When you think of Columbia’s award-winning Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden, you might think of their incredible western lowland gorilla family, the wrestling brother grizzly bears Butch and Sundance or the new Sea Lion Landing. Maybe you think of the charming children’s garden, Waterfall Junction, or the exciting Zipline Adventures.
But did you know that besides being one of the best zoos in the country, Riverbanks is also an important historic site? In fact, Riverbanks has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places for more than 40 years. Fascinating historic ruins can be seen with just a short walk over a bridge and through the woods of its lovely 170 acres.
To start your history walk, head over to the long footbridge across the Saluda River, just past the Endangered Species Carousel and towards the Botanical garden on the other side. The walk across the footbridge, which crosses a stretch of the wide river studded with boulders and tiny rapids, is spectacular on its own. But pay attention as you cross. You’ll see a small island down in the river to your left. Look closely and you’ll see the remnants of the footings for a bridge. Now look on the shore, and you’ll see more massive granite blocks piled there, as well. You’re looking at the remains of the old State Road Bridge, a covered bridge that was burned to the ground by the Confederate Army in a futile attempt to prevent Gen. William T. Sherman from entering Columbia toward the end of the Civil War.
Finish your walk over the bridge to the other side and head into the cool shade of the River Trail. This beautiful paved trial will take you along the river’s edge with gorgeous views and to another historic site. The ruins of an old mill and its millrace on the riverbank, The Saluda River Factory, was once one of the largest mills in South Carolina and was the first water-powered textile mill in the state. Before the Civil War, enslaved people operated the factory. It was burned to the ground by Sherman and then rebuilt after the War. It burned down again, this time in an accident, in 1884. You can see its massive granite foundation and the outline and arch of the old millrace that once brought water to power the factory.
When you’ve finished your walk back in time, make sure you hitch a ride up the hill on the tram to visit the magnificent rose gardens before you head back to the swinging siamangs, rumbling tiger and stately elephants.
Riverbanks Zoo is home to amazing animals AND amazing history.