Workers at the Savannah River Plant in the 1950s

Workers at the Savannah River Plant in the 1950s.

The Star was created in the midst of a spectacular growth period in North Augusta and the CSRA as a whole, due to the Savannah River Plant's establishment and the accompanying tidal wave of jobs.

The massive nuclear reservation, a project of the Atomic Energy Commission, is now known as the Savannah River Site. It was announced to the public in 1950, and an Aiken Standard and Review headline, of November 29, 1950, proclaimed, "AEC To Construct Huge Plant Near Aiken."

North Augusta's population, over the next 10 years, almost tripled, with "the DuPont people," associated with the Savannah River Plant's operation, descending on what would become known as the Central Savannah River Area – mainly the South Carolina counties of Aiken, Edgefield and Barnwell and and their Georgia counterparts of Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties.

"There was only one red light in North Augusta. I believe it was at Georgia Avenue and Buena Vista Avenue," said Jim Purcell, a retired chemical engineer who spent decades at the nuclear site, having started work there in 1952 as a new University of South Carolina graduate. The Fort Mill native moved to North Augusta in 1954 as a newlywed, chose an apartment on Metz Drive, and has been in town ever since. 

A housing boom was underway, with subdivisions and apartment complexes joining the local landscape. Some large houses were also divided for rental space, and one of the most famous was Lookaway Hall, which had three apartments (two downstairs and one over the garage). That practice reportedly continued into the late 1950s.

Local resident Milledge Murray, one of the CSRA's most prominent students of local history, has lived in North Augusta since 1952, and recalled his paternal grandparents' situation as they lived in Beech Island, selling Esso gasoline and running a country store on the "bomb plant highway," at SC 125 and SC 302.

"They witnessed, every day, an armada that brought 30-something-thousand people out to that site, to build it ... and what you had was just this incredible, quick growth," he said. "The site brought development, and the early development was the first time that you really saw apartments being built."

Retired educator Angela Burkhalter, whose family moved to Beech Island from Elberton, Georgia, in 1952, recalled that her father-in-law, the late Hammond Burkhalter, faced "a good challenge" in his role as the mayor in the early 1950s.

"It was a boom for the building business, and Hammond had gotten into that then, because there were so many homes that were needed, and the federal government helped out, and they built temporary schools to help accommodate the population," she said.

"We'd been sort of a provincial little village, and North Augusta ... had a more cosmopolitan feeling, because people moved in from all over the United States," she said.

"I think it gave North Augusta a kind of a unique flavor, and probably Aiken as well ... and also, they had very distinct ideas about the expectations for the schools, and early on, some of the newcomers would run for the school board and become a part of the educational scene to try to make sure that we had high standards for our educational system," she added.

Her husband, attorney Bill Burkhalter, has local roots dating back to the 1750s, and recalled hearing that the early 1950s' surge in population put tremendous stress on the infrastructure. Pressure in the sewer main — near the current municipal building — repeatedly blew a manhole cover off its post, "so my dad's temporary fix for that situation was, they took a 55-gallon empty drum and filled it full of concrete, with a hook at the top, and after the last time it blew off they replaced it and put the concrete weight on top of the manhole, and it didn't blow off anymore."

His childhood home, he said, was on Lake Avenue, a block from the Living History Park, and the avenue was not paved until he was about 9 or 10 years old, and Woodlawn Avenue was unpaved for several years after that. "A lot of stuff happened in the ... early '50s. The challenges ... forced us to do things. All good."

A massive development had sprung to life in the late 1940s, a few miles to the northwest: J. Strom Thurmond Dam, creating what would be known as Lake Strom Thurmond and (in Georgia) as Clarks Hill Lake. "They had to manage the water in the Savannah River, because the Savannah River Site had to have this huge amount of water," Murray said.

The dam, as stated on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers web page, was built between 1946 and 1954 "for the purposes of hydropower, flood control, and downstream navigation."

Local retiree Jack Kendall, an engineer who helped build the dam, pointed out that it was designed for flood control to protect Augusta, and was originally known as Clarks Hill Dam, but a clerical error resulted in the "s" initially being dropped. Years later, the dam was named after one of the longest-serving legislators in U.S. history.

The reservoir began filling in 1951 and that process was complete in 1952, and the work was complete in 1954, around the same time that the Savannah River Plant was becoming operational.

Murray said the period included North Augusta becoming what might be called "a town of immigrants, where people came from other parts of the country ... and they settled here and not for a short period of time, but for a long period of time, and I think the same thing happened in Aiken, and they became the pillars of our community."  

North Augusta's population, as measured in the 1950 national census, was 3,659, and Aiken County's number was 53,137.

Ten years later, the city's number had shot to 10,348 – an increase of 182.8%. The county's population had climbed to 81,038 — a hike of 52.5 percent.

The newspaper article, addressing the future of about 250,000 acres, proclaimed, "The site is located in Aiken and Barnwell counties, about 15 air miles south of Aiken, South Carolina, and about 20 air miles southeast of Augusta, Georgia. It is expected that the construction force will reach approximately 8,000 during the first six months of construction, which will be started early in 1951." 

It read, "As was noted by the President in asking the Congress to appropriate $260,000,000 to start construction, these additional plants ... will provide materials which can be used either for weapons or for fuels potentially useful for power purposes."  

Another item, from the Aiken Standard and Review of Sept. 12, 1952, offered a look at the jobs being offered in connection with the mission, in connection with SRP's production division. The advertisement for "skilled craftsmen" specifically appealed for such applicants as maintenance mechanics, maintenance machinists, millwrights, instrument mechanics, pipefitters, combination welders ("qualified on high pressures and all alloys"), electricians, water-treatment operators, draftsmen, power-house operators and estimators.

The ad promoted "job security," "safe working conditions," "opportunity for advancement" and information being available on "rental program housing." Physical fitness was listed as being required of all applicants. 

The nuclear reservation has undergone tremendous fluctuation in employment numbers over the decades. Recent changes included Savannah River Nuclear Solutions hiring more than 900 new employees in fiscal year 2019, as announced in April by the company. SRNS' president and CEO also announced plans for the lead contractor to hire about 750 people per year for the next two years.