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Chapter 22: The Atomic Communities in Washington State

The atomic communities of the Hanford Engineer Works (HEW) in south central Washington State were in the vicinity of one of the great historical routes of immigration to the Northwest United States. In 1805 Lewis and Clark had covered a portion of the famed Oregon Trail as they made their way down the Snake River to the Columbia, and a generation later thousands of settlers had traversed it as they forged westward. Indian wars, however, delayed settlement in central and eastern Washington until the 1850s and, thereafter, the general aridity of the semi-desert sagebrush country in the vicinity of the confluence of the Yakima and Columbia Rivers discouraged attempts at agriculture, except for some sheep raising. Finally, in the early 1900’s, limited development of irrigation attracted a few farmers, who planted orchards and raised crops of mint and alfalfa. It was they who, in the early spring of 1943, suddenly faced displacement from their homes in three tiny rural hamlets – White Bluffs, Hanford, and Richland – to make way for thousands of construction and operating employees of the plutonium project. Events remote from the peaceful agriculture pursuits of these modern pioneers were to bring this hitherto bypassed region into the mainstream of American history.1

Selecting Sites

Faced with development of an area isolated from any sizable city, Du Pont and Army engineers began planning early for large on-site communities. Because of the omnipresence of radioactivity in the plutonium processes, they could not follow the normal practice of having construction and plant-operating employees live adjacent to the production plants. Scientists had indicated that it would not be safe for plant-operating employees to reside within 10 miles of the pile and separation production units. And because these units would have to be tested during the later phases of plant construction, even construction employees would have to live some distance from them.

Saving time was another urgent consideration in location planning.

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Project engineers favored sites already occupied by rural villages, where they would be able to take advantage of existing grading, buildings, road networks, and utilities. To facilitate the selection process, they drew up three alternate site plans. The first proposed a combined construction and operating community at Benton City on the Yakima, a few miles west of Richland and about 24 air miles from the main process area. (See Map 4.) The second proposed three separate communities: Camp A, about 2.5 miles south of the existing village of Hanford; Camp B, about 2 miles north of Richland; and Camp C, in the hamlet of White Bluffs. Under this plan, when the time came for startup of the process plants, the three camps would be consolidated to form an operating village at the Camp A site. The third plan called for locating all construction and plant-operating employees at the Camp A site.2

After giving due consideration to each plan, Du Pont and Army engineers agreed to establish two separate communities: a construction camp at Hanford and an operating village at Richland. Reasons of safety and efficiency dictated that all construction employees should reside in a single community, and Hanford appeared best to meet such requirements. Its distance of about 6 miles from the nearest process areas was sufficient not only to ensure the workers’ safety during startup testing but also to provide them easy access to all the major work sites. Its location at the intersection of the Connell-Yakima state highway and Pasco-White Bluffs road and on a branch line of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad gave it the necessary road and rail access. Water was available from existing wells and the river and electricity from a Pacific Power and Light Company substation. “rhe natural contour of the land at the village site made grading for construction unnecessary and simplified sewerage and drainage problems, and the existing buildings provided the temporary housing that would be needed by the first construction crews.3

Safety was the determining factor in the decision to locate the operating community at a separate site. Project engineers found that two locations – Benton City and Richland – both met the basic criteria: Each was about 25 miles from the production plant sites, and each had adequate road and rail access, a sufficient source of water and electricity, and a number of existing buildings. But Benton City had not been included in the original land acquisition and project officials believed that, for reasons of security, the operating village must be within the reservation. They could have taken steps to acquire the Benton City area, but serious opposition had arisen among local residents because of the extent of the government’s original land acquisition. Seeking to avoid additional acquisitions likely to inflame public opinion, project community planners chose Richland as the site for the operating community.4

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Hanford construction camp 
at HEW

Hanford construction camp at HEW. Aerial view shows its vast size.

Hanford: The Construction Camp

Once the planners had reached a final decision concerning location, Du Pont immediately began work on both the construction camp and the operating community, with Du Pont and Army personnel at the Hanford site and Wilmington headquarters working in close cooperation. Planning and design of the two communities proceeded more or less simultaneously in early 1943, but the construction camp which had to be ready for occupancy as soon as possible had first priority.

