Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Dead Towns, South Carolina



This post might result in a little cognitive dissonance since the photos are from downtown Aiken, SC, but mostly I'm going to talk about the lost towns of Ellenton and Dunbarton and why they're gone. In the late 1940's, following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and amidst growing concern about the Red Menace, the U.S. decided to get (more) serious about making bombs. In 1950, Harry S. Truman gave his approval to construct a massive facility to manufacture nuclear material for hydrogen bombs, chiefly tritium and plutonium-239. This would become the Savannah River Plant, a 300 square-mile chunk of land along the Savannah River, straddling Aiken and Barnwell Counties. Residents of a tiny village named Dunbarton had to leave their homes, as did people living in the larger town of Ellenton. All extant buildings were either trucked out or demolished. One-hundred and fifty graveyards were dug up and the bodies relocated. There are incredible pictures of the moving of Ellenton at the best (and basically only) Ellenton website. (Click on "Photo Library" and "Movin' On".)



The government told the residents of the area that it would buy back their homes, and 6,000 people sold. For all the property, including 210,000 acres of land, the government paid 19 million dollars. The estimated value of just the timber at the time was 28 million dollars. The former residents of what was now going to be one of the largest nuclear facilities in the world were not happy. Many found themselves moving into pre-fab government homes built just beyond the boundaries of the Savannah River Plant. The town was (and is) named, suitably enough, New Ellenton.



If you've been to New Ellenton (pop. 2,500 and probably dropping), then you know its not a thriving town. It never has been. There's not much to it, apart from some gas stations, a sandwich shop, and a couple stores. When Ellenton was vacated, many of the younger residents left the area and never returned. Of those over the age of 50 that tried to make a go of it in New Ellenton, more than half were dead within 10 years. Unable to adjust to being uprooted from their homes, and barred from even visiting the site of old Ellenton (despite living about 10 miles away), the old-timers just dropped away. To see what Ellenton USED to look like, go here. (Click on "Photo Library" and "Ellenton".)

Would you like some facts regarding the construction of the mammoth Savannah River Plant? Alright, I'll steal some from the Ellenton website. Construction moved enough dirt to construct a wall 10' high, 6' wide, and 2500 miles long. The concrete used would've built a highway 6" thick, 20' wide, and 800 miles long. The reinforcing steel could have made 3300 cars (or a train 30 miles long), while the structural steel could have made a train 8 miles long. The lumber cut was enough to build 15,000 homes. Fifty-two miles of water line were laid. Just the blueprints required 3,000 miles of 24-inch-wide paper. There are 63 miles of railroad track and 230 miles of road within the facility. But my favorite fact is that the very first clover-leaf ever built in the U.S. was built within the Savannah River Plant. Incidentally, in 1990, construction began on a large (and expensive) cooling tower for a reactor. The tower was connected just in time for the reactor to be permanently decommissioned in 1992. Whoops.



In one of those strange but oh-so-common twists of fate, the forces that led to the destruction of Ellenton and Dunbarton (Can you tell that I don't really know anything about Dunbarton?) were responsible for a massive overall boom in the population, and thus the economy, of the Central Savannah River Area. Tens of thousands of workers poured in from all over the country, first to help build the plant, then to work there. Everyone from physicists to secretaries found employment. And they all had to have security clearance to set foot beyond the huge barricades and fences that ringed the entire area. Heavily-armed guards patrolled the grounds on foot, in vehicles, and by helicopter. They still do, although the workforce at the site has been steadily decreasing.



The former site of the Ellenton post office is now a roadside rest area off of SC 125, but most of what was the town is inside the perimeter of the facility. As I've alluded to, the general public is not allowed on what has now been renamed the Savannah River Site. However, in my never-ending quest to explore the forgotten and abandoned areas of the Central Savanna River Area, I got to visit. No, I didn't sneak in per usual!! Honestly, it's not possible. You could be shot trying. There's even surveillance cameras up in trees in the woods. While I couldn't bring my own camera, as it's strictly forbidden, I did see the old town of Ellenton. Lemme tell ya, there ain't nothing left. You can see some old curbs and overgrown clearings where driveways used to be, but nothing else. Pictures wouldn't show much. In fact, they'd look just like this. (Click on "Photo Library" and "Ellenton Today".) The most interesting things are the old two-lane highways with speed limits and other signage still in place, waiting for cars that never come. There's a few small bridges left, as well, and the site of Leigh Banana Case Company, though the buildings are long gone. It seems a shame to have turned those huge, beautiful cypress trees into banana boxes. Oh, and I DID get to go around the historic clover-leaf.



