Before 1943, the area which was to become the Hanford Site was a sparsely populated area with a few small irrigated farm plots and orchards near the small towns of Hanford and White Bluffs. It had long been used by Native Americans as a fishing and camping site, especially at the confluence of the Yakima River where it dumped into the mighty Columbia River.
History records the first white settler was John B. Nelson who homesteaded near the mouth of the Yakima in 1863. Within 20 years, several other families had settled in the area and irrigated crops. In 1905, the first post office was opened in the town of Benton. Shortly after that, local residents had a naming contest and the name of the town was changed to Richland. By early 1943 the population had skyrocketed out of control to 240.
At this point, everything changed- not just for Richland, but the country as a whole.
America declared war on Japan after the Pearl Harbour bombing on December 7, 1941. In December of 1942, a nuclear chain reaction was sustained for the first time at the University of Chicago's Metallurgical Laboratory. The country's scientists involved in the ultra-secret "Manhattan Project" were told to fast-forward the project in order to construct a nuclear weapon for the war effort. Almost within days, Major General Leslie A. Groves was appointed Commander in Chief of the Manhattan Project and that same month, along with Colonel Franklin T. Matthias, scouted locations to build bomb factories in Washington State, New Mexico and Tennessee. They decided the Richland and White Bluffs area as ideal for a location to manufacture Plutonium. It was a remote location, with reliable water supply, a solid basalt foundation for building, abundant and cheap electricity from the Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams and a low threat from natural disasters. This new site was dubbed "Site W".
Unfortunately for the powers-that-be, there were residents in the way. Since that's never been a problem for the government, the area was simply condemned, along with their farms and structures, and they were told to leave immediately. The town was quickly converted to a construction camp to house the workers that would be building the project. The site became known as "Hanford Engineer Works" and was about 25 miles north of present-day Richland. Inside a short few months, the population swelled to 51,000. Even though unknown to the rest of the world, this "town" was the fourth largest city in Washington.
Construction of the first reactor began in March, 1943, in a partnership between the army and DuPont.
"B" reactor construction began in March of 1943 and came on line in September of 1944. Let's take a moment to consider this. In December of 1942 the first sustained nuclear reaction was successful in a lab at the University of Chicago. In less than 24 months, this country, in complete secrecy, had designed and built a fully operable plutonium reactor, one of the single-largest public works project since the pyramids- and all in secret.
On a personal note- My mother's family moved here on one of the very first transports in 1943. Her father was an original reactor operator at the "B" reactor. Just a few short months before she passed away after a long battle with breast cancer, she and I were able to take one of the almost-impossible-to-get tickets of the official Hanford tour. Watching her face as she sat at the control panel of the "B" Reactor (now a museum) and talked about her daddy having a job but never knowing what it was- Priceless.
The government provided everything for the workers- schools, recreation halls, stores, a theatre, activities including big-name hollywood stars and bands.
By July of 1945, the three operable reactors had produced enough enriched plutonium to test an atomic bomb. The test of the Hanford bomb was conducted in the sands in Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16th.
After the war was over, most residents thought the area would be closed and would return to a sleepy little farm community. This was not to be. Richland was taken over by the federal government and became the headquarters for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Thousands of homes were constructed for Hanford's workers.
The first homes were called "prefabs" as they were prefabricated off-site and put together in Richland. They were 1,2 and 3 bedroom houses no larger that 653 square feet, with flat roofs that had a tendency of blowing off when the aptly named "termination winds" blew in. http://ebchs.org/architecture/Richland/h_other_govt.htmThese houses are still all over Richland although most of them have been extensively renovated. The next houses were the "letter houses"- So-called due to their designations by model using letters of the alphabet. I grew up in a "B" house in Richland which the family completely remodeled from its original duplex configuration into a large family home. Many of the homes in Richland proper are these original letter homes, also mostly renovated. http://ebchs.org/architecture/Richland/h_letter_house.htm
A small book written in 1994* has the personal memories of some of the early residents, with my mom's (Bev Sullivan Johnson) entry as follows:
"We would play hide-and-seek and get on the buses when we were hiding, then get off around the block". "...the bathhouses, and having to go down there in the dark. Indoor plumbing was not available in the trailers, so the bathhouses were used as bathrooms, laundry rooms and showers". "...Christmas, when there were no lights and not many decorations. Until I was grown and learned better, I thought it was because we were to poor to afford them". "The Saturday matinees at the Village Theater. A double-feature, newsreel and cartoon cost 25 cents". "They used to quarantine you if you had a contagious disease (whooping cough, scarlet fever, measles), and the public health nurse would come by to treat you. With several children in a family to pass a disease around, you could be quarantined for weeks".
Even by my growing-up years of the 1970's, Richland still had a small town feel where everyone knew everyone. And everyone had a family member working at Hanford it seemed.
For the Wikipedia link on Hanford click http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanford,_Washington
*"Great Memories- Early Hanford and the Tri-Cities" Editors- Carolyn Krogness & Gary Gesell
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