Graniteville, S.C.: The original Southern mill town

You wouldn’t know it driving through the dusty streets of Graniteville, S.C., but the small community was at one time a cutting-edge region for economic development.

Today, the unincorporated area has a population of about 2,500 individuals, down sharply from a half century ago. For 150 years, Graniteville, about 10 miles east of Augusta, Ga., was a textile center. It was, in fact, the original Southern mill village, beginning in the mid-1840s.

Graniteville’s place as a textile hub was finally done in by the movement of jobs to foreign countries and a tragic train accident in 2005 in which poisonous chlorine gas was released following a collision, killing nine residents and injuring another 250.

While area does have a tire plant, there’s definitely a feeling Graniteville’s best days are behind it. Yet there remains plenty of interest in the hamlet.

Among the appealing features of Graniteville are more than two dozen original mill houses, built in the late 1840s.

The Gothic Revival wood-frame homes, survivors of 100 built more than a decade before the War Between the States, are considerably more stylish than the clapboard mill houses familiar throughout many Southern cities and towns.

The homes feature Gothic vertical board-and-batten siding with a steeply-pitched front gables. They were built with decorative scalloped barge boards, which can still be seen on many of the remaining houses.

Shuttered mill in Graniteville, S.C.

Graniteville was the work of William Gregg (1800-67), an orphan who parlayed a successful career as a jeweler into a textile fortune.

Gregg had been a part owner of a cotton mill in Edgefield District in the mid-1830s, one of several mills that existed in the state at this time. But these ventures tended to be undercapitalized and prone to failure.

Gregg decided to embark on a serious study of the industry, venturing north in 1844 to inspect textile mills in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. Gregg’s travels convinced him that with proper planning and supervision textile production could be managed successfully in the Palmetto State, according to research done by Lisa Pfueller Davidson for the National Park Service.

Gregg understood the state was “wasting its potential by shipping raw cotton to the North and buying back finished goods at exorbitant prices,” according to Davidson, who added that Gregg believed that viable textile mills in the state would diversify the state’s cotton-reliant economy and provide jobs for poor whites.

Between 1845 and 1849 Gregg supervised the construction of a mile-long power canal, a mill building and a schoolhouse, in addition to the mill houses.

The mill was furnished with state-of-the-art technology for spinning and weaving, and went into operation in 1849. The financial success of the enterprise prompted the development of other, similar mills elsewhere in the South.

While Graniteville’s mills went into decline as jobs began shifting overseas in the 1980s and ‘90s, the final nail in the coffin came after the operation was acquired by Avondale Mills in 1996, when a Norfolk Southern train carrying chlorine gas, sodium hydroxide and cresol went through a misaligned switch, then collided with a second, parked train.

Several of the cars derailed and one carrying chlorine gas ruptured, releasing about 60 tons of the gas. Of the nine people killed as a result of collision, six were Avondale employees.

The following year, Avondale’s CEO announced his company was ceasing operation, closing mills across four states. He cited the crash as the primary reason for the company’s failure.

It proved a sad ending to a long, remarkable run for the Graniteville operation.

Still, it’s impressive to consider that the mill William Gregg started before the California Gold Rush survived into the 21st century, providing jobs and textiles for more than 160 years.

(Top: One of few remaining original houses built for mill workers around 1850.)

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6 thoughts on “Graniteville, S.C.: The original Southern mill town

  1. Cotton Boll,
    I remember when that accident happened. I was horrified, because it was one of the last textile mills in the South, a family-owned business. I believe the Avondale CEO was fifth generation. At the time I wondered if it was an economic hit, because Norfolk-Southern escaped culpability, and Avondale took the major losses.

    My cousin was a cotton farmer in Alabama at the time (now retired), and he had sent his cotton to one of Avondale’s mills. After that accident happened, he was forced to sell his cotton to China.

    • I remember it, as well. It was particularly bad because it happened in the middle of the night, so many people were sleeping and didn’t realize something had happened until it was too late. I don’t know what would have eventually happened with Avondale, but there’s no doubt that the crash was a crippling blow.

  2. That old granite mill looks just like granite mills in Fall River Mass that were built at about the same time.Most of the Fall River mills are four story and similarly sit empty.That plant would have been the “BMW” of the mid 1800’s.It was that big a deal!

    • I’ve been by similar mills in Lowell, and they’re impressive to look at. They would have been much more impressive 170 years ago, with hundreds of workers bustling about. And, indeed, they were economic juggernauts that greatly enhanced local economies.

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