At the outset, Du Pont’s construction camp planning and design efforts were handicapped by the tenuousness of essential quantitative data. Only indeterminate figures were available on how many workers were likely to reside in the camp, because the Metallurgical Laboratory-Du Pont design team had not progressed far enough with plans for the plutonium production facilities to provide an accurate estimate. A similar problem existed with figures on how many construction workers could live in off-site housing, because more urgent matters had delayed the Hanford area engineer, Lt. Col. Franklin T. Matthias, from making a survey of the Hanford area.

Lacking this statistical data, Du Pont had no choice but to go ahead with plans and designs on the basis of

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Camp administrative area 
(foreground) and residential area ( background ) at HEW

Camp administrative area (foreground) and residential area ( background ) at HEW

hurriedly prepared estimates that projected a total construction work force of twenty-five thousand to twenty-eight thousand, half of whom, the company hoped, would live in off-site housing. To circumvent inevitable revisions, Du Pont developed a planning strategy of adopting easily expansible layouts and building designs and of learning the experience of other firms that had built construction camps in isolated, semiarid regions with adverse climatic conditions. This circumspect approach proved fortuitous, especially in view of subsequent developments that revealed earlier projections on the size of the construction force were grossly inaccurate (nearly twice as many workers would be required as originally estimated) and that very little off-site housing was available. Meanwhile, General Groves made a thorough inspection of the Washington site in March, after which he, Colonel Matthias, and other Army representatives sat down with Du Pont’s field staff and worked out basic steps for getting construction started.5

Field work began at the Hanford campsite in early April. On the fourth, Du Pont and Hanford area

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office personnel – with plans in hand for the first barracks, mess hall, and service buildings in the construction camp – carried out a general reconnaissance of the area and reached agreement that work should begin immediately on facilities adequate to house and feed a starting work force of two thousand. They also agreed to proceed with orders for materials and equipment in quantities sufficient to provide units for four thousand workers and, at the same time, established a construction schedule looking to completion of the whole camp by 1 December. On 6 April, workers began erection of the first barracks.6

Du Pont officials responsible for Hanford construction met biweekly (later weekly). They drew up procurement schedules for critical building materials, establishing a policy of keeping on order equipment for ten barracks and one mess hall to forestall the inevitable delays in delivery. In late July, Du Pont commissioned the architect-engineer firm of Jones, Couillan, Thery, and Sylliassen to review all plans for the campsite and assist in development of further layouts. The recommendations of the architect-engineer, combined with periodic subsequent studies of particular problems by Du Pont’s field engineers, provided the basis for the further development and operation of the construction camp.7

In September, on the basis of the Metallurgical Laboratory-Du Pont design team’s new report that construction of the plutonium production plants would require a considerably larger work force than previously anticipated, the Army and Du Pont moved to firmer ground in their projections of peak population requirements for Hanford. Actually, the peak of construction came in November, when for a period of more than a month some fifty-three hundred workers were employed in building the camp, including some diverted temporarily from the plant construction work force. But it was not until July 1944 that Du Pont announced that construction was 98 percent complete, with nearly twelve hundred new and remodeled buildings and sufficient support facilities to house, feed, and supply the daily necessities of the fifty-one thousand people who, by that time, were living at the construction camp.8

Completion of the camp facilities in time to meet the peak population requirements was possible only because of the close cooperation of the Hanford area engineer with Du Pont and its subcontractors in overcoming chronic labor shortages and procuring a variety of critical building materials. Du Pont benefited greatly from Manhattan’s countrywide recruiting efforts in 1943 and 1944 and from the Army’s approval of its use of subcontractors who had access to local labor. For example, the Walla Walla (Washington) firm of A. A. Durand

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and Sons drilled wells and the Seattle firm of McManama and Company erected boilers. Matthias and his staff expedited procurement of many items in short supply, including Army tents, boilers, hot water heaters, toilet fixtures, fans, cooling and refrigeration units, heating coils, and mess hall equipment. Through Army channels the area engineer arranged for transfer from other government projects of many materials otherwise virtually unobtainable. The Army also actively supported Du Pont’s various measures to shorten construction time and save materials, including employment of prefabrication and preassembly wherever feasible. An outstanding example was the decision by Groves and Du Pont to substitute prefabricated hutments for barracks.9

