Originally created 10/15/00

City celebrates nuclear roots, atomic heritage



NEW ELLENTON - With fears of Russian atomic weapons rising, President Harry Truman ordered Ellenton and four nearby towns to pick up and move out of the way of the sprawling bomb plant he planned to build.

The towns of Ellenton, Dunbarton, Meyer's Mill, Robbins and Hawthorne would have to move under a presidential decision that sent 6,000 residents packing from the 200,000-acre site that spans parts of Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale counties and was covered by Truman's order.

The order was enough to disturb the dead; 12,000 graves were moved.

"It was about the worst thing that could happen to you except death," said 77-year-old Marion Brinkley of Jackson and a former Ellenton resident.

Most Ellenton residents heard about the government's plans for their property at a town meeting at Ellenton High and Grammar School's gymnasium. It was the first part of a move that left deep scars that come to mind as New Ellenton, the town built to replace Ellenton, celebrates its 50th anniversary and New Ellenton holds its Atomic City Festival.

A well head at what used to be the train depot is about the only thing left standing in Ellenton. The depot, movie theater and town hall all had the same fate as churches, homes and schools. Buildings were demolished out of fear that they could harbor communist spies.

Mr. Brinkley, a 27-year-old fresh back from a hitch in the Navy, was told he had 18 months to get off his land and move his wife and two daughters, one 14 months old and the other 3 years old.

"When you've got to start over and don't know what tomorrow holds for you, it's a rough thing," Mr. Brinkley said.

Mr. Brinkley said he still feels that the federal government severely wronged him and his neighbors.

A town of about 700 at the time, Ellenton, incorporated in 1873, was a wonderful place to live, he recalled. His dad owned a country grocery store there, and their 300-acre family farm had a stream on it.

Now it's the home to the 400 D-Area - where heavy water from the nearby Savannah River would be processed to cool the plant's five nuclear reactors. The reactors made weapons-grade plutonium and uranium for nuclear warheads.

That change isn't all bad, some say.

"Almost all of the townsfolk here either work at the site, have worked at the site, or at least benefited from its being there," said Kent Brown, a festival organizer. "While some communities protest nuclear technology, we celebrate its safe and continued presence in our area."

At the height of construction, 38,000 workers scrambled to build the reactors in three years for the Savannah River Plant. With the Cold War over, what's known as Savannah River Site employs 12,000 people, mostly working in an environmental cleanup operation or recycling tritium.

Clarence Bush, a longtime New Ellenton businessman, was among the mass of people uprooted along with his eight brothers and sisters.

A sharecropper's son working a two-horse farm in Dunbarton, Mr. Bush had married less than a year before the order to move came. "It was a blessing in disguise. It's sort of like a child being whipped and not knowing why, if you want to know the truth. We didn't leave anything (in Dunbarton) because we didn't have anything to leave."

He said his family's life was better in New Ellenton.

His brothers got jobs at the plant and now enjoy nice retirements. Mr. Bush bought the service station on Main Street in New Ellenton in 1971, after being a part owner since 1954. And business has thrived.

"You aren't going to try until you have a reason to," Mr. Bush said.