As empty as the land might look, there is a lot of history in Idaho Falls’ backyard: 890 square miles of land now called Idaho National Laboratory. Before the U.S. government established the National Reactor Testing Station in 1949, many people called it home.
INL’s desert Site sits on land that during World War II was home to the Arco Naval Proving Ground. Gun barrels from battleships like the U.S.S. Missouri were reconditioned at the Naval Ordnance Plant in Pocatello and then hauled by train to the Naval Proving Ground, where they would be test-fired and scored before being sent back to the Pacific Theater.
The last stop on the rail line from Pocatello was a place called Scoville, named after Cmdr. John A. Scoville, who was in charge of the installation. The Arco proving ground was one of five specialized facilities established during the war to support ordnance testing and research.
Two former residents, Dee Stevenson of Idaho Falls and her sister, Judy Hamilton of Arco, have memories of the place from when they were very, very young. “When World War II ended, my dad lifted me up and I got to ring the siren over and over,” said Dee, who was 5 on VJ Day (Aug. 14, 1945). Born in March 1945, Judy was still an infant, so her memories come from a few years later and include marching behind Marines as they drilled. (“They never seemed to mind,” she says.)
Dee and Judy’s parents, Keith and Mary Andreason, moved to the Naval Proving Ground in 1944. He was employed as a concrete foreman for Morrison-Knudsen, then hired by the Navy as a rigger. With four children – Neil, Keith and Dee (fraternal twins), and Judy – the Andreasons were one of about 20 families who lived in houses where INL’s Central Facilities Area now is – approximately 45 miles west of Idaho Falls.
When they lived on the sparsely populated proving ground, Judy passed her days playing with the only other kid her age, a boy named Scotty. “We played a lot and got in trouble together,” she said.
Every weekend, there would be a first-run movie, but before a screen could be rigged and chairs set up in the hangar, the diesel engine had to be moved out. Judy has vivid memories of being allowed to ride in the engine.
Now 80 and 75 respectively, Dee and Judy recall their desert days as a very small, long-ago chapter of their lives. The houses the families lived in are long gone, although some were moved to Idaho Falls and still serve as homes, and traces of the Naval Proving Ground are gradually vanishing.
When the Atomic Energy Commission set up the National Reactor Testing Station (NRTS) in 1949, the Andreasons moved to Arco. “I didn’t have to ride the school bus anymore,” said Dee. “I was pretty happy about that.” For her part, Judy was never old enough to ride the school bus.
While the historical significance of the original Arco proving ground buildings was never in doubt, there were key problems with historical preservation. Heritage tourism was ruled out for security reasons. The advanced age of the buildings and the materials used in their construction presented challenges as well. In early 2013, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho Operations Office announced its intent to demolish the last five vacant buildings. Before any demolition could be done, a Historical American Landscape Survey was conducted, detailing the area’s historical and cultural significance.
“Once you get involved in researching something like this, you really have to rein yourself in,” said Julie Braun-Williams, the lead historian on the team that produced the 344-page document, which can be found online.
Archaeology is about how people once lived, and nothing offers more clues than a dump. The report offers this observation:
“The people who lived at the Arco proving ground (tried) to make the isolated and barren desert seem more like a normal small town than a wartime naval base. They raised and displayed flowers in once-bright red, yellow, and blue pots and vases, now strewn, broken and faded, throughout a nearby World War II-era garbage dump. Bent pressure cookers, broken Mason jars, and fragile, floral-patterned crockery pieces enrich the interpretation of life on the base, revealing that the residents planted, canned, and served fruits and vegetables from the backyard communal garden to supplement their families’ diets. These items lay scattered randomly among thousands of cans that held food and other household items.
“Oil and gas cans, mop buckets, and paint cans provide evidence of routine domestic chores, but crown-top beer cans and whiskey bottles indicate that not all was work. Marbles, a doll buggy, bicycle parts, and other toys tell of children’s play. A curry comb discovered among the trash, combined with a family photograph, prove that at least one young woman kept a horse on the base. A birdcage shows the existence of smaller pets, as does a story of searching garages and other buildings for a lost pet dog.”
Judy Hamilton has memories of finding canned goods in the sagebrush in the spring – supplies that had been parachuted in during the winter months, when the roads weren’t passable. “Finding the food was a real job, but it was something to do.”