Winning the Cold War Meant Destroying This South Carolina Town
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because their loss helped keep America safe.
By Nick Fouriezos
A thick fog has set in on a tiny slice of South Carolina, but, to be honest, New Ellenton isn’t much to see even in broad daylight. The main street is on a two-lane highway, full of drivers just passing through. There’s a dog grooming station and a laundromat, a set of trailers, a furniture gallery and churches, churches, churches. The tiny library doesn’t open until the afternoon today, and the city council doesn’t have offices at the city hall — council members just stop in on monthly meeting days.
It’s a town that, seven decades after the fact, seems to still be mourning the loss of the old Ellenton.
The original Ellenton’s fate was sealed when President Harry Truman learned in 1949 that the Russians had built their own atomic bomb. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission began exploring locations for a site to prepare an even more powerful explosive response. In all, 128 sites across America would be considered, before the commission narrowed it down to this one area straddling Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale counties in South Carolina. The announcement on Nov. 28, 1950, ordered the displacement of some 6,000 residents and 6,000 graves, uprooting an area roughly the size of New York City. In their place would be the Savannah River Plant, which would process plutonium and tritium for the H-bomb.
Their sacrifice, the residents were told, would preserve America for the next generation. And in the view of local citizens today, they succeeded. “My parents were a patriotic family. It’s hard to move away, but I don’t think they had any ill feelings about it,” says George Heath, whose family had a farm in the tiny community of Hawthorne. Stationed in Korea when the announcement was made, Heath wasn’t able to get back in time to see his home before it was made off-limits to the public. “Let me put it this way: Nobody has to learn Russian. We felt like we were keeping the country from being run over,” says 86-year-old Katherine Tharin, a Barnwell County native who would go on to work at the Savannah River site as a lab technician and systems analyst for four decades.
Before its patriotic exodus, Ellenton had folklore of its own. Birthed along train tracks like so many 19th-century towns — including its future neighbors in removal, Dunbarton and Myers Mill — it was supposedly named when the railroad superintendent took a fancy to a local 20-something named Ellen. It also had its sins, including a race riot in September 1876 that led to hundreds of White men threatening Black men to vote Democratic, or else: At the end of the day, one White man and as many as 100 Black people were killed. After being created in 1880 with just 100 people, it had grown to 756 residents by 1950 — the year its quiet existence was destroyed by the stroke of a pen.
While the towns may be gone, former Ellenton and Dunbarton residents, along with their families, gather each year for a reunion.
It took two years for everyone to move out, but construction started immediately, says George Wingard, director of the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program. New Ellenton was “a town that just sprang up,” a series of trailer parks helping house the 38,000 workers who moved into this quiet, rural region to work on the project. The U.S. government appraised the properties residents had abandoned and gave out what it deemed a fair shake, but housing costs had risen in the sudden Savannah River site suburbs, making the deal less lucrative. “It was a difficult time for the residents that had to leave,” Wingard says.
In some ways, the region did benefit from its new nuclear neighbor, mostly in the way of jobs and intellectual capital, with scientists and engineers filling up nearby cities such as Aiken and Augusta, Georgia. Eventually, 100,000 people would settle here, and with them came all the shopping centers, schools, roads and bridges. Bomb components were built at the site, and nuclear waste is still stored there.
While the towns may be gone, former Ellenton and Dunbarton residents, along with their families, gather each year for a reunion. And online stories about Ellenton tend to bring out the tales. One New Ellenton resident and Savannah River site worker says that for years he saw vegetable gardens still producing tomatoes and watermelons. And Heath, the 86-year-old from Hawthorne, eventually did find his way back home — becoming a volunteer at the Savannah River site in 2012, where he works on Tuesdays on the exact plot that used to be part of his father’s farm. “It was sort of sacred to me, to come back to the place I had grown up,” he says.