Construction of North Richland Construction Camp, which will eventually house 25,000 Hanford workers and their families, is authorized on August 15, 1947.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 6/25/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10805

On August 15, 1947, a Hanford Engineer Works directive authorizes work to begin on the North Richland Construction Camp in Benton County. The camp, which will soon house 25,000 Hanford workers and their families, is part of a huge Cold War expansion of Hanford. Designed as a temporary town for workers building new plutonium-production and other nuclear facilities on the nearby Hanford site, it consists of prefabricated houses, barracks, trailer sites, and community buildings. Its streets are laid out on a grid on flat former farmland about four miles north of Richland. The camp will be completed in 1948 and see its population peak that year, after which population will fluctuate for several years and then decline as construction at Hanford winds down. A U.S. Army anti-aircraft unit named Camp Hanford will occupy part of the site during the 1950s. By the twenty-first century, there will be little left of the North Richland Construction Camp except the remnants of streets and foundations. In 2011, part of the former camp will become the Port of Benton's USS Triton Sail Park.

Semi-permanent Town 

At the end of World War II, North Richland consisted of just a few barracks built in 1944, housing a small number of Hanford Engineer Works employees. In 1947, General Electric, which operated Hanford, and the Atomic Energy Commission, Hanford's governing authority, announced plans for "a gigantic expansion of the Hanford plutonium manufacturing capabilities" (Gerber, 33). It would grow to become "the largest peacetime construction project in American history up to that time" and would require an enormous army of temporary construction workers (Gerber, 33).

General Electric concluded that the North Richland site had "ample room for expansion" and "easy access to adjacent power, light and water facilities" (Mishkar, 10). In July 1947, General Electric proposed a plan to build a "new semi-permanent town for 30,000 persons ... with 16,000 workers living in barracks, 4,000 living in trailers and houses" along with 10,000 family members (Mishkar, 10). On August 15, 1947, Hanford Engineer Works directive HEW-73 authorized the first stage of the construction, with a budget not to exceed $15 million.

Work began immediately. Because Hanford's atomic production was considered a vital component of the nation's Cold War strategy, the North Richland Construction Camp sprang up with astonishing speed. "Design and construction work was simultaneous" (Mishkar, 10). Many buildings were moved in their entirety to the North Richland Construction Camp, including 46 Navy barracks, which were floated across the Columbia River from nearby Pasco. Thousands of trailers were brought in and many new buildings were constructed. Most of the construction crews worked six days a week.

Work was finished by November 1948. The completed camp consisted of 200 prefabricated houses, 82 barracks, and 2,211 trailer sites each measuring 40 feet by 40 feet. It also consisted of everything else that a temporary city of 25,000 required, including a "mess hall, school, post office, fire station, commercial establishments (drug stores and grocery stores) and patrol headquarters" (Mishkar, 10). It had bathhouses for the barracks and all a city's requisite infrastructure, including roads, sidewalks, sewers, electrical lines, phone lines, and water lines. The north-south avenues were named alphabetically from A to W, and the east-west streets were named numerically from First to 13th.

Sand and Guns 

One former resident, who lived at North Richland as a child, later mostly remembered "sand, lots of sand -- everything was built on sand" (Gerber, 64). Dust storms and sandstorms were frequent. To keep morale high and lessen turnover, General Electric also built a "recreation building, theaters, taverns, parks, playgrounds, baseball diamonds, horseshoe and tennis courts, and an auditorium and dance hall" Mishkar, 14). Shelters, or sheds, were built over the trailers in an attempt to keep them cool in central Washington's summer heat.

In 1950, the U.S. Army traveled to North Richland from Fort Lewis, in Pierce County, in what has been called "the biggest convoy in Washington State's history" (Gerber, 104). Troops arrived with 16 120-mm anti-aircraft guns "to protect the reactors and chemical separation plants from airplane attack" (Harvey, 26). Each big gun was itself protected by four 50-mm machine guns. The anti-aircraft batteries were arrayed throughout the Hanford site, but the headquarters compound was established at North Richland. In 1951, that compound was officially designated as Camp Hanford. It included a number of barracks and administrative buildings.

By 1953, construction at Hanford was beginning to wind down. The population of the North Richland Construction Camp dropped to 7,500 in 1954 and continued to dwindle. Camp Hanford still occupied large parts of the site. Its anti-aircraft batteries were replaced in the mid and late 1950s with four Nike missile installations on the Hanford site, as well as three more in the surrounding area. Yet by 1960 the Nike missiles had become obsolete. Camp Hanford was deactivated in October 1960 and officially closed on March 31, 1961. The former camp site was dismantled between 1962 and 1965 and parts of it reverted to farmland.

By the second decade of the twenty-first century, evidence of the North Richland Construction Camp was sparse. Little remained except some foundations, manholes, parts of the old infrastructure, and some of the old street names. Absorbed into the growing city of Richland, the site had become home to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Port of Benton facilities, Washington State University Tri-Cities, and many other modern installations. The USS Triton Sail Park, which displays the sail and conning tower of the nuclear submarine USS Triton, was built and dedicated by the Port of Benton in 2011. The park sits between the historic C and D avenues of the once-bustling temporary construction camp of 25,000.

Sources: Larry Mishkar, Katherine F. Chobot, Bryan Hoyt, Paula Johnson, "Triton Sail Park Cultural Resources Assessment, Benton County, Washington," Paragon Research Associates, 2008, copy available at the Port of Benton, Richland, Washington; Michele Stenehjem Gerber, On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992); David Harvey, "History of the Hanford Site, 1943-1990," Pacific Northwest National Laboratory website accessed May 24, 2014 (http://ecology.pnnl.gov/library/History/Hanford-History-All.pdf); "Four Submit Bids on Operation of North Richland," Walla Walla Union Bulletin, February 28, 1952, p. 5; "Environmental Assessment for the Resiting, Construction, and Operation of the Environmental and Molecular Sciences Laboratory at the Hanford Site, Richland, Washington," U.S. Department of Energy Hanford Site website accessed June 3, 2014 (http://pdw.hanford.gov/arpir/pdf.cfm?accession=D196241381).

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