as Greenville.

It’s a solid town, sure. But a work in progress. And has been since 1786.

So we make stuff up on the road to identity. OK, It’s hot. So let’s make it Famously Hot.

But a cool nickname that sticks? Still working on it.

The Capital City, given the town’s status as South Carolina’s seat of government, makes sense.

Cola is the oldest nickname, stemming from the city’s former postal abbreviation. It’s still in use on envelopes aplenty.

By extension, Colatown kinda rolls off the tongue.

Soda City is the newest incarnation, a goof on the soft-drink-y “Cola” tag. First the name of the popular Saturday market on Main Street, it’s since been adopted city-wide.

The website ColaToday even coined our fine residents as “soda citizens.” Cute.

And Columbia-YEAH! was a hipster stab at the challenge back around Y2K. Quirky. Fun. And a great T-shirt.

But we’re fans of Colatown. It has a ring and just feels right.

You can buy a Columbi-yeah! T-shirt to celebrate one of Columbia’s many nicknames.
You can buy a Columbi-yeah! T-shirt to celebrate one of Columbia’s many nicknames.

Huger and Gervais

Two of the main-est drags downtown bear these odd and generally mispronounced names.

The recipients of the honor were two Revolutionary War-era figures from South Carolina.

Gervais Street is named after John Lewis Gervais, who helped establish Columbia as the state’s capital and named the city in 1786.

Huger Street is named after Isaac Huger, a brigadier general in the Revolutionary War. He went on to serve in the S.C. Senate and House of Representatives.

Both men were Huguenots, French Protestants who fled to the American colonies in the 1600s to escape Catholic oppression.

So Huger is not pronounced “Hue-ger” as you would think. It’s “U-gee.”

And Gervais is not “GRR-vis” or “grr-VASE,” but “jer-VAY.”

Now you know.

The corner of Gervais and Huger streets
The corner of Gervais and Huger streets

Y’all

Northern transplants, don’t screw this up.

Y’all is Southern for “youse” or “you guys.”

It is always plural. Don’t turn to someone and say, “Y’all come with me.” They’ll start looking around for the other person.

But y’all also has a super-plural form — “all y’all.” Meaning a group.

“I’m gonna whip all y’all’s butts,” for example. Or in football terms, “Carolina versus all y’all.”

Oh! And while we’re giving dialect tips, a soft drink is called a soda, not a pop.

First planned city

Columbia was the first planned city in the United States, founded in 1786, just three years after the Revolutionary War ended and four years before Washington, D.C., came to be.

But there’s an asterisk.

*Savannah was laid out in 1733, but that was before the Revolution. So Columbia was the first planned city founded in the United States.

Columbia’s street grid was laid out in salable plots around the proposed State House grounds — the blocks we have today.

Generally, the north-south streets were named after Revolutionary War figures with state ties: Bull, Sumter, etc. East-west streets after trees: Laurel, Elmwood, etc.

In 1791, then the nation’s inaugural president, Gen. George Washington, visited Columbia on his only tour of the Palmetto State. Washington Street was named in his honor.

City and state leaders also wanted to name a street after Washington’s wife, Martha. But Martha Washington Street didn’t seem dignified back in the day, and Mrs. Washington Street would be confusing. So they named it “Lady Street,” after Lady Washington.

Capitol Places is transforming the Owen Building into luxury apartments on Lady Street in Columbia, SC. More than 130 apartments will be available for lease in February 2019.
Capitol Places is transforming the Owen Building into luxury apartments on Lady Street in Columbia, SC. More than 130 apartments will be available for lease in February 2019.

The not-so-recent unpleasantness

In 1864, during the Civil War, about one-third of the city burned to the ground when Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union troops marched in and Confederate soldiers headed out.

A few antebellum houses still stand around Pickens Street. But not many.

Six bronze stars on the west side of the State House mark where Sherman’s cannons hit.

BTW: Lincoln Street is not named for Abraham Lincoln, but for Revolutionary War general Benjamin Lincoln.

The State House was unfinished when Columbia was burned. You can see Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in the background.
The State House was unfinished when Columbia was burned. You can see Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in the background.

Palmetto trees

Let’s be clear, those little palm-ish looking trees you see everywhere are NOT palm trees. They are palmettos, or cabbage palms.

Also called Sabal palms (Sabal palmetto), cabbage palms grow like weeds along the Southeastern coast. They are ideally suited to warm, moist weather, and we’ve got tons of that.

South Carolina is known as the Palmetto State, and the tree adorns the state flag (the nation’s coolest, objectively speaking). It’s on the flag because a small group of South Carolina patriots built a fort out of them on Sullivan’s Island near Charleston during the Revolutionary War.

The tree’s fibrous trunks would absorb the shock of cannon balls. Plus there were plenty of them around.

The soldiers manned the fort in 1776 and fought off a big chunk of the British navy during the Revolution.

While Palmettos are not native to Columbia, so many have been planted since 1783 and reproduced organically that they might as well be.

They give Colatown a semi-tropical vibe. Which is nice.

A palmetto tree lit in blue glows above people paying their respects during the Law Enforcement Memorial Service on the South Carolina State House grounds on Friday.
A palmetto tree lit in blue glows above people paying their respects during the Law Enforcement Memorial Service on the South Carolina State House grounds on Friday.

