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A Brief History of Hampton Park
Charleston area residents and visitors know Hampton Park as a wonderful place to spend some leisurely time enjoying the outdoors and some recreation. Whether strolling the paths through the gardens, feeding the ducks, or biking around Murray Boulevard, Hampton Park is a favorite of locals and visitors, alike. But even with it’s popularity, not many people know the long and interesting history of the land that is now Hampton Park. Here are some highlights…
In 1769, what is now Hampton Park was part of a plantation owned by John Gibbes. It was known as Grove Plantation, or Orange Grove Plantation. (and yes, there were orange groves in Charleston, more on that in later posts).
When Gibbes died in 1780, he didn’t have any children, so the 232-acre plantation was divided into lots and sold off.
The Horse Racing Track
In 1792, the South Carolina Jockey club established a horse racing track on 60 acres of property and named it Washington Race Course. The course was quite popular, with a big annual race occurring in February, attracting thousands of people.
You can trace the track today if you walk or drive around Murray Blvd., which sits on almost the exact location of the original race track.
Civil War POW Camp
During the Civil War, Washington Race Course was used as a POW camp by the Confederacy. Conditions there were harsh, and more than 200 Union soldiers died there and were buried in mass graves.
The First Memorial Day?
After the Confederacy left Charleston, free people of color and newly freed enslaved people wanted to honor the sacrifice of the Union soldiers who were buried at the race course. A group of workmen gave the Union dead a proper burial in an area that they designated as a cemetery. An archway over the entrance to the cemetery was inscribed, “The Martyrs of the Race Course.”
On May 1st, 1865, thousands of free people of color lead a procession through the city to the cemetery to dedicate it. They held a ceremony with song, speeches, and scripture reading, and decorated the cemetery.
Many believe that this dedication on May 1st was the precursor to our current Memorial Day celebration.
The significant use for the land was for the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition. The exposition lasted from December 1, 1901 until May 31, 1902. The purpose of the exposition was to showcase the agricultural prowess of South Carolina and to attract businesses to Lowcountry and the state, while offering some fun for people, too.
The expo attracted hundreds of thousands of attendees, but was a financial failure. Two highlights of the expo were the visit from President Theodore Roosevelt and the establishment of the Cigar Factory in Charleston. While the expo might have been a financial failure for those who put it on, it did have a significant impact on the Charleston area.
After the expo closed, the City of Charleston acquired the land and designated it for a park. Hampton Park (named for Confederate General and South Carolina Governor, Wade Hampton II). At one time, the park even had a zoo from about 1932-1975.
The park fell into a bit of disrepair in the 1970s-80s, and the refurbished Hampton Park was opened in 1984.
Since then, it has enjoyed much popularity and is a regular host for many community events, including concerts during the Piccolo Spoleto Festival every year.
Charleston’s Hidden Gem
For over 100 years, Hampton Park has served as a place of respite, recreation, and entertainment for countless locals and visitors.
And while you might not be able to visit it on one of our walking tours, we highly recommend you take some time to visit Hampton Park and stroll through the gardens and back in time.