The year was 1870, and the Port Royal-Augusta Railroad was extending track through the property of James Dunbar Jr., whose family had settled in the Barnwell County area in the late 1700s.
The construction superintendent, known as “Mr. Millet,” became friends with Dunbar, who gave rights-of-way for the rail line and allowed him to board passing trains in front of the family’s home.
Millet’s fondness for Dunbar’s 9-year-old daughter, Ellen, led him to name the station in her honor. Three years later, when the family gave land to establish streets around the station, it became known as “Ellen’s Town,” or Ellenton.
The story, passed along through oral tradition, was reported in a community history project compiled by the Savannah River Archaeological Research Study decades after the town was erased from the landscape to make way for the government’s “bomb plant.”
The project, now called Savannah River Site, was announced Nov. 28, 1950, by the Atomic Energy Commission, which demanded that residents within the nearly 300-square-mile site surrender their land to the government and leave.
Most were given 18 months to get out, but properties directly in the path of nuclear reactors that would be built to make bomb-grade tritium and plutonium were moved away within weeks.
Some residents were allowed to buy their houses back with funds awarded to them by the government, and estimates indicate as many as 15 percent of the homes left the area aboard flatbed trailers.
News reports say most uprooted residents took the displacement with stoicism described as patriotic at the time.
“I hate to see Ellenton dissolve like this, but if this plant will help end the war, we shouldn’t really complain,” filling station operator James Utley told The Augusta Chronicle that year.
Politicians applauded the choice of the site.
“I am glad that South Carolina and her people can have a part in helping this nation maintain a free world,” then S.C. Gov. Strom Thurmond said.
Though the farmers and business owners left, the workforce assembled at the site was massive by anyone’s scale.
By June 1951, 8,000 workers were in place, increasing to 38,600 by September 1952.
By the end of the 1950s, Augusta’s population had grown by 25 percent and the number of residents in North Augusta had tripled.
The community once known as Ellenton became New Ellenton – re-established 14 miles to the north just outside the plant’s border – and attracted not only displaced residents from within the plant, but many newcomers lured by jobs created by the atomic age.