The Town of Graniteville, South Carolina, Sees its Future in its Historic Buildings
In the early morning hours of Jan. 6, 2005, Norfolk Southern Railway Company freight train 192 rumbled toward Graniteville, South Carolina, carrying a load of 42 cars. As the train sped closer to the town’s Avondale textile mill at nearly 50 miles per hour, a misaligned switch on the track ahead diverted it toward a side track occupied by a parked freight train. The emergency brake engaged, but it was too late. At 2:39 a.m., train 192 collided with the parked freighter, derailing both of its locomotives and 16 of its 42 cars. Three tank cars containing chlorine were among those that went off the track. One of them breached and began releasing its 180,000 pounds of poisonous gas.
Phil Napier, chief of the town’s volunteer fire department at the time, received a phone call shortly thereafter. As he drove his Ford pickup down the hill from his home to the mill, Napier could see two men by the train tracks. One was lying on the ground. The other ran over to Napier. “We’ve had a head-on collision with a train!” the man told him. “We’ve got a chemical leak! I can’t breathe.” Then he collapsed.
With his truck’s window down, the acrid odor of the chlorine gas filled Napier’s lungs. In keeping with hazmat protocols, the fire chief made a U-turn and sped away, ending up near the neighboring town of Aiken to the east. His head was so foggy from the gas that he still doesn’t remember how he got there. At some point, he pulled over and called dispatch.
All told, the Graniteville train disaster claimed nine lives, including the train’s engineer. More than 550 people were hospitalized for respiratory difficulties, and around 5,400 people who lived within a mile of the town had to be evacuated for more than a week.
It would go down as one of the worst railroad-related chemical spills in United States history.
Then, just over a year later, Avondale Mills announced its closing, leaving roughly 1,600 people in Graniteville out of work. The chlorine spilled in the accident had gotten into the plant’s machinery, damaging the electrical parts and causing unmanageable levels of rust. Previously, the mill had produced denim for many of the country’s major blue jeans manufacturers. After it closed, Graniteville’s mills were silent for the first time since 1849, when industrialist William Gregg opened what would become one of the largest textile mills in the South.
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“There was so much pride and love for the community, and to think about the train wreck and how the mill closed,” says Roger Boyd, who worked for the mill for 29 years and whose mother, father, and both sets of grandparents were also employed by the Graniteville Company, as it was known before Avondale acquired it in 1996. “The town literally went dark.”
And it stayed that way for almost a decade. But these days, there are flickers of light in Graniteville. Beginning in 2011, a couple of entrepreneurs from Atlanta started buying up pieces of the sprawling mill complex from a local developer. They repainted the town’s landmark water tower, and in 2014 opened Recleim, a home appliance de-manufacturing business, in one of the mill buildings. Then they rehabilitated Hickman Memorial Hall, a handsome former community center that dates to 1907, using federal and state historic tax credits. These projects have given the town’s more than 2,500 residents some hope for a brighter future. “I never would have thought it would be where it is now,” says Charlotte Wiedenman, president of the Historic Aiken Foundation, the local historic preservation group. “After that January in 2005, I never would have seen this. Everything was shuttered. You see these giant empty buildings from the 1840s, and you think, ‘How do you ever recover from this?’”
Graniteville, part of which was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1978, does have a few things going for it, in addition to its mill buildings. It’s located just off Interstate 20, 12 miles northeast of Augusta, Georgia, and 60 miles southwest of Columbia, South Carolina. Nearby Aiken, with its lively main street, golf clubs and gardens, and well-preserved historic homes, is a hot retirement destination. But Graniteville, at least for now, isn’t Aiken. This is an industrial area—a company town—and it always has been.
When Gregg, who made his fortune in the jewelry and silver trade, bought the original plat in the early 1840s, he envisioned a textile plant to rival those in the North. He believed the South should rely less on its plantation economy and more on manufacturing.
But Gregg didn’t just want to build a business; he wanted to build a community. While constructing the mill building out of the local blue granite that gave the town its name, Gregg had houses put up for his workers. At the time, the pointy-roofed, Gothic Revival houses resembled something out of New England, not South Carolina. The houses were designated for white workers, who made up most of the company’s employees; according to a report in the Historic American Engineering Record, Graniteville’s few black laborers lived on the outskirts of the segregated town. 26 of these houses remain.
