Atomic City: The Story of a Top-Secret World War II Project

During World War II, Richland in Washington State was home to the top-secret Manhattan Project that developed the B reactor–the world’s first, full-scale operating nuclear reactor.

Hanford’s B Reactor produced plutonium provided the material for the world’s first nuclear detonation in Aamagordo, New Mexico. B Reactor also produced the plutonium used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki effectively bringing an end to World War II.

Today, B Reactor is being considered for preservation as a public museum commemorating the enormity of this event and what the Atomic Age meant to the world. Here Enrico Fermi and the president of DuPont, plus a few others, huddled after the reactor went critical for the first time, then shut itself down.  A worker asked if they were trying to figure out what went wrong.  No, he was told, they were putting together a pool as to when the reactor would restart itself. B Reactor has been named a nuclear historic landmark by the American Nuclear Society & is on the National Register of Historic Places.

As part of a super-secret Atomic City, Hanford employees were sworn to secrecy about the work they were doing. They couldn’t even tell their families.  A story goes that one young boy went to school and boasted, “I know what they’re building out there…it’s a toilet paper factory…because every night my daddy comes home with a roll of toilet paper in his lunchbox.”  The boy’s father was released from employment shortly afterwards.


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The Alphabet Houses of Richland:

Richland’s Alphabet Houses were built as part of World War II’s top secret Manhattan Project  when the federal government was faced with the immense challenge of creating one of the first “master-planned” communities in the nation.

The houses were assigned a letter designating their architectural design, and employees of the Atomic Energy Commission were assigned certain style homes based on their rank and position. During a two-year period, a total of 3,740 new homes were constructed to house the rapidly growing workforce. The government owned and provided everything for the houses including furniture, utilities…even the changing of light bulbs!

The architect that designed the city of Richland and the “alphabet houses” for the Federal Government was given 48 hours to accept the project, and only 90 days to design the entire city– including the houses, streets, parks, and infrastructure. To the consternation of newcomers, residents and even realtors insist on referring to their homes as an “A” house, a “B” house, an “F” house, etc….in keeping with its original designation.

The Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science and Technology (CREHST) museum’s “ABC Tours” showcases the history of Richland’s Alphabet Houses.