Because of the persistent problems of procuring and conserving an adequate construction work force at the Washington site, the Army stressed those aspects of the Hanford camp that would make living conditions more tolerable for the average employee. An example was its effort to ensure that Du Pont incorporate effective means for heating, cooling, and ventilating housing units and hutments – a very important consideration in view of area climatic conditions characterized by extremes in heat and cold, rapid changes in temperature, and occasional severe dust storms. The system eventually installed employed hot air heated by steam from a central plant. Although this method was more costly than having coal heaters in each individual housing unit or hutment, it provided a means for circulating air, cooled by water evaporation, in the hot summer months.10

Newly recruited workers found themselves in what must certainly have been one of the largest temporary communities ever erected. Hundreds of one-story structures, standing in evenly spaced rows along freshly graded streets, filled the generally flat terrain west of the broad Columbia River. The majority of these structures were housing units. At the center were row upon row of wing-type barracks. To the south were hundreds of much smaller hutments. On the north and west stood thousands of family-sized trailers, each positioned on its individual plot. Interspersed at conveniently located intervals were cafeteria buildings. In a triangular-shaped area near the river and between the barracks and the north trailer camp were most of the commercial and administrative buildings, some remodeled from existing structures. Here also were many of the community and recreational facilities – a theater, church, school, hospital, library, and an auditorium-gymnasium. Rising here and there above the low level of most structures were the smoke stacks of heating plants, water

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Richland Village at HEW

Richland Village at HEW. Aerial view shows the commercial center (foreground), buildings of the administrative headquarters (middle ground), and the residential area (background).

and oil storage tanks, and a few trees. Utility lines strung on tall poles lined every street, seeming to bind together the scattered segments of the Hanford camp.11

Richland: The Operating Community

Richland, with a population of 250, was in early 1943 the center of an agricultural community of some 600 persons who derived their livelihood from farming the irrigated bottom-lands near the junction of the Yakima and Columbia Rivers. Most of the commercial and civic structures of the village and some of its homes were built along the axis of a state highway, providing a ready route of access eastward to the important communication centers of Kennewick and Pasco and northward to Hanford and White Bluffs. The original buildings of Richland were of substantial construction, many of them cement or brick. Community services included an underground water system (but no central sewerage system), electricity, and telephones. The roads were chiefly gravel or packed earth, but some had asphalt surfacing. Surrounding the village center were numerous small farms, planted with orchards or other irrigated crops.12

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As with the Hanford construction camp, the Army turned over to Du Pont the task of converting this farm community into suitable headquarters for the massive plutonium production project and a home for thousands of plant-operating employees. The Army’s aim was to enable the prime contractor to achieve maximum operating efficiency in accomplishing its task by combining requirements and services needed for both the production plants and the village, and thus from the outset General Groves and Colonel Matthias emphasized the importance of making the most economic use of project resources. Illustrative of this policy was the size of permanent houses for the supervisory and technical operating personnel. Du Pont believed that such personnel would require at least three-bedroom homes, but the Army disagreed and assigned most of them only one- or two-bedroom homes. To ensure compliance with Army policy, the Hanford Area Engineers Office monitored all housing activities.13

Colonel Matthias had considerable authority as area engineer and utilized several channels to exercise direct control over design and construction of Richland. Through his legal officer, he reviewed and approved Du Pont’s subcontracts and other legal arrangements relating to the building of the village. Through his construction chief’s so-called Richland Division, he maintained a more specific check on construction activities. In addition, Matthias made frequent personal inspections of the village and conferred regularly with Du Pont headquarters officials and field representatives.14

With virtually all of its own design and engineering personnel committed to work on the production facilities or other wartime projects, Du Pont had few employees to spare for the village project. Hence, with permission of the Army, it opened negotiations with several architect-engineer firms in the Pacific Northwest. G. A. Pehrson of Spokane was the low bidder and, in mid-March, I)u Pont signed a contract with the firm.15

Pehrson started work immediately on layout plans for the village community, using as a guide the Du Pont – Army population projections that assumed a 40- to 50-percent occupancy in off-site housing. Because these projections forecasted a population of 6,500 with possible expansion to 7,500, Peterson drafted plans for 980

