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Manhattan Project National Historical Park: Sharing an important piece of our history

Staff at the Manhattan Project National Historic Park were able to eliminate the age requirement for visitors so that schools and families with kids of all ages could visit and learn about this important piece of history.
Staff at the Manhattan Project National Historic Park were able to eliminate the age requirement for visitors so that schools and families with kids of all ages could visit and learn about this important piece of history.

It’s the contrasts that make this National Park so exciting. Bright yellow school buses filling the parking lot in front of grey, industrial buildings. Visitors from 80 countries around the globe heading out to one of the most top-secret locations of World War II. The beauty of the shrub steppe desert landscape and Columbia River framing the stark outline of the 72-year-old reactor building. And, perhaps most of all, the bright shiny faces of our youngest visitors, welcome at last in the world’s first full scale nuclear production reactor.

It was such a thrill to kick off our first year as part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park during the National Park Service’s 100th year. Here at the park’s Hanford Unit, which also includes a handful of buildings from the towns that existed along the Columbia River before being acquired by the government for the top-secret Manhattan Project, we were able to expand tour seats by 40 percent to about 14,000. We were also able to eliminate the age requirement for our visitors so that schools and families with kids of all ages could come learn about this important piece of American–and world–history. With the strong encouragement of our community leaders, the Park also penned an agreement with American Empress Cruises to enable the company to transport its own visitors to B Reactor during its stops in the Tri Cities, further increasing visitor numbers. Together, these initiatives made Hanford the most accessible of the three MAPR locations, which also include Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Thanks to terrific community partners, we didn’t stop there. We were proud to host a choral concert series by the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers inside B Reactor–the first full scale concerts ever held inside a decommissioned nuclear reactor. The impactful program told the story of the dawn (and consequences) of the atomic age. It was an unforgettable evening, and helped us introduce the Manhattan Project story to a whole different audience. Then, on a blustery day in October, we pulled off something once considered impossible–a 20-mile public bike ride on the roads around B Reactor sponsored by Bike Tri Cities and REI. The event raised more than $6,000 for park educational programs and activities, and demonstrated the importance of incorporating recreational opportunities into the visitor experience. We hope to build on the popularity and success of these events in the years to come.

The upcoming year will be another big one for us. We’ll finish the multi-year rehabilitation of the White Bluffs Bank, built in 1907 in the pre-war town of White Bluffs, and open it to visitors for the first time. We’ll welcome the public to our remodeled interim visitor center–improved through the generosity of our partner the Port of Benton–and have space for a small retail area to support sales of National Park merchandise, passports and Manhattan Project-themed items (this has been the number one request of our visitors for the last several years). Partnerships and educational programs will expand. And, we will welcome our full-time National Park Service Site Representative, who will be responsible for heading up interpretation and visitor services and will join me in representing the Hanford Unit on the DOE/NPS Joint Park Management Team.

I’m so grateful to the organizations and individuals who refused to give up on the idea of saving the B Reactor National Historic Landmark and advocated for a unit of the National Park system to commemorate Manhattan Project. Their vision and tenacity has paved the way for exploring and learning from one of the most complex stories in human history. The National Park is a premier resource for our community. I hope you’ll come see what we’re up to, and give us your ideas on programs, tools and volunteer opportunities you’d like to see us bring to the Hanford Unit in 2017 and beyond.

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