A Visit to the Savannah River Site Museum; 16 November 2019

Aiken, SC – When I visited the Augusta, GA area in August, one of the museums I found while looking for history-related sites in the area was the Savannah River Site Museum in Aiken, SC. Unfortunately, it was closed at that time, but it is now back open so I dropped by while I was visiting Augusta again to take one of the Augusta Canal Heritage Center’s canal boat tours. The museum tells the story of the Savannah River Site, a nuclear facility built in Aiken, Allendale, and Barnwell Counties in South Carolina (just southeast of Augusta, GA) in the early 1950s during the beginning of the Cold War. The mission of the Savannah River Site was to manufacture the radioactive material needed for nuclear weapons.

The Savannah River Site Museum in Aiken, SC

One of the first displays in the museum is about fallout shelters and it includes a depiction of what one looked like, including food and water supplies, an early cold war era radio, a Geiger counter, cot, and other supplies. A video also shows what children were taught in schools about to do in the event of a nuclear attack.

The Savannah River Site Museum mixes Science and History. One of the first things the museum does is describe what radiation, what radiation can be found in, and why it’s something that can be managed and that you don’t have to be afraid of. To give you an idea of what it’s like to handle radioactive material in the Savannah River Site’s labs, they have a simulated glove box; it’s not easy to manipulate items in a glovebox as it looks. In addition to manufacturing nuclear material for weapons, the site also produced radioactive material used in the space program. Many satellites and probes used in the exploration of our solar system used radioactive material made at the Savannah River Site to keep their equipment at a functioning temperature and provide power when solar panels couldn’t provide enough electricity. The museum has a section devoted to how these systems were used and how they worked.

A simulated Glovebox at the Savannah River Site Museum gives you an idea about what it might be like to work at one of the site’s labs

The museum also has an exhibit about the environmental and ecological work done at the Savannah River Site. It is home to the US Forest Service – Savannah River, which manages and conserves 168,000 acres of forest within the site’s boundaries. Environmental and ecological research is done at the Savannah River Site by the Savannah River Ecological Laboratory and the museum tells about the Laboratory came to be and the work that it does. The Savannah River Ecological Laboratory’s work includes developing an artificial nesting cavity for the endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker after Hurricane Hugo destroyed many of the birds’ nesting trees. The middle photo below shows what a natural nesting cavity looks like along with one of the artificial cavities. The museum’s restroom is also one of the most interesting I’ve seen in a museum! It features information on Scatology, the biological study of excrement, so you can learn about what scientists can learn from it while relieving yourself!

The last exhibit in the museum tells the story about how the Savannah River Site came to be and those that it displaced. The site was first announced in 1950, construction began in 1951, and reactors began to go active in 1953. The site covers 310 square miles and when the Government acquired the land, it displaced 6,000 people from the area. The reactions were mixed; although many politicians and leaders in the area were happy that the plant was coming, the residents that were displaced weren’t always so happy. Although the residents were compensated, it wasn’t always to amounts that they found acceptable and the process would be controversial and contentious. The museum features a radio from a local store that some of those who were displaced would have heard the first news of the Savannah River Site on as well as a chair from a church that was displaced. One of the most poignant items in the museum is a hand-painted sign that was placed on the Ellenton, SC city limits sign showing just how some of the displaced felt.

Atwater Kent 447 radio from a store in Dunbarton, SC – Customers may have learned of the decision to build the Savannah River Site where they lived on this radio

This sanctuary chair came from a Church that had to be moved from its original site in Ellenton, SC to Jackson, SC because the Savannah River Site was built where Ellenton once stood
This sign was placed outside of Ellenton, SC, summing up the views of some of those who were forced from their homes when the Savannah River Site was built

The Savannah River Site Museum is a small museum, but one well worth visiting. I learned a lot about the Savannah River Site – what it is, what it has done, and what it still does. If you have an interest in History and/or Science, I’d recommend visiting it when you’re in the Aiken or Augusta area.

Categories: Aiken, History, Savannah River Site, South Carolina

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