History of Oconee County
Oconee County, located in the northwest corner of South Carolina on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, takes its name from a Cherokee word meaning “land beside the water.” The county was formed in 1868 from Pickens District, and Walhalla became the county seat. Originally, this area was home to the Cherokees, but their land was ceded through treaties signed in 1777 and 1816. Following the American Revolution, several war heroes moved to present day Oconee County including Andrew Pickens (1739-1817), Robert Anderson (1741-1813), and Benjamin Cleveland (1738-1806).
After the American Revolution, settlers from other parts of the state began moving in, including German settlers from Charleston who founded the town of Walhalla in 1850. In 1856, work began on a tunnel for the Blue Ridge Railroad that would have linked Charleston with Knoxville, Tennessee. The project proved to be more expensive and difficult than anticipated and all work ceased with the onset of the Civil War. The unfinished Stumphouse Tunnel can still be seen today just northwest of Walhalla.
During the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, Oconee continued to rely heavily upon agriculture as a means of subsistence and income. The rich soil of the county’s many river valleys and its moderate climate enabled the production of many crops, including corn, cotton, tobacco, and apples. Railroad access to the area increased after Reconstruction and the towns of Seneca and Westminster were founded in 1874 and 1875 along new railroad lines. Railroads connected Oconee to the wider world and enabled the growth of the textile industry in the area. Oconee’s first textile mill, the Courtenay Manufacturing Company, and the mill village of Newry were built in 1894. Numerous textile mills in Seneca, Walhalla, and Westminster provided jobs for thousands of Oconee residents throughout the 20th century.
Following World War II, Oconee County witnessed many changes. The construction of Interstate 85 along the southern portion of the county boosted industry by allowing quick access to nearby hubs like Atlanta and Charlotte. In 1962 the Hartwell Dam and Lake project was completed, and Oconee began to flourish as a recreational destination. Just 10 years later the construction of the Oconee Nuclear Station by Duke Power created lakes Jocassee and Keowee, along with more jobs and recreational opportunities. Today, Oconee visitors and residents enjoy the rich cultural and geographic diversity of the Mountain Lakes Region.
For more information about the history and heritage of Oconee County, visit the Oconee History Museum.