Although some European immigrants arrived in the Rock Hill area in the 1830s and 1840s, it was not until the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad Company decided to build a rail line through the area that Rock Hill became a town. Originally, the railroad planned to construct a stop in Ebenezer Village, a small town halfway between Charlotte, North Carolina, and Columbia, South Carolina. When approached, however, the residents of Ebenezerville refused to allow the train to pass through their town because it was dirty and noisy. Engineers and surveyors instead chose to run the line two miles away, near a local landmark. According to others, the engineers drew a map and labeled the location “rocky hill.”
The White family, the Black family, and the Moores, among Rock Hill’s early founding families, believed that having a train depot so close to them would be beneficial, so they agreed to allow the Columbia and Charlotte Railroad the right of way across their holdings. This decided the question because they were the three greatest landowners in the area. The railroad hired George Pendleton White to build a portion of the route. The construction of the building began in 1848. On March 23, 1852, the first passenger train arrived. The first Rock Hill Post Office opened a few weeks later, on April 17, 1852.
Rock Hill continued to attract more settlers now that it had a name, a train station, and a post office. In 1849 or 1850, Captain J. H. McGinnis constructed a small general store near the station to supply supplies to construction and railroad employees. Templeton Black, who had leased the land to McGinnis, intended to develop a larger settlement on some of his other surrounding properties. Squire John Roddey, a local surveyor, was engaged to lay out a main street. A few weeks before the post office opened, Black sold his first parcel of land along that street to Ira Ferguson for $125; other businessmen soon bought portions after that.
The first school in Rock Hill, Rock Hill Academy, opened in September 1854. Despite its official name, most residents called it the Pine Forest Academy, after the pine grove in which it was located. After George White’s death, Ann Hutchinson White, his wife, donated the land to the school. In 1856, the school had 60 male students; later, a school for females was established in the same location.
Other significant facts and dates
The Indian Land Chronicle, Rock Hill’s first newspaper, started publication before December 1857. In 1860, it was renamed The Rock Hill Chronicle after a change of ownership. Before 1860, there were at least two doctors in Rock Hill: Robert Hervey Hope and William Barron Fewell.
During the American Civil War
A census of the population of York County, where Rock Hill is located, was done shortly before the American Civil War began. Slaves made up half of the district’s 21,800 population, who were vital to local cotton production. The county’s 4,379 white males organized fourteen infantry companies; some men enlisted in cavalry or artillery instead. Eight hundred and five of these guys died and hundreds more were injured at the end of the war. Many of the important Civil War battles were fought by men from Rock Hill and York County.
Rock Hill became a transition station for Confederate soldiers and supplies traveling to and from the front because of its location on the railroad. Because there was no hospital in the area, townspeople cared for sick and injured soldiers in their homes. Refugees fleeing the coastal blockade as well as General Sherman’s forces arrived in Rock Hill.
Farmers in the area began switching from cotton to maize in the spring of 1862 in order to produce more food. Prices in Rock Hill fluctuated frequently throughout the war, owing to both shortages and the inflation of Confederate paper money, according to records.
On February 21, 1865, Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard established a temporary headquarters in Rock Hill. He ordered the routes to Charlotte to be closed in an attempt to keep General Sherman from reaching the city; Sherman, however, took an alternative route.
It was actually a future Rock Hill resident who waved the white flag as General Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House. General James Longstreet despatched Captain Robert Moorman Sims, a Lancaster County farmer, to warn Union troops that the Confederate troops requested a truce.
The Civil War drastically altered the social, economic, and political landscape at Rock Hill, as it did throughout the South. The settlement of Rock Hill expanded as a result of the influx of war refugees, widows, and their families, as well as the return of men who had gone off to serve in the war. To stay afloat financially, the once-wealthy elite sold off their land. Town life would begin to take precedence over rural life.
Most of the shopkeepers in Rock Hill in 1870 were former Confederate soldiers, and many were newcomers seeking to make a name for themselves. Even the largest stores in Rock Hill were only one story tall in 1870, and the roadways had no sidewalks. In the 1870s, Rock Hill’s first drug store opened. In 1881, a controversial bordello was built, which included the town’s first paved sidewalk.
On the third attempt, the town was legally formed in 1870. In 1855, the first attempt to integrate Rock Hill was attempted. On October 19, 1855, a petition signed by significant landowners and businesspeople from the Rock Hill area was brought to the General Assembly. The General Assembly took no action on the topic.
In 1868, a second effort was made. The community of Rock Hill had over 300 citizens, “eleven stores, two churches, two bars, two hotels, two carriage shops, three blacksmith shops, three shoe shops, one tannery, one cabinet shop, and elementary schools for white girls and boys,” according to their petition. Only a few members of the old, established, landed families signed the petition, which was signed by 48 men, the majority of whom were newcomers to Rock Hill. Because of the taxes that incorporation would entail, the larger landowners were opposed. They countered with a counter-proposal claiming only 100 residents, many of them were transitory.
The incident exemplified the changes that occurred in Rock Hill as it transformed from a farming town to a corporate one. Both petitions were ultimately ignored by the state government, and Rock Hill remained unincorporated.
Only one year following the failed petition in 1868, the third successful petition was filed in 1869. There were 57 signers in favor of incorporation this time, with only seven against. If the petition was approved, the opponents would possess 80 percent of the area that would be integrated into Rock Hill. They were unsuccessful in their attempt to block incorporation this time, and Rock Hill became a city on February 26, 1870.
Civil Rights Movement
Two pivotal moments in the civil rights struggle took place in Rock Hill. After conducting a sit-in at a segregated McCrory’s lunch counter in downtown Rock Hill in February 1961, nine African-American men were sentenced to the York County prison farm. The activists’ names are etched on the existing spot, which is today known as “Kounter.” Their crime was “refusing to cease singing hymns during their daily devotions,” according to reports. The men used an untested approach known as “prison, no bail,” which garnered national attention. Refusing bail was a means for civil rights organizations to alleviate the massive financial strain they were facing as the sit-in campaign grew across the South. Other civil rights organizations adopted the technique when their activities received broad national attention. Because eight of the nine men were students at Rockford, they were known as the Friendship Nine.
Later in 1961, Rock Hill was the first stop in the Deep South for a group of 13 Freedom Riders who boarded buses in Washington, DC and went south to put the Supreme Court’s 1960 rule prohibiting racial segregation in all interstate public facilities to the test. When civil rights leader John Lewis and another black man got off the bus in Rock Hill, they were attacked by an unruly white mob. The occasion garnered widespread media coverage.
Lewis returned to Rock Hill in 2002 as a US Congressman from Georgia, where he had been invited to speak at Winthrop University and given the key to the city.
Rep. Lewis returned to Rock Hill on January 21, 2008, to speak at the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. On behalf of the city, Mayor Doug Echols sent a formal apology to him for the city’s handling of the Freedom Riders.
Twentieth century to present
In the twentieth century, Rock Hill witnessed continuous growth. The city’s boundaries grew well beyond their original boundaries. Boyd Hill was annexed into the city in the late 1940s, Ebenezer and Mexico in the 1960s, and Oakdale in the 1980s, all of which were unincorporated settlements in York County. In 1952, Rock Hill celebrated its centenary, and in 2002, it celebrated its sesquicentennial. With a direct economic effect of $19.2 million, Rock Hill hosted the 2017 UCI BMX World Championships at the Rock Hill BMX Supercross Track in Riverwalk.
Former NFL player Phillip Adams shot and killed six people at a residence in Rock Hill on April 7, 2021, including two children. The next day, he committed suicide.