The railroad, African Americans and Savannah River Site are three threads of history woven together into the story of Aiken.
Three organizations that already endeavor to tell those stories – the Friends of the Aiken Railroad Depot, the Center for African American Arts, Culture and History, and the Savannah River Site Heritage Foundation – have joined together to form Aiken Together in a fundraising effort for individual projects already in progress.
The projects are in various stages of completion, said Tim Simmons, president of the Aiken Railroad Depot.
“Rather than working independently and competing with each other, we decided to launch one campaign to raise $2.9 million to get those projects completed so they can start benefitting the community,” he said.
More than $340,000 has already been raised, he said.
The funds will help The Aiken Railroad Depot finish restoring the interiors of two rail cars, construct a baggage building that will house a caterer’s kitchen, and finish refurbishing a caboose.
The depot was completed in 2010 as a modern replica of the original building. It sits at the depot’s original location on Park Avenue at the geographic center of Aiken.
The depot houses the Aiken Visitors Center and event space, and the train museum. Nine dioramas line the second floor that depict stops along the Charleston-Hamburg line.
At The Center for African American History, Arts and Culture, funds will be used to finish restoring the historic building that houses it to its original appearance, and to modify the interior to accommodate exhibits and meeting space, Simmons said.
The center endeavors to teach present and future generations about the contributions of African Americans to the Aiken community, the state and the nation, and to honor their culture.
The center is housed in the Immanuel Institute building on the corner of York Street and Richland Avenue. Built in 1889, the institute educated the children of freed slaves.
The fundraising campaign will also help create a museum to honor the legacy of the Savannah River Site.
SRS brought thousands of people to the Aiken area. It uprooted entire towns, brought in people of other cultures and professions, and changed the whole fabric of the CSRA, Simmons said.
“The SRS development of the atomic bomb, which effectively ended World War II and allowed us to end the Cold War, the amount of safety and secrecy that was involved, it’s unbelievable. So much has come out of that,” Simmons said.
More than 30,000 artifacts that tell the story of SRS are ready to be placed on exhibit. The location for the museum has been chosen, but Simmons said it can’t be disclosed yet because other tenants currently occupy the building.
“The building is not important. It’s just a location to house the exhibit,” he said.
“It’s just going to be a fascinating, educational exhibit.”
Each of the organizations will continue to work together once the projects have been completed. Visitors to one will be directed to the other two. Each will also have lesson plans available for teachers who wish to bring their classes for field trips.
Members of Aiken Together hope that these projects will bring tourists to the area to patronize existing businesses, as well.
“It will be good for our quality of life not only now but well into the future,” Simmons said.