Barbecue

Dear newbie, you are blessed.

Barbecue around here comes with all the sauces: Tomato-based, pepper and vinegar, and the Midlands’ own mustard-based or “gold” sauce.

(Sorry Alabama, the white sauce just hasn’t fully caught on, but it’s around.)

We are the melting pot of enlightened swine.

And before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight:

Barbecue is NOT grilled chicken or any other meat, nor the device upon which they are grilled. And one doesn’t host a “barbecue” here unless you have a big hunk of pig over a pit or in a smoker somewhere.

Barbecue is slow-cooked pork, smoked for hours and hours over low heat and basted constantly.

It is usually a pork butt that after a half day over coals or in a smoker is pulled, shredded or chopped, slathered in one of the above sauces and piled on a bun, or with a side of white bread. (We’re talking Wonder or Sunbeam here.)

The State reporter Chris Trainor gestures to a box of barbecue at Ward’s Barbecue in Sumter, South Carolina on February 10, 2022.
The State reporter Chris Trainor gestures to a box of barbecue at Ward’s Barbecue in Sumter, South Carolina on February 10, 2022.

A couple caveats: While ribs fall under the barbecue(d) banner, barbecue is the slow-cooked meat prepared and served as above.

Besides the ribs, head, tail, hooves and innards, the rest of the hog can be barbecue — hence the name “whole-hog” barbecue.

In a “pig pickin’,” the whole hog — hams, shoulder, butt and loin — is pulled off the carcass by hand (preferably by the eater) then shredded and chopped together in one big mound of dang happy.

Trains

You’re stuck behind a train. Welcome to Columbia.

Columbia’s central location in the southern East Coast has always been a crossroads. And the Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads cross here and share a yard in Cayce.

The tracks run smack through the middle and south of downtown, and trains — long ones — roll through day and night, and you never know when that might be.

Lunchtime and rush hour seem to be favorites.

They have a habit of coming to a dead stop just two or three cars from clearing the intersection. They know when you’re running late. Fun.

Get used to it.

Cars wait at the rail road crossing on the intersection of Whaley and Assembly where Richland County has requested money to construct an overpass.
Cars wait at the rail road crossing on the intersection of Whaley and Assembly where Richland County has requested money to construct an overpass.

But you can use the time positively.

Recline the seat, close your eyes, and immerse yourself in a podcast.

Enjoy a little semi-quiet time (except for the clanging of the bells at the crossing).

Make a couple phone calls you’ve been putting off. Mom would be good. She wants to hear from you.

And (and this is a big “and”) the delays have one huge benefit: You have a built-in excuse if you’re late for anything.

“Got caught by a train” is as commonly used a phrase as “Go Cocks” around here.

Speaking of Cocks:

Cocks

Yes, it is OK to say or yell “Go Cocks” in public, either here in Columbia or elsewhere at a stadium where the Gamecocks are playing. Everywhere else, not so much.

You can have “Cocks” emblazoned on a T-shirt or cap, bumper stickers, mugs or any other item you might like. Heck, the Carolina cheerleaders used to have Cocks printed on the seat of their shorts.

There is also a hearty “Go Cocks!” in USC’s fight song.

The more modest will generally use Gamecocks or Chickens in reference to the garnet and black. But a “Go Cocks” fist bump or toast is universal.

And given that the Shag is the official state dance, we can safely say we’re shaggin’ in public and yellin’ go cocks.

With Kenny Chesney looking on, Lee Corso dons the Gamecock headpiece and holds Sir Big Spur, signifying his picking of South Carolina to win over Missouri, during ESPN’s College GameDay broadcast from the University of South Carolina’s Horseshoe.
With Kenny Chesney looking on, Lee Corso dons the Gamecock headpiece and holds Sir Big Spur, signifying his picking of South Carolina to win over Missouri, during ESPN’s College GameDay broadcast from the University of South Carolina’s Horseshoe.

USC and Carolina

A final word on the identity thing.

The state’s flagship university, the University of South Carolina, is commonly referred to locally as USC or Carolina. But outside of the state, USC is the University of Southern California, and Carolina is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But heck, our Carolina was founded in 1801. Southern Cal in 1880. We’ve got ‘em by 79 years.

The university recently adopted “UofSC” as the school’s official handle. For copyright reasons. OK. Fine.

As for North Carolina? The Tar Heels will always be Carolina nationally because of all those basketball titles. (But thanks to Dawn Staley, USC has a couple now, too.)

And the University of North Carolina was founded in 1789.

We give.

South Carolina cheerleaders entertain the crowd Tuesday evening during a prep rally at Colonial Life Arena on March 21, 2017, in Columbia, S.C. The men’s team will play on Friday at 7:29 p.m. against Baylor and the women’s team will take on Quinnipac at 4 p.m. on Saturday.
South Carolina cheerleaders entertain the crowd Tuesday evening during a prep rally at Colonial Life Arena on March 21, 2017, in Columbia, S.C. The men’s team will play on Friday at 7:29 p.m. against Baylor and the women’s team will take on Quinnipac at 4 p.m. on Saturday.