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conventional family units of relatively permanent construction and also for a few dormitories to house single men and women. But Du Pont and Matthias soon discovered from incoming employees that suitable places to live in the surrounding communities were extremely scarce. Consequently, in June they revised initial estimates of Richland’s ultimate population to 7,750 with potential growth to 12,000 and instructed Pehrson to increase the number of conventional family dwellings to 2,000. Pehrson had barely started on the expanded program when new calculations indicated the Richland population was likely to escalate to at least 16,000 (later revised to 17,500). Following consultation with Matthias, Du Pont directed Pehrson to add another 1,000 family units, bringing the total to 3,000.16

Faced with a vastly larger housing program than anticipated, Du Pont and Matthias began looking for ways to expedite development of the Richland community. Aware that General Groves had spoken quite enthusiastically of the advantages of portable prefabricated housing being installed at the Tennessee site, Colonel Matthias in late October went to Oak Ridge’s East Village to inspect the units. Following his return to Hanford, the area engineer coordinated with District officials to procure sample prefab units and to arrange for an on-site inspection visit by a Tennessee Valley Authority portable housing specialist. The decision to use portable dwellings as supplemental housing at Richland came in late December, at which time Manhattan selected the Prefabricated Engineering Company of Portland, Oregon, to supply the units. Du Pont negotiated the initial contract for 500 prefabs, which Matthias approved in early January 1944, and subsequently ordered an additional 1,300, increasing the total of new and existing units to 4,410. Coincident with this activity was Du Pont’s expanded construction of other facilities, such as dormitories (eventually 25 to house more than a thousand persons) and commercial and service buildings (stores, schools, churches, recreational areas, and utilities).17

To further facilitate community development, the Army approved Du Pont’s subcontracting of most construction to two firms familiar with building problems in the Pacific Northwest – Twaits, Morrison, and Knudsen of Los Angeles and Smith, Hoffman, and Wright of Portland. They specified village layouts that took advantage of natural terrain and that preserved existing buildings, orchards, shade trees, roads, and streets. They endorsed house plans that included basic furnishings, recognizing the great difficulty workers from other parts of the country would

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have in getting their household goods moved in a wartime economy and the limited availability of home furnishings in stores in towns near the site.18

These timesaving measures, for the most part, were effective. Construction of the village moved ahead on schedule, and the district engineer reported to General Groves in February 1944 that the village was more than half finished. There were occasions, nevertheless, when serious delays were avoided only as a result of direct and vigorous efforts of the Hanford area engineer. A typical case was Prefabricated Engineering’s problem of transporting its portable housing units to the village site.19

Prefabricated Engineering lacked the equipment necessary to truck its portable housing units to Richland from its manufacturing plant in Toledo, Oregon. So, in early 1944, it subcontracted the job to a Chicago-based trucking firm and arranged for routine clearances from the Office of Defense Transportation and the Interstate Commerce Commission. Shortly thereafter, unforeseen complications developed. As soon as the trucker began assembling his equipment in Oregon, both government agencies raised strong objections to the fact that Prefabricated Engineering was not conforming to established rules, stating that wartime regulations on conservation of scarce resources required the company to employ local truckers. At the same time, Pacific Northwest representatives of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters threatened to forbid use of union drivers, claiming that the trucking firm’s equipment did not meet union safety standards.

Apprised of this threatened delay in the shipment of the portable housing units, Colonel Matthias took immediate action. As a first step, in an effort to relieve Prefabricated Engineering’s overtaxed storage facilities and to prevent any serious disruption of the Richland construction schedule, he arranged to have the prefab units transported by rail – a much more costly procedure – until such time as the obstacles to trucking could be overcome. He then assumed the role of a mediator in ongoing union-government negotiations, which dragged on until April 1944. Matthias was successful in overcoming the objections of the Teamsters union, but not those of the government agencies. Consequently, Prefabricated Engineering was left with no alternative but to engage the services of a local trucking firm, even though the latter’s per-unit hauling cost was considerably higher than that of the Chicago company.20

By late spring of 1945, transformation of the little rural hamlet of Richland into a bustling industrial community