He planned space for two churches and constructed the first compulsory school in the South. Parents of school-age children couldn’t work in the mill unless their kids attended. If children were late, 5 cents would be docked from their parents’ pay.
For decades after Gregg’s death in 1867, the Graniteville Company retained its municipal—almost paternalistic—role. The company collected trash, maintained roads and sewers, and purchased uniforms for the high school football team.
“Graniteville was self-sufficient. The mill provided everything you needed,” recalls Boyd, who grew up in one of the mill houses in the 1950s and ’60s, and currently lives in another one next door. “We had carpenters who, every four years, would make the rounds through all the buildings, and they repaired everything that had to be repaired. After the carpenters left, it was just a week or two and the painters would come. If you woke up in the middle of the night and had a plumbing problem, you called the Graniteville Company plumber, and he would come.”
Like Gregg, Graniteville’s newest investors are also trying to build a community, albeit one with 21st-century ideals. “When we talk about sustainable communities and sustainable ecosystems, [Gregg] had it in the 1800s,” says Pete Davis, one of the entrepreneurs who owns Recleim. “That’s what drew me to the site. He was a new urbanist developer before there were new urbanist developers.”
Davis and his business partner, Steve Bush, oversee Atlanta’s Peachtree Investment Solutions, a boutique investment firm that uses historic tax credits and other tax credits to develop high-risk properties that more traditional lenders might frown upon. They also have a history of working with environmentally friendly or socially responsible projects.
The mill property at Graniteville fit the bill. Between 2011 and 2015, Peachtree purchased the entire sprawling complex made up of nine buildings in four distinct “campuses,” running from Graniteville along Horse Creek all the way to the tiny hamlet of Vaucluse, two miles north. Davis and Bush formed Graniteville Restoration Partners to revitalize the property. They collaborated with Turner Simkins, a local developer, who established Horse Creek Trust as a nonprofit that will develop the public areas and create programming for the site. (As a nonprofit, the trust will be eligible for development grants and tax credits not available to for-profit companies.)
Davis, the finance guy, and Bush, who has a background in engineering, started with Recleim. They poured more than $50 million into transforming the Hickman Weave Room, an enormous 1970s building where mill workers wove dyed cotton into denim before it was converted into a warehouse following the train accident. (The renovation itself cost $7.5 million, and the rest went toward factory equipment.) Now there are hundreds of old refrigerators, stoves, dishwashers, washing machines, and clothes dryers lined up, waiting to be broken down and sold for scrap. “This is where old refrigerators go to die,” says Davis, surveying the scene as beeping forklifts cart around the old appliances. “All of this stuff would have gone to landfills 10 years ago—and it doesn’t degrade, not to mention all the seepage of chemicals into the ground.” Now the steel and aluminum go to U.S.-based metal companies to be smelted, and much of the plastic winds up as parts in new appliances.
But Recleim, which employs 200 people locally and netted $51 million in revenue last year, is just the first step in the Graniteville master plan. The developers envision renovating other mill buildings into residences, restaurants, and a brew pub. They’re planning an environmental technology incubator and data center. They’ve discussed a partnership with U.K.-based Eden Project International to transform part of the property into a plant sciences lab and horticultural destination, comparable to the Eden Project in Cornwall, England.
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Horse Creek, they think, is ripe for a new canoe launch and a paved greenway along the stream up to Vaucluse and its own historic mill. (The current plan is to turn Vaucluse’s mill into a mixed-use complex with retail, a water utility plant, and loft apartments.) Simkins, who helped oversee another redevelopment project nearby, says he wants to establish a Chautauqua-like community where residents and tourists alike can take classes in painting or cooking and see a concert at an outdoor amphitheater at Flatrock Dam.
“Ultimately, it’s a place for people to live and work,” says Simkins. “What does the mid-21st century retiree or tourist look for? It’s this type of lifestyle, with a good climate, history, and beautiful natural resources that have been protected.”
If you tell Simkins all this sounds like a crazy, ambitious plan, he won’t disagree. He admits the group’s ideas are audacious and will take years to execute. But that comes with the territory. “Gregg thought big,” says Simkins. “I think we’re obligated to think big, too.”
