Graniteville now and then: Today marks 10 years since deadly train wreck

January 6, 2015

Ten years ago, textile mills in the South were struggling to survive because of competition from cheaper labor overseas, and Graniteville’s way of life was threatened.

The end, however, came quicker than anyone predicted, hastened by a devastating train wreck on Jan. 6, 2005, that released poisonous chlorine gas into the air.

Blaming the negative impact of that disaster, officials of Avondale Mills announced in 2006 that they were shutting down operations in Graniteville and elsewhere, putting approximately 2,000 Aiken County residents out of work.

Gone were the steady paychecks that generations of families had been depending on since the 1840s, when William Gregg founded the Graniteville Co., which merged with Avondale in 1996.

“People were out on the streets with no jobs and no insurance,” said Aiken County Councilman Phil Napier, who runs a hardware store in downtown Graniteville and is the chief of the local volunteer fire department. “It was depressing to see all those buildings idle that had been utilized for so many years.”

Napier didn’t give up, and neither did many other Graniteville residents.

“We have a lot of strong people here, and we weren’t going to let our community die,” he said.

And it didn’t.

Today, Graniteville is a more diversified place economically. Bridgestone, which came to the Graniteville area in the 1990s, has expanded its tire-manufacturing operations significantly with a $1.2-billion investment. MTU Detroit Diesel began manufacturing engines locally in 2010 after pledging to spend $45 million and create 250 jobs.

Recleim, meanwhile, started setting up a recycling center for appliances and electronics in 2013 on the former Hickman Mill site. That $40.6 million project is expected to increase the number of job opportunities in Graniteville by 200.

Later this month, All Star Tents and Events is scheduled to move from Aiken and open a new 35,000-square-foot facility on Bettis Academy Road in Graniteville.

In addition, Christ Central created the Hope Center in Graniteville, and that facility, which opened last year, is dedicated to helping people improve their job skills and get a better education.

Megiddo Dream Station, established in 2012, is assisting unemployed individuals in their quest to find work.

“I definitely feel like we’re on the upswing and getting back to the community that we used to be,” Napier said. “People seem to have a better attitude about everything. We’re one of the fastest growing areas in the county. Our future is very positive.”

In Napier’s opinion, work done by the Aiken County Council and the Economic Development Partnership to attract new industries to Graniteville has been a major factor in the industrial rebirth.

Also playing an important role was Weldon Wyatt, who made a fortune developing Wal-Mart stores.

The businessman has used his funds and convinced others to invest their money in acquiring a considerable amount of Graniteville property, including vacant mill buildings.

“He helped maintain and clean up things,” Napier said.

Pete Davis, of Atlanta-based Peachtree Investment Solutions, which is the company behind the Recleim initiative, also praised Wyatt.

“He was important in stabilizing the community during the time of uncertainty following the train wreck,” Davis said. “If you look at abandoned mill buildings across the United States, the ones that don’t get new owners end up in complete disrepair, but the ones in Graniteville, from a real estate perspective, are in developable shape.”

Wyatt also is the driving financial force behind Megiddo Dream Station, which plans to expand and build a $5 million campus off Gregg Highway. Megiddo plans to erect a 92-foot-tall lighted cross behind the Graniteville Cemetery later this year.

“The people of Graniteville never lost faith,” said Will Williams, the president and CEO of the Economic Development Partnership. “They took a few steps back, but they always believed that they would come back; and I believe, very sincerely, that their belief is coming true.”

 

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