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of scientists, engineers, military administrators, and skilled workmen and their collective families was very nearly complete. In a fenced-in area at the center of the operating village were the wood-frame buildings of varying size that housed the HEW administrative headquarters. Immediately to the east and southeast of the headquarters and toward the low-lying Columbia River was “downtown” Richland, built around the original commercial center of the village. Here were stores and a variety of service facilities, a hotel for visitors, a theater, churches, a cafeteria, and the dormitories for single men and women. Surrounding downtown on the south, west, and northwest were residential areas, with neighborhood stores and service facilities. Most of’ the conventional houses were clustered in two large sections – one directly south of the village center, the other to the northwest – with here and there shade and fruit trees remaining from the farms that had occupied the area. On the outer fringes of the conventional housing sections were a few of the flat-roofed prefabricated houses, but most of the homes of this type were concentrated in a roughly rectangular zone directly west of the administration buildings. Several main streets, which interconnected with the many new residential streets, carried motor traffic northward from the village to the production plant area and south and east to Kennewick and Pasco. A newly built railroad spur line gave Richland a direct connection with the Union Pacific and Northern Pacific Railroads a few miles to the south of the village.21

Community Management

Du Pont had complete responsibility for community management functions. The Hanford area engineer’s role was largely supervisory except on. certain matters, such as controls over rents and real estate transactions. Colonel Matthias established a Community Management Branch in the Engineering and Maintenance Division of his office to exercise these controls; review contracts; maintain records on facilities, leases, and financial statements; and work with Du Pont’s HEW Service Department. The company assigned overall community management to one of the two assistant superintendents in this department. Division supervisors managed housing, commercial concessionaires, community services, public buildings, and other facilities.22

Hanford Camp

For the Army and Du Pont, administration of the Hanford camp presented almost as many problems as building it. To ensure its efficient operation, Du Pont, with Army approval,

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obtained in April 1943 the services of the Olympic Commissary Company of Chicago, a professional management organization. Olympic assumed responsibility under its contract for operation and maintenance of housing (except trailer plots, which Du Pont rented directly), mess hall, and recreational facilities. Du Pont also arranged leases with private operators for stores, garages, a laundry, a bank, and similar commercial services. It left administration of the schools in the hands of the Washington State Department of Education. Du Pont, however, retained direct responsibility for fire protection and maintained a Hanford Patrol to police the camp.23

The Army kept close check on the performance of the various organizations providing services for Hanford. On his periodic inspection trips to the camp, General Groves gave close attention to Olympic’s management of mess halls and housing. As a result of his complaints concerning certain deficiencies, Du Pont directed a reorganization of the company’s operations in June 1943. Again in December, the area engineer reported to Du Pont that management practices still needed some reinforcing in the opinion of the Manhattan commander, who felt “there is no reason why the large losses recently being incurred in camp operations could not be reduced.” Finally, in February 1944, after further changes in Olympic’s methods of operation, Groves indicated satisfaction with its management of the camp.24

Because of the temporary character of the Hanford camp, Manhattan sacrificed comfort and convenience and provided only minimum amenities in the housing facilities. This policy caused considerable dissatisfaction among Hanford residents, some of whom filed complaints with the War Manpower Commission. In response to inquiries from commission officials investigating these complaints, Groves explained that the Army had to avoid overelaboration and over-expenditure because of the wartime shortages of construction materials and labor and the need to adhere to rigid construction schedules. Subsequently, a project survey determined that the unsatisfactory living conditions at the camp were a chief factor in the continual turnover of construction personnel, which approached an unacceptable rate of 21 percent in the crucial summer of 1944.

Other factors contributing to the discontent were the demoralizing sandstorms, the lack of sizable towns to visit outside the reservation, overtaxed commercial facilities, and the segregated housing policy. The latter policy precluded families, even husbands and wives, from living together and restricted occupancy on the basis of sex and race. Recognizing, however, that some needed workers would accept jobs on the project only if they could bring their families, Du Pont and the Army decided reluctantly to permit them in the trailer camps and

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provided schools for their children, but the policy remained to discourage family groups.25