Even after Gregg’s death, Graniteville Company leaders continued to “think big.” In 1907, the Graniteville Company opened Hickman Memorial Hall “for the pleasure of all the people,” as the plaque on the building’s facade reads. The building, named after Gregg’s successor, company president Hamilton Hickman, served as a community center for mill workers and their families and included a ground-floor swimming pool, a banquet room and library on the main floor, and a gymnasium on its top level. The Classical Revival structure, with its imposing Doric columns, later served as an administrative and medical center for the company, until Avondale abandoned the site. In the ensuing years, the building fell into disrepair.
When architect Anne-Michael Sustman of Atlanta’s Smith Dalia Architects first saw it in 2013, the stucco was failing, the paint was peeling, but, she says, “its bones were there.”
Sustman’s redesign called for turning the medical clinic into offices for Recleim and restoring the building’s formerly grand spaces, which had been “broken up into a thousand little boxes,” she says.
It was during such demo work that crews unveiled the building’s biggest surprise. While removing the top floor’s drop ceiling, they discovered the original, wonderfully preserved coffered wood ceiling. Although it was in good shape, the 60-foot-long timber trusses supporting it were sagging after more than a hundred years. Figuring out how to shore them up proved to be a challenge, until the project’s structural engineer devised a strategy that involved unbolting the beams and employing a steel strapping system to raise them until they could be secured again. It took four weeks to do it. “When they jacked them up you could hear the whole building moaning,” says Sustman. “But they did it so slowly. It was like somebody with old bones getting up out of a chair.”
Crews also restored the building’s exterior, with its large portico, mansard roof, and stucco finish, to its early 20th-century grandeur.
In addition to ground-floor offices, Horse Creek Trust plans to turn the main floor into a museum and presentation center, showcasing original documents and artifacts from the Graniteville Company as well as displays of the trust’s vision for the future. The top floor serves as Horse Creek Trust’s offices.
Hickman Hall’s rehabilitation came as a pleasant surprise to townspeople, who never thought they’d see the most majestic building in town reborn.
Over at the nearby Red Shed Diner, where photos of old Graniteville hang on the walls and buttermilk pie is a specialty of the house, people say things are off to a promising start. But some remain wary of what’s to come. “What’s been done is good, it makes a difference,” says L.J. Gunter, a teddy bear of a man with a gray beard who worked in a boiler room at the mill for nine years and now owns the eatery with his wife, Geni. “But it’s sickening to see the mills closed. Some stuff might come back, but the old Graniteville is dead and gone.”
Geni Gunter recalls riding the school bus into town during “changing time,” as the morning shift workers arrived and the third shift employees clocked out. “It was like a beehive of activity,” she says. “You’d see all the steam coming off the mills and there was a conglomeration of traffic. There was no traffic light, so you had to just wait on the school bus and hope for the best.”
Geni thinks Graniteville is ripe for redevelopment. “With all the growth and new subdivisions, new schools nearby, it would be great for us to have something to keep people here instead of across the river [in Augusta], or in Aiken,” she says. “I think what they’re proposing is a great idea—if we can get it to fruition.”
Phil Napier, the former fire chief, likes what he sees so far. At 68 years old with a thick crop of gray hair, he’s retired from the department, but currently sits on the county council and runs a combination hardware store and flower shop in the 1950s-era plaza across from the mill. He admits that few patrons come in for nails or duct tape anymore. But the store is busy with a steady stream of old-timers who stop by to sit in mismatched chairs and gossip. “Piddlin’,” he says. “We’re just piddlin’.”
Many conversations recall Graniteville’s past, but also what the future might hold. “Everybody’s excited about their plans and we realize it takes time, but I think everybody would like to see a little more action,” says Napier.
Davis acknowledges the locals’ concerns. “We’d love to just plop it all down, but it’s really less about the capital. It’s about programming it the right way. We’re almost $60 million invested in the community already, and that’s not insignificant in a community this size.”
Davis says the success—and demands—of Recleim have come at the expense of developing other projects, but he expects 2019 will see renovation work begin on the circa-1900, 234,000-square-foot Hickman Mill building.
In the meantime, area residents express a cautious optimism about what’s to come. “Knowing where the town was after the accident, it looked like that would be the death knell of Graniteville, but with these plans and the restoration of Hickman Hall, I think we’re seeing stirrings of rebirth,” says Wiedenman. “It won’t dramatically rise up from the ashes, but there’s been a little fire created in people that their town wasn’t lost. It keeps people going and not giving up.”