But Ellenton wasn't all sweetness back in the old days either. You may remember that following the Hamburg Riot there was a riot in Ellenton. On September 15, 1876, two black men were arrested for allegedly beating a white woman and a group of armed black men attempted to defend them. In the violence that ensued, 15 blacks, including a Barnwell County legislator, Simon Coker, and two whites were killed. One source has the date for this riot as May 15, 1876, but I have to think it was actually the post-Hamburg Riot riot. If you happen to know that Ellenton was the scene of TWO riots in 1876, please let me know.

If I still haven't convinced you to check out the photos at the Ellenton website, maybe this will change your mind. So, NO, I DID NOT take this photo. The sign reads: "It is hard to understand why our town must be destroyed to make a bomb that will destroy someone else's town that they love as much as we love ours. But we feel that they picked not just the best spot in the U.S., but in the world." And: "We love these dear hearts and gentle people who live in our home town." Another great photo on the site is called "A Lonely Reminder." Actually, it's not REALLY an Ellenton website. It was put together for a play, entitled "I Don't Live There Anymore: The Ellenton Story," about the evacuation of Ellenton, performed on the 50th anniversary of the event. Former residents came from all over for a reunion of sorts. You can even listen to the soundtrack on the site. Incidentally, I did look for information elsewhere and found a number of links, but they were all dead. Somehow that seemed fitting.

As for the photos in this post, as I mentioned, they're from downtown Aiken. Downtown Aiken is not abandoned, I just made it look like it is. Around each corner is a craft shop or a restaurant or a boutique. Or a horse. One more post from Aiken (not all-color!) next time. See ya.

22 comments:

G N Bassett said...

Great research, great history. Thanks for posting it.

potty said...

thank you very much for the narratives. love your pictures.

Anonymous said...

A great collection and good comments. Our family was among those who moved out so all this has a special meaning for us. Thank you.

Jmhouse said...

Thanks for stopping by! I once heard about a book compiling the recollections of folks from Ellenton and Dunbarton. Does anyone know if this book actually exists?

phlmth said...

I grew up in Aiken and my dad worked at SRP. My mom's mother and father live in New Ellington, and at one time, had a furniture store. So my history is tied in somewhat with SRP and New Ellington. It's quite sad that these towns were destroyed for SRP, but then I think what would Aiken be without SRP? Would it still be that 'wintering' wonderland, would it be thriving, or would it be another small town on the way to somewhere else? Just musing. That said, thanks for positing this.

Jmhouse said...

Thanks for your thoughts and history, phlmth! It is interesting to speculate on what the region would look like without the SRP/SRS. I think it would be a very different place, although whether better or worse I don't think I can say.

Take Care,

J.

phlmth said...

No, thank you!! I appreciate the effort you put into this post.

Btw, I made a typo: My mother's father and mother LIVED in New Ellington. They are long since gone, although my mother still lives in Aiken. I live outside of DC, but hope to move back 'home'.

Thank you once again.

Baja Jim said...

My ancestors (George Foreman 1701-1786) settled on 455 acres in the area of Ellenton in 1745 and shortly after that built the Stagecoach Inn next to the road from Augusta to Charles Towne (as it was called then) The inn remained in the family and operated as an inn until after 1900 It remained after the government took over that area for the Savannah River Atomic facility but was given to the Aiken Historical Society in around 1961. They moved it to a location west of Aiken where it was restored to become the headquarters of the group but was burned by vandals before it could open. I'm looking for stories and especially photos of it and would appreciate contacting anyone with information.
Jim Foreman

jmhouse said...

Hi Baja Jim,

Thanks for your message. With luck, someone will read this and be able to tell you more about the Stagecoach Inn. Unfortunately, I can't offer much help. For years now I've had the recollection of once seeing a book about the history of Ellenton and Dunbarton. This was before I really knew anything about either town and I didn't pay the book much attention. This book--if it really exists--would probably be the best source of photos. I know of one person I could ask about this ghost book and I might have an opportunity later this year to do so. I'll let you know if I learn anything. In the meantime, good luck!

Best,

John

jmhouse said...

Jim,

One more thing occurs to me: In Hitchcock Woods, the large municipal park in Aiken, there are the remains of an old mansion that I believe was burnt down many years ago. Is there any chance this mansion was the Stagecoach Inn? I have some photos of the stairs and footings, but that's all that remains. Info on the internet is nowhere to be found.

Just a thought.

John

Anonymous said...

My Grand parents and family lived in Ellington at the time and had to move to Barnwell. How do you get information on this move and names of people actually moved?

jmhouse said...

Thanks for your comment. I'm not aware of any source for the names of the people that were moved from Ellenton and Dunbarton. I don't even know if the names were recorded, although I'd think they should've been. Over 6,000 folks had to relocate, so the list would be quite long. Please let me know if you find anything.

Best,

John

Marisol said...

You posted this 5 years ago, but I have just read it. Thank you so much for the post. I live in New Ellenton. I was born here, raised here, and went to school here. I love this little town that is really full of dear hearts and gentle people and I will keep coming back. It is still small, a bit lonely, and somewhat deserted looking but I think we all prefer that to suburbs and strip malls.
Thanks again for the great post!

jmhouse said...

