Brief History of Summerville
Summerville's beauty is reflected in its motto, "The Flower Town in the Pines." Since the early 1900s, tourists have flocked to the town in early spring to enjoy millions of blossoms, particularly azaleas, in both private and public gardens — including the centrally located Azalea Park. It's perhaps no wonder the town's official seal bears the motto "Sacra Pinus Esto — The Pine is Sacred."
The town's name evokes its history. Located on a pine-forested ridge, Summerville was first inhabited in the late 1700s. South Carolina's Lowcountry residents sought refuge from summer heat, mosquitoes and disease. From May to September, plantation families from the nearby Ashley River and other coastal areas would head for higher elevations to live temporarily — or "maroon" — in the small forest colony soon named Summerville. Other early residents descended from the 1696 Puritans who settled the nearby former colonial settlement of Dorchester.
The railroad's arrival in the early 1800s led to the village's incorporation. Trees were cut in large numbers for laying rails and clearing lots near the tracks. To protect its most significant asset — its trees — the village became a town in 1847. It passed an ordinance, one of the country's oldest of its kind, prohibiting cutting certain-sized trees without permission and fining offenders $25, a hefty sum at the time. This ordinance remains on the books.
Earthquake and Development
The last decade of the 19th century saw two devastating local events, followed by a stroke of good fortune. While still recovering from the Civil War, Summerville was hit by an earthquake in 1886 and a downtown fire that destroyed most buildings around the town square.
The town's luck turned when the International Congress of Physicians in Paris declared Summerville one of the world's two best places for treating lung disorders. This belief was rooted in the purported healing properties of the local pine trees' turpentine scent. This led to the construction of inns and hotels to accommodate an influx of visitors, many of whom became permanent residents.
Despite the publicity and development, the town's population hovered around 3,000 for nearly a century. It didn't reach 6,000 until the late 1970s. As a bedroom community for larger urban centers, Summerville's population doubled in the 1980s. The town continues to attract families, businesspeople and military personnel, all seeking a quality of life that has largely disappeared in larger cities. Just 40 years ago, the town had a population of 3,000; today, it exceeds 50,000.