Many Surprises in the Tri-Cities, Washington: June 14-17, 2011

(Editor’s note: All of the pictures are thumbnails. Click on each to view it. Then be sure to click the back button to get back to the text or the next image. Don’t “close” the picture — that will cause the whole travelogue to close!)

The Tri-Cities are Richland, Kennewick and Pasco, Washington. Collectively, they are a strong market in the southeast corner of the state. One of the immediate things we realizes is that this part of Washington is quite mountain-less — it’s plateaus.

We signed into a campground called Horn Rapids in Richland, and we were very happy there. Nice site, nice people, good facilities, good dog walking and easy access to features of all three cities.

We’ll lay our naiveté on the line. We went there primarily because it was the place where Lewis and Clark first met the Columbia River. Its confluence with the Snake is in Sacagawea State Park. We didn’t realize that we were in the presence of two other momentous events in the history of America. First, we knew that the word Kennewick was somewhere in our vocabulary, but it took being there to realize that we were in the spirit of the discovery in 1996 of Kennewick Man. Second, we had no recollection that we had stumbled on the Hanford Site, one of the three critical locations of the U.S. entry into the nuclear warfare age. So we were busy, to say the least.

Sacagawea State Park, Pasco

Our first visit was our original objective. We stood where the Corps came around the bend out of the Snake and into the Columbia, and we imagined the Captains and their corps arriving at this place with great joy and recognition that they were at the beginning of the last phase of their journey. (Little did they know!) It is a beautiful, peaceful site, enhanced by two significant presentations. The first is the Sacajawea Museum.

Time out. We know that there is much controversy over the modern spelling and pronunciation of her name. Folks in this area use a “j” as the fifth letter; folks in other areas use a “g.” The folks around Fort Mandan, where she joined the expedition, prefer a “c.” Many insist on Sac-a-ja–wea as a pronunciation. We much prefer the Sa–cac-a-wea we learned in the Dakotas. We’ve discovered that in DVD presentations about the journey, our favored pronunciation occurs more often. When put in historical significance, the Corps told us virtually nothing. Both captains mostly referred to her as the Indian Woman in their journals, and the rare appearances of her name were as inconsistent as the rest of the spelling!

The museum is an interpretation center that emphasizes her true value to the mission. She did not lead it, per se, as many literary and Hollywood romanticists portray. Her greatest value was as an interpreter. And she provided invaluable support in numerous other ways, ranging from her knowledge of the environment to the success of obtaining horses from her tribe of origin, the Agaidika Shoshone. She was also a peace symbol; a party traveling with a woman was not viewed as a war party.

The expedition arrived here after the Bitterroot crossing, and meeting the indigenous Nez Perce was a boon. The Nez Perce agreed to keep the horses they’d used over the Pass and provided local knowledge on creating the dugout canoes required for the trip down the Columbia. The Corps completed five canoes in ten days. Other tribes, including Umatilla, Walulapum, Yakima and Palouse also surrounded the confluence. A demonstrative exhibit showed the types of goods that came from each direction for trade with the Corps, with trappers and other natives and foreigners.

The museum shares the site with a unique venture. In 2000, Maya Lin, she of Vietnam Memorial fame, agreed to lead the Confluence Project, a series of seven tributes to the ecology and history of the Columbia River Basin. The Project, a cooperative effort of Pacific Northwest tribes and civic organizations has sites in both Oregon and Washington. Other artists, designers and architects are also participating. The Sacajawea State Park installation is the fourth completed; it was dedicated in August, 2010. The farthest east is in Chief Timothy Park, at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers near Pullman, WA.

Ms. Lin’s vision for the Sacajawea park consists of seven Story Circles, some raised and some sunken. Each is themed; together they tell the story of the environment, history and culture of the region. They are sculpted from basalt rock, which predominates the entire area.

Our second visit was to CREHST, The Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science, and Technology, back over on the other side of the River in Richland. It’s a two story museum with second floor entrance that chronicles several key subjects that made the greatest impression on the area. Lewis and Clark was one, of course, but that exhibit, on the lower floor, was discombobulated and turned into a classroom for the day, with teenage students sitting everywhere (including in the canoe) and a teacher with PowerPoint leading them through the Corps of Discovery.

