A cold January rain fell as a group of military and civilian planners mounted a sand knoll overlooking vast acres of pineland in the Congaree Sandhills, six miles east of Columbia, South Carolina .

These planners were on a mission of prime importance to the War Department: evaluation of a site for establishment of a training center for the US Army. The chosen area was in gently rolling terrain, containing lakes and swamps, overgrown with blackjack oak and loblolly pine, with sandy but firm soil. The porous soil did not change into mud after heavy rain, but rather absorbed the water and remained solid. The climate was ideal for year-round training.

A Site Is Chosen

In 1916 the civic leaders of Columbia realized that war with the Central Powers in Europe was imminent, and that the country badly needed new, large training camps. The Chamber of Commerce leaders proposed to General Leonard Wood of New York, commander of all Army installations in the East, that the vast Estate of South Carolina great Wade Hampton would be an ideal site for a training camp. 1 reply, General Wood sent Major Charles E. Kilbourne to examine the site.

On 19 May 1917, Major Douglas MacArthur announced that one of the 16 National cantonments would be constructed near Columbia, South Carolina .

The Columbia Chamber of Commerce appointed a Cantonment Commission that solicited funds from town fathers and quickly raised the $59,000 asked by the Hampton Estate to turn the property over to the government. Columbia residents donated 1,192 acres; the Federal Government later acquired by purchase some 19,742 acres more, and by lease still other thousands.

On 2 June 1917, Congressional approval of a plan to place a training center on the site Major Kilbourne had investigated was secured by the War Department. Three days later the men of the nation registered for the draft.

Construction Begins

The War Department took bids from several contracting companies to build an Army camp on the selected site, and the contract was awarded on 11 June 1917 to the Hardaway Contracting Company of Columbus, Georgia . The contract to build the sixth National Army Cantonment at Columbia was written on a “cost-plus” basis, and neither the contractor nor anyone in the government, in their wildest estimates, came close to the actual ten million dollar cost of that contract.

Work progressed haltingly in the first few days as there was no adequate labor supply in Columbia . Estimates for the required material had been made in Washington where blueprints were being prepared, but there was no actual material on the site of the future Army Post.

There were no roads or trails, and in places the site was so thickly overgrown that a man on horseback could not proceed. Yet in two months and one week, the first thousands of draftees were scheduled to arrive for training.

On the job came two men who were to develop a camp out of the wilderness. One was Henry B. Crawford of Columbus, Georgia, Hardaway’s general superintendent. The other was Major William Couper, the Army’s Constructing Quartermaster, who arrived on 17 June l9l7.

Source: Ft. Jackson Museum