Unfortunately, neither the Army nor Du Pont could do very much about most of these problems in the few months that were still required to complete the production plants. What was feasible, they decided, was to pursue more intensively all available means to raise and maintain the morale of the workers, with the aim of making them more willing to accept the unavoidable hardships. Manhattan officials, including General Groves, spoke to assembled groups and the camp newspaper, “The Sage Sentinel,” carried stories emphasizing the importance of the project to the war effort. Du Pont, with considerable assistance from the area engineer, greatly expanded the recreational facilities. They brought nationally known entertainers and popular orchestras to the auditorium-gymnasium, which also doubled as a gigantic dance hall; they encouraged regular use of recreation halls for men and women; they arranged for nightly motion pictures in a quickly erected tent theater; and they provided taverns, bowling alleys, a four-thousand seat baseball stadium, nine softball diamonds, and many tennis, badminton, volleyball, and horseshoe courts. Groves himself directed that beer be sold in whatever quantities needed and the Hanford Works Employees Association licensed a concessionaire to install 150 pinball machines. The program was effective and wartime residents of Hanford would later recall that the camp came to have “a kind of gaiety, a temporary feeling, the mood of a fair or carnival or circus,”26 all enhanced by the continuous playing of music over a public address system. Job terminations declined and in the hectic months of late 1944 and early 1945 the construction work force brought to completion, on schedule, the great production units of the plutonium plant.27

Richland Village

For Du Pont and the area engineer, management of the Richland village entailed all the usual problems of a rapidly expanding wartime community, as well as the special problems arising from the unique character of the atomic project. From 1943 through early 1945, provision of adequate housing for the work force was certainly one of the most challenging problems for the village managers. Lacking reliable guidelines to allocate housing to the three major groups of employees that made up the work force – construction, operations, and government personnel – managers frequently had to shift percentages, depending upon current need. Before January 1944, they allocated most

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housing to construction and government personnel, gradually altering the basis until by March 50 percent was going to operating employees, 40 percent to construction, and 10 percent to government. After the peak of construction passed, the population of Richland declined to the extent that some prefabricated houses were vacated. Occupants of houses in Richland paid rentals of between $27.50 and $80.00 a month, the amount varying in relation to the size and type of unit, and whether or not it was furnished. The rent included all utilities. Dormitory occupants paid from $15.00 to $22.50 per month.28

As in the Hanford construction camp, concessionaires operated most of the commercial facilities in the village under contracts negotiated by Du Pont’s HEW Service Department. The department employed competitive bidding in selecting the concessionaries, choosing those offering maximum service to the village and the highest monetary return to the government. These commercial operators made available to residents of the community all normal items and services essential to daily living, such as food, drugs, clothing, and entertainment, and department officials periodically checked prices in order to maintain them at levels comparable to those at stores in nearby towns. In most cases the government provided building space, including stationary fixtures, for the concessionaire and the latter furnished any mobile equipment required.29

During World War II the Richland community had no formally constituted institutions of local government. Du Pont, through its HEW Service Department, provided Richlanders with most normal community services – utilities, street maintenance, trash and garbage pickup, and fire and police protection. A division of the company’s Plant Patrol, deputized by the sheriff of Benton County, served as the village police force, enforcing traffic regulations, investigating accidents, and overseeing a program of crime prevention. One exception to this pattern of Du Pont control was the public schools: The federal government furnished and maintained the buildings, and the instructional staff functioned under the jurisdiction of the local county superintendent of schools. Du Pont and Hanford Area Engineers Office representatives served as advisory members of the Richland school board, comprised of local residents. Most of the money for operating the schools came from the federal government under provisions of the Lanham Act. Another exception was public transportation, including a government-owned bus system that the area engineer administered.30

Of the District’s three operating communities, Richland village most nearly resembled the typical American company town, owned and dominated by a great industrial concern. This was so partly because the Army’s presence was not nearly so apparent as at Oak Ridge, with its District headquarters and numerous technical

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employees in uniform, nor as at Los Alamos, with its very substantial military population. Richland also had fewer outward ramifications of physical security, such as the high encircling fence patrolled frequently by military police and dogs at the New Mexico site and the similar barriers erected at crucial points along the boundary of the Tennessee site. To the uninformed casual visitor, the plutonium community appeared to be just one more wartime boomtown where the average employee and his family had to endure the usual minor hardships and inconveniences.