Originally created 01/27/99

Families move for secret plant

Kenneth Ellis often returns to what used to be his hometown.

The government has put a monument and a couple of benches at the now-wooded corner of U.S. Highway 78 and what was Main Street of Ellenton, a town the government closed almost half a century ago to build the Savannah River nuclear plant.

"It's real quiet," Mr. Ellis said in an interview in 1995. "You can do a lot of thinking."

The loss of Ellenton was a price paid in the top-secret plan to build a massive nuclear bomb plant near Aiken.

"I want you to know that I consider this project one of highest urgency," President Harry Truman wrote that summer in a confidential letter to the president of E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co.

The chemical giant had been selected to build and operate a facility dubbed Savannah River Plant, where tritium, plutonium and other vital nuclear weapons ingredients would be manufactured. The $1 billion project would be the government's most costly defense undertaking at the time.

In the rural towns scheduled to make room for the new plant, people spent another sweltering summer, unaware the Cold War had arrived.

Stephen Harley was a carefree sophomore at Ellenton High then. He recalls sitting at the corner of Main Street and Railroad Avenue one October evening with his best friend, Jack, whose father ran the telegraph at the nearby train depot.

Jack told him something was going on, Mr. Harley recalled decades later.

"He said, `My father is getting all kinds of telegrams that he doesn't understand,"' Mr. Harley remembered. " `A big plant is coming to our town and it's going to make Ellenton a boomtown and really put us on the map.' But what it did was take us off the map."

Officials from the Atomic Energy Commission and DuPont broke the news to a stunned audience on Nov. 28, 1950.

Construction of five large nuclear reactors and other defense material factories would begin immediately. Some 1,500 families in seven communities had 18 months to relocate as the government seized 200,000 acres of forest and farm country for Savannah River Plant.

Ellenton, Dunbarton, Meyers Mill, Hawthorne, Robbins, Leigh and Sleepy Hollow would soon be gone.

Thousands of high-paying jobs would boost the economies of nearby Aiken and Augusta and in time make locals into some of the nation's most ardent nuclear defense supporters.

A hand-printed piece of cardboard tied to a sign at an Ellenton thoroughfare -- and captured by a DuPont photographer in the early 1950s -- illustrated the mixed feelings locals were wrestling with at the time.

"It's 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," the sign read. "But we feel that they picked not only just the best spot in the U.S. but in the whole world."

Tensions between the Soviet Union and United States had flared after World War II and put every American on alert. Citizens displayed their patriotism and made personal sacrifices.

"There was no question in our minds that we were doing the right thing," said Mr. Harley, who left Ellenton for North Augusta with his mother on evacuation deadline day, March 1, 1952. "But my mother and I were distressed we only got $42 an acre. Our land had been in the Harley family since the early 1800s."

By the evacuation deadline, construction workers were arriving by the thousands to settle in temporary trailer cities lining the plant boundaries. Some were sleeping in tents because of the severe housing shortage.

In June 1951, 8,000 plant workers were on the site. In September of the following year, their numbers had surged to 38,600. From across the Southeast and beyond, people were arriving in Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale counties looking for work.

Many local residents joined the plant's work force, amazed to see their cotton fields and peach groves transformed in a matter of a few years.

By the time the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, more than 25,000 people were employed at the plant. But since the end of the Cold War, employment at the nuclear reservation has scaled back to about 14,000 as local and federal officials work to bring new missions to the 300-square-mile reservation.

In recent months, the U.S. Energy Department has announced plans to build a $500 million fuel-fabrication center at the plant to turn the nation's surplus plutonium into commercial fuel. Savannah River Site also is to be home of the department's pit disassembly and conversion facility, where workers will take apart the cores of nuclear bombs and convert the plutonium inside for use in the fuel facility.

Between them, the two missions will create as many as 2,000 temporary and permanent jobs at the downsized complex near Aiken.

The government also is immobilizing some of the nation's 55 tons of excess plutonium -- turning the material into glass-like logs for underground burial -- a process already under way at SRS.

Betty Bush, then an Ellenton farm girl, recalls standing on Ellenton's Main Street in the afternoons in 1951 gaping at the seemingly endless line of construction workers filing by. Her family was among the first to move and she remembers that time with bitterness.

"I don't go to the reunions," said Ms. Bush, who now lives at Hilton Head Island, S.C. "I don't want to relive it every year."


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