Exploring the landmarks and rich history of historic downtown Conway
Like many small Southern towns, Conway, South Carolina, or Kingston, as it was originally known, formed around a moving body of water that would provide a means of transportation and opportunity: the Waccamaw River. Initiated as a hub for Naval store exports and other crops, the village of Kingston grew slowly at first, eventually becoming the charming and lively place we know as Conway today.
If you haven’t spent time in Conway lately, it’s well worth the walk around; the stretches of peaceful waterfront are shaded with live oak trees and in the business district an assortment of shops, restaurants and cultural landmarks give Conway authentic flavor. Ben Burroughs, director of the Horry County Archives Center at Coastal Carolina University and known by residents for his passion for local history, shared a few stories about Conway’s past.
“Conway—Kingston—was actually sort of an inland seaport town, founded in 1732,” he explained, “and from the earliest days of the village, ocean-going ships would come up the Waccamaw River and dock here at the village wharf. Not huge ships like the ones in Charleston or Georgetown, but the smaller coastal schooners. The town’s original name was Kingston, but it was changed to Conwayborough after the Revolutionary War. The name came from Robert Conway, a local politician representing the area in the state legislature.”
Interestingly, Conway’s first incorporation as a town happened in 1855, a few decades and then some before documentation reports. According to Burroughs, many of those instrumental in incorporating the town in 1855 either died during or soon after the Civil War or moved away, as well as the first mayor, Captain Samuel Pope, and the second mayor, Joseph J. Richwood.
“Sometime after the Civil War, the first incorporation was allowed to lapse,” Burroughs said. “So the incorporation in 1898 was actually a reincorporation.”
Conway’s very first mayor, Captain Pope, was originally from Wells, Maine, and, like most early residents of the town, dealt in the Naval stores industry. Pope’s home, which was torn down in 1968, was located where Conway’s Chamber of Commerce is currently located. Pope also owned a lumber shipyard—the same one that provided carpenters with supplies to build the presbyterian church.
Actually, pine was an important commodity for early Conway, and pine farming was a staple for the region. Pine trees provided sap, which was used to make turpentine, a substance used to build and maintain the Naval ships passing along the Waccamaw. Later, the Naval stores industry was basically reduced to a lumber industry.
A stroll around Conway’s downtown business district reveals one of the town’s most historic landmarks according to Burroughs. City Hall is located at the intersection of Main Street and Third Avenue. Originally the site of the second Horry County courthouse (the county seat of Horry is Conway), the building is home to a courtroom that looks almost as it did when built between 1824 and 1825.
“There are earthquake rods running through the building, placed there after the Charleston earthquake,” Burroughs said. “They raised the courtroom floor to place rods beneath it, so the original floor is beneath the height of the present floor.”
Another landmark, Kingston Presbyterian Church, is located at Kingston Street. Constructed by ship builders who worked at Captain Pope’s shipyard, the church was later covered in stucco in order to blend with an addition built to the rear of the structure.
Beside the church is the serene village burial ground, a must-see for its historical significance as well as its beauty. According to Burroughs, the burial ground was originally in the area designated as the “Town Commons” and the original sanctuary was located within those boundaries. That building fell into disrepair, and when the present one was constructed it was built adjacent to the “Town Commons.”
“We’re lucky to have what we still have of the burial ground,” Burroughs acknowledged. “Many of the stones were broken or stolen throughout the years.”
Another church, the First United Methodist Church located at the intersection of Main and Fifth Avenue, is the area’s oldest surviving Methodist church. The original church building was fashioned from wood in 1844; a second gothic structure was made of brick (1898) and still stands, joined by a missions-style structure (1910) and, most recently, a Georgian-style sanctuary (1961).
The nearby T.W. Beaty House, built around 1845 (though its historic marker incorrectly states the 1860s), was home to Thomas Beaty, a well-known political figure from the Civil War era who supported South Carolina’s secession from the Union. Beaty’s home was the scene of many political gatherings. His expansive front yard, no longer present, was used for events and rallies.
“A large fire occurring around 1898 destroyed about two blocks of Conway’s earliest buildings,” Burroughs pointed out. “Those buildings were wooden, and they easily burned. One of them, a pre-Revolutionary War structure, was used as one of General Francis Marion’s headquarters before it was later moved into the downtown to be used as a store.”
Despite the loss Conway has endured, pieces of its rich history present themselves on a regular basis. For example, a real cannon straight out of the Revolutionary War is buried at the foot of the iconic clock at City Hall. Furthermore, a cannonball was recently unearthed from the base of a large oak tree, ten inches in diameter and likely from the Civil War. It was then discovered that it contained gunpowder and was still live.
“It’s likely that the cannonball landed in soft ground and was immediately buried. Gradually, a Live Oak tree grew up and the cannonball got entangled in the tree’s roots,” Burroughs said.
“We removed the projectile and hoped to display it in the Horry County Museum, but military officials were notified when it was discovered that the shell was still live and they blew it up. All of these years people had been passing by it downtown not realizing what lay just below the surface of the dirt.”
No doubt visitors to the Conway area will find their way to the Visitor’s Center at 903 Third Ave., which was built around 1860 and originally used as a two-room doctor’s office, then a law office and finally the first bank in Horry County. Next to the Visitor’s Center, the popular Encore gift shop is located inside one of the town’s two oldest houses (pre-1850).
Stop in at the Visitor’s Center, introduce yourself to the friendly staff and pick up information and brochures about downtown Conway’s historic district. The hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.