Back to the main floor. The initial exhibit was a collection of wildlife indigenous to the area. Following this, there was a pictorial exhibit of the early days of Richland, from its founding in 1906 until its unfounding in 1943.

It was 1943 when the U.S. Army purchased 640 square miles in the area and evicted everyone from Richland and two other cities north of it: White Cliffs and Hanford. It was returned to self-governing status with a charter in 1958.

Between 1943 and 1958, the entire area served as one of three primary installations of the Manhattan Project (directed by BGen. Groves, left). It was here that the U.S. built and operated its nuclear reactors that produced weapons-grade plutonium, and later tritium. Three reactors were built at first, and six more were added later. The reactors were collectively placed in the site’s 100 Area. The 200 Area handled the fuel rods after they were subject to the chain reaction and removed the plutonium from them, turning it into a deliverable unit that was passed on to Los Alamos where weapons were armed. The 200 Area was also a major waste dump. The 300 Area took in the raw uranium and converted it into the fuel rods that were input to the reactors. Unfortunately, the 300 Area likely contain the hottest waste left behind – and it’s closest to today’s Richland.

The balance of the floor provided a scientific adventure through the planning and construction of the site. In addition, 3D exhibits showed us the two different design attempts to contain the poisonous waste, the remote handling equipment required to handle the “hot” output and the tools of design, construction and operation. Near the end was an exhibit of In Situ Vitrification of radioactive waste, which involves turning it to glass where it sits.

Along with Hanford, Oak Ridge and Los Alamos served as the primary units of The Manhattan Project. Oak Ridge was engaged in isotope separation and chain reactions on a small scale. Most of their work involved bombs called gun type fission weapons. A more advanced weapon, an implosion type bomb, was required for the plutonium that Hanford was producing.

After testing at the Met Lab at the University of Chicago, the Project threw everything but the kitchen sink at Hanford. In short order, over 50,000 workers were hired and moved there, into hastily constructed barracks and what was then the largest campground in the world. Over 3,500 tiny trailers, all identical (see picture below) were positioned on sites measuring 25 by 40 feet, with an average occupancy of 3.7 people. Other than somewhat rudimentary quarters, the population was catered to in every way the government could think of to keep them happy and productive.

The construction project was underway long before its final design was drafted and engineered. Sections were built from sketches on paper scraps, with all calculations performed using that early computer called the slide rule. By sheer determination, the first “B” Reactor was operational in 13 months, started by Enrico Fermi himself. The construction contractor was DuPont, but they agreed to undertake it with reticence, because they had been burned by charges of profiteering from their WW I involvement. Their fee: $1 over costs. And they disappeared immediately after the entire project was completed.

Patriotism was so high at the facility that at the suggestion of one employee, a campaign was launched to encourage every worker to donate a day’s pay to purchase a warplane. Response was so universal that the paymaster withheld the funds from everyone’s paycheck. The resulting purchase provided the Army with an additional B-17 Flying Fortress, which flew more than 60 missions over Germany, bombed many targets and was wonded several times herself. Named Day’s Pay by the Hanford workers, she returned to the states after the war; sadly she was scrapped in 1947.

Once the start button was pushed, the construction crew was supplanted by as many as 15,000 employees. A complete town was built for them, using a concept called Alphabet Houses. Designed in 90 days by Spokane architect G. Albin Pherson, the 22 different models ranged from single family homes to dormitories. Pherson also laid out the entire “company town.” Miniscule rents were charged, and employees’ lips were sealed by rewards similar to those given to the builders. Among other things, they were not restricted by ration stamps (remember those?). The services were so complete that even light bulbs were changed for them. There was something of rank having privileges in the concept; higher skilled and higher echelon employees got better housing. There was an extensive display of the models of houses on the lower level of the CREHST. A cluster of the original houses are now collectively on the National Register as the Gold Coast Historic District in 2005.

The volunteers manning the admission desk at the museum were both nuclear engineers who knew the industry and the site backwards and forwards. Another magical find. One of them told us about a tour of the B Reactor that was available two days hence. He said it was probably reserved already but urged us to stop at the office and ask to be put on the standby list. As it turned out, the tour office was 5 minutes from our campground. When we stopped by, we dropped some names, got a warm greeting, and got placed on the top of the standby list. When we showed up at 7:30 on Saturday, we had already gotten a berth. But that’s the next story.

