Savannah River Site has been open to public tours for years, but recently launched special tours focusing not on site operations but the thousands of years of history across the 310 square mile landmass.
Historical tours, dubbed “From Farms to Fission,” were launched in April. On Wednesday, the second historical tour took guests from a lost town to a decommissioned Cold War reactor and through years of history dating back at least 12,000 years.
Savannah River Archaeological Research Program Administrative Manager George Wingard and Cold War Historic Preservation Program Manager Melissa Jolley served as tour guides along the bus route and at its three stops. The first stop lies miles into the site in Barnwell County where a few remaining signs depict a once thriving community in what is now a gravel road through a pine forest.
“With progress comes sacrifice,” Wingard said. “And that’s where you are, here, at the Dunbarton town site.”
He said the town was settled in the late 1800s and was an agricultural centric community with a church, schools, and a number of stores. The headline atop the Augusta Chronicle’s front page on November 29, 1950 read, “$260,000,000 H-Bomb facilities will be constructed in S.C. near Augusta.” The Savannah River Plant was on its way in, and the area’s small town residents on their way out.
Dunbarton was one of those communities, and left behind are few remnants, aside from an old street curb marking the edge of one of the community’s most important thruways. According to Wingard, the structures were either moved out by landowners who were paid for their property or were torn down by the Atomic Energy Commission, afraid Soviet spies might infiltrate and use the buildings for cover.
Wingard said there were over 13,000 structures numbered and documented by the energy commission, the predecessor to today’s Department of Energy. Landowners were paid for their structures and land when the site was taken by the AEC, but tenant farmers had to leave with only what they could afford to take.
“They were patriotic. The residents knew what the land was for. It hurt, but they did it,” Wingard said.
Jolley guided the group along the timeline of events that occurred after the townsfolk were displaced, including construction of site facilities and flipping the switch at the site’s five nuclear reactors. The tour took a close-up look around the decommissioned C-Reactor.
The reactor was operational by the early 1950s and was part of the plutonium production system at the facility that generated over 36 metric tons of the heavy metal during Cold War efforts. C-Reactor was the second of the five to be shut down in 1986 before all reactors were closed in 1988.
“What the Cold War Historic Preservation Program does is essentially catalog artifacts and handle research requests,” Jolley said.
The tour’s final stopwas the curation facility where those artifacts are housed. The warehouse is home to protected and cataloged artifacts ranging from Native American spear points, 12,000 year-old points used before the bow and arrow was developed in North America, to vault doors weighing thousands of pounds, once used to seal in plutonium and tritium produced for nuclear weapons.
Florence Whittle worked at the plant from 1950-1953. Whittle took the tour with her daughters, one of whom is a current site employee. Her husband also started work on site in 1950 and had a full career at the nuclear facility.
“I just missed seeing T1 and T2,” she said of the names two areas on site were called when facilities were under construction. “The tour took us to a lot of places that I had never seen before.”
According to her daughter Mary Whittle, Florence worked at T1 and T2 during the earliest days of the plant. During construction the site was known as the Savannah River Project, then as the Savannah River Plant once operations began. After reactors were shut down and the mission shifted to environmental management, it became known as Savannah River Site.
“I work in J-Area,” Mary said. “So I am not always exposed to the rest of the site.”
Savannah River Nuclear Solutions spokeswoman Elizabeth Harm said they expect to continue and grow the Historic tour program. As for 2017, the two remaining Historic tours are scheduled for Oct. 5 and 17.
“There is a pride factor in working on the site,” Mary Whittle said. “I am an engineer and I feel privileged to work in the same facility my father helped build.”
For more information about the public tour program visit www.srs.gov/general/tour/public.htm.
Reach Thomas Gardiner at (706) 823-3339 or firstname.lastname@example.org