Hanford commuter bus put up for sale

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 24, 2012 

A rolling piece of Hanford history is up for sale.

For $15,000, you can own one of the maroon-and-cream-colored buses that carried Hanford workers to and from the nuclear reservation during the Cold War.

Nick Low spotted the old bus -- stripped of paint and marred with holes -- parked near Pasco's King City a few years ago.

"I thought 'What does my wife need for an anniversary present? A bus'," he said.

Nick and his wife, Ellen Low, the executive director of the CREHST museum in Richland, now have the refurbished anniversary gift on loan to the museum. It's parked with its near-twin, which is part of the museum's permanent collection of Hanford artifacts.

The Atomic Energy Commission had 28 of the GMC buses made in 1953 to its specifications for use at Hanford. Among its features is an extra seat, placed across the emergency exit, to bump up the total number available for Hanford workers to 53.

The former owner had purchased it at a Department of Energy auction with plans to turn it into a recreational vehicle, Nick said. It likely was one of five or six kept at Hanford past 1979 for use as an emergency evacuation vehicle.

But the bus no longer ran when Nick purchased it, requiring his skills as a retired Formula One race car engineer in Europe to get it on the road again.

He got the diesel engine running and replaced the 40-foot accelerator cable that runs the length of the bus, not an easy job because it was difficult to access. He also rebuilt the air motors that open and close the bus's doors and power its windshield wipers.

Most expensive was work to repair and paint the body, Nick Low said.

Inside, the bus still has some of the signs that Hanford workers saw each day as they rode back and forth between Richland and different areas on the 586-square-mile nuclear reservation, where plutonium was made for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

One sign encourages smokers to move to the back of the bus, despite an ashtray for every two seats throughout the bus. Another reminds card players not to block aisles with their tables.

Pinochle, bridge and poker games were popular among the thousands of workers who rode the bus daily, and players would make homemade tables out of wood or cardboard to fit over the arm rests and stretch across the aisle between the seats.

One player found the ride so lucrative that he would board the bus to play cards on his vacation days, according to Hanford lore.

The bus, which was free for workers to ride, had some extra comfort features ordered by the Atomic Energy Commission.

It was built with an air suspension system rather than springs to provide a smoother ride on rough Hanford roads. And it could be plugged in at night to keep the heater running and have the bus warm when workers boarded for the morning commute.

However, it was built before cars were air conditioned and the bus was not cooled in the summer.

The Lows are planning to return to England eventually and are looking for a new home for their bus well ahead of that day.

They're hoping to find a buyer who values its history, particularly as the Tri-Cities area works to include Hanford's historic B Reactor as part of the nation's national park system.

It could be parked at B Reactor as an exhibition or turned into a gift shop, Ellen Low said. There also may be some interest from other Manhattan Project sites that once used similar buses.

The bus that CREHST is retaining as part of its permanent collection is taken on regular outings. It will be displayed at Sacajawea Heritage Days at Sacajawea State Park this weekend and also will be on display at the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau annual tourism showcase in Kennewick in November.

To contact the Lows about the bus they are selling, call 509-591-8282.

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