Thanks for your comment, Marisol! Even though that post is 5 years old and I haven't been to New Ellenton in a little more than that, it feels like I was just there yesterday. I worked on the SRS for a couple years and spent a lot of time in New Ellenton. There was a place I used to go to get sandwiches called--I think--Nuthin' Fancy. Is it still there? Faye's Restaurant over in Jackson was something of an institution, too. It closed down just before I left, reportedly because Faye passed away.

Anway, thanks again and continue to enjoy New Ellenton! It definitely beats suburbs and strip malls!

JM

Mark Worthy said...

My mother is Ona Dunbar Worthy.

jmhouse said...

Mark, does that mean that your mother's lineage goes back to the Dunbar family for which Dunbarton was named? That's quite interesting.

You (and others reading this) might want to watch the documentary Displaced: The Unexpected Fallout from the Cold War. It was released in 2009 and deals with the evacuation of Ellenton, Dunbarton, and Meyers Mill. More information is HERE.

Thanks for your comment! JM

Linda Hardie said...

I am an avid genealogist. One thing I particularly like to do is walk the ground of my ancestors. I was quite happy to be able to visit the area of my fourth great grandfather, Richard Treadway. At his death he owned 1300 acres. The family had built a church and had a family cemetery. I thought surely I could find it! I was so disappointed to learn that this was located in a spot where I could never go...the Savannah River Project. The highway through there had recently reopened. I was excited to drive the highway. The only stopping point being the old town of Ellenton, a sad "rest area," to say the least. Thanks for the website.

jmhouse said...

Thanks for your comment, Linda. Did your fourth-great grandfather live in or near Dunbarton? I believe there is a yearly trip available to Dunbarton and Ellenton for people with family connections in the area. If you called the Savannah River Plant I'm sure someone could provide more information.

However, if it's the cemetery you want to see, I'm almost certain it was moved. I think virtually all graves were taken elsewhere before the plant was built, but I'm not sure how to learn where specific plots were re-buried. Maybe someone reading this might know.

Thanks again for stopping by! JM

Iris Barber said...

That is an amazing historical narrative. It's really sad to see a vacated town, which in time turned into a ghost town just for the government’s interest. It must have been sad for those people to leave and never go back to their old homes. Great photos, by the way. Thanks for sharing.
Iris Barber

jmhouse said...

Hi Iris,

Thanks for your comment. I appreciate it very much. Indeed, it was clearly sad for the people that had to leave their homes in the area of the Savannah River Site. If you ever get a chance to see it, I highly recommend viewing the documentary DISPLACED: The Unexpected Fallout from the Cold War. It's a great historical document of Ellenton, Dunbarton, and Meyers Mill, SC and is very poignant.

Thanks again, JM

Peyton Eidson said...

I am born and raised in Horse Creek Vally. Not to far from New Ellenton, Aiken, Jackson, Beech Island. I am a writer as well as having a keen interest in history. Between the years of 1943 and 1963 I lived in Johnstown,Bath,Burnnetown, Langley,Boggy Gut(lake view) Gloverville, Warrenville and Aiken.
Just to remind you, at one time Langley Pond was noted as being one of the most polluted small bodies of water in America. I have heard they cleaned it up some.
Don't get me wrong. I love where I grew up and I will always laude it.
I have lived in Australia for the past 30 years but I still miss "The Valley."
My first reason for posting here is my interest in Hamburg, and Henry Shultz. I have many stories about myself and Hamburg in the late 1950's. The drive in theater. The fire works stand just as you came off the fifth street bridge where the Juke Joint was. Deputy Ben Kite he did his best.

jmhouse said...

Peyton, thanks very much for your comment! For some reason, I'd never heard of "Boggy Gut," but if Google is correct I was right by there when I was working at the Savannah River Site. Is it near Windsor, SC? I love the name. Don't know how that one got past me.

I'm especially interested in the juke joint off the 5th St. Bridge you mention. Would that have been Club Royal? That's where Christine Sizemore Costner, the woman that Three Faces of Eve was based on, used to dance. I've done two posts on that place. The first, from 2004, is called "Honky Tonk Hell." In 2013, I posted an update titled, "Dancing With My Selves." If you were there, you might well find them interesting.

You know, if you have any tales to tell about Club Royal, I'd love to hear them. I don't know of anyone that was actually there. Besides Christine Sizemore Costner, of course.

Also, if it's a connection with Hamburg, SC you're looking for, I recommend checking out a website maintained by my friend Peter Hughes. It's a clearinghouse of all things Hamburg-related and can be found HERE. I did a post on the Hamburg Riot, but Peter knows the full history of Hamburg better than probably anyone that's still around.

Thanks again! JM