One of the more interesting and depressing treks one can take in South Carolina is the search for what is known as Penitentiary Cemetery, where for more than a century inmates of the South Carolina Penitentiary were buried.
The site is located just north of I-126, between Elmwood Cemetery and the old Columbia Canal in Columbia. More than 1,000 individuals are likely interred there, though the exact number will never be known because officials made little effort, especially in the early years of the state penitentiary, to accurately record prisoner deaths.
The S.C. Penitentiary, later known as the Central Correctional Institution, opened in 1867 amid the rubble of the War Between the States and the chaos of Reconstruction.
“Shackled in balls and chains, ex-slaves earned 75 cents a day constructing Cellblock One using giant slabs of granite that had been mined from a quarry just a few miles up the Congaree,” according to a story in the Columbia Free Times.
The prison remained in operation until 1994 overlooking the Columbia Canal. All told, some 243 men were executed at the site, the vast majority of whom were black, before the structure was demolished in 1999. Today, the locale is home to the CanalSide project.
As it has been for much of its history, Penitentiary Cemetery today is neglected, with few graves marked and only a portion of the cemetery enclosed by fencing.
In a macabre twist, the last of the markers of executed inmates, which were specially marked, have been stolen in recent years.
Walking through the lonely graveyard in the late afternoon as the sun glints through the trees, one realizes that these individuals, all but forgotten in life, have been consigned to eternal oblivion in death, as well.