The B Reactor

Our day began with an orientation at the tour office. We learned that we were not at risk for radiation poisoning and that while we would have free reign of the site for part of our tour, many eyes would be watching us! Then we boarded a bus for the hour ride to the site.

Once there, we were escorted into a briefing right in front of the behemoth itself – the 2,004 cell chamber that created in which were created the violent reactions that fueled the Fat Boy bomb that effectively annihilated Nagasaki. A thorough explanation of the construction and operation ensued. After half an hour or so, half of us were taken on a tour while the other half were further schooled in the big room. Then the groups changed over. Following all of this, we had the promised opportunity to re-explore all of the areas we had learned about. Cameras were permitted throughout.

Some details of note. Each of the 2004 reactor tubes was loaded with a fuel rod consisting of uranium slugs separated by inert spacers. As the reaction took place, as much as 75,000 gallons a minute was drawn from the Columbia and pumped through the engine to keep it from overheating. The outflow was allowed to stand to eliminate traces of radiation before it was returned to the river. Nine control rods, inserted horizontally, were used to control the progression of the reaction Twenty nine vertical safety rods, positioned above the reactor, stood by to suppress the reaction if it ran away. In addition, the infusion of boron rich water, and later small pellets of pure boron, could be injected to stop the reaction.

Ancillary rooms contained the massive air cleaning systems used inside the reactor. They discharged through a 200 foot chimney, deemed to be tall enough to release any harmful elements without danger. The pump room was huge and impressive. Our guide pointed out how they were disabled to show visiting Russian observers that the unit was moot.

The control room, however, was most awe inspiring. Just to be here, where the massively risky production was monitored and regulated, was breathtaking. Along the right wall was 2,004 analog gauges, each monitoring the critical water pressure in each tube. A sign above them warned against jarring the panel. Opposite, there was a temperature monitoring system, a series of recording barographs that were actuated by moving plugs around in a telephone switchboard. At the desk, the main man stared unflinchingly at nine gauges and manipulated the nine control rods to keep them in balance.

Behind the control room , there were two offices. One belonged to Fermi himself. It was occupied only three times during the life of the reactor.

Pictures below: reactor room exhibit, face of reactor (2), working demo with control rods out, exhaust system, cooling water system, control panel with senior operator, pressure gauges (front and back), temperature monitoring “switchboard,” Fermi’s office, map of the facilities in 1944, map at peak, the equation, and instructions for separating radioactive elements.

We took our leave after two hours, first witnessing two train engines that moved the cargo from here to the 200 Area. There is a lot of discussion going on concerning the future of this unit — as a shrine or a shame!

Kennewick Man

If it were not for two college students attempting to sneak in to a hydroplane race finish line, Kennewick Man may remain more a mystery than he is today. On July 28, 1996, Will Thomas and David Deacy made their way up the shoreline of the Columbia and happened upon a human skull. Setting it aside, they continued their clandestine activities. But when the race was over, they returned to fetch the skull and subsequently lead authorities to the scene of their discovery. Before the exploration was done, virtually a full skeleton of an ancient human was exhumed and preserved. Carbon dating determined his age at 9,300 years.

But the saga was just beginning. Native Americans declared him as one of theirs, and petitioned the court to release him for proper burial without further examination under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Nay, said the Anglos. Kennewick Man is decidedly Caucasian. Some, in fact, declared he was the spitting image of Patrick Stewart. Even the Asatru Folk Assembly, a group practicing a pre-Christian religion, sued to have further discovery on the stranger. To date, there has been no final resolution, though a court decision in 2002 declared that he is not Native American. Nevertheless, Kennewick Man, still the property of the Corps of Engineers, vacations at the Burke Museum at the U of Washington in Seattle, a neutral resting place.

The East Benton County Historical Society considers itself the local home of “Ken.” They have a display showing him (recreated) lying at the water’s edge. They have copious documents supporting all sides. They have many other nostalgic displays of local artifacts. But they have a strict no photography policy. Sorry, folks.

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