Our Voice: Matthias' statue event deserves large turnout

The dedication ceremony Saturday for the statue of Col. Franklin T. Matthias ought to draw a crowd.

Perhaps to a degree greater than any other individual, Matthias shaped the destiny of the Mid-Columbia.

In 1942, he was a 34-year-old lieutenant colonel at the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters in Washington, D.C., tracking funding for the new Pentagon building and other military construction projects throughout the United States.

There, he caught the attention of Gen. Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort to develop a nuclear bomb during World War II.

Groves sent Matthias out West to scout locations for the nation's first plutonium production site.

On Dec. 22, 1942, Matthias took off from Yakima in a small military observation plane. As he flew over the small towns of Hanford and White Bluffs, Matthias knew immediately he had found the spot.

Three months later, a directive was issued for the federal government to acquire 670 square miles of land -- almost 10 percent of Washington. Some 1,300 people had to vacate their land.

That December flight changed the destiny of the Mid-Columbia, of course. But Matthias also shaped the course of world history. The phenomenal success of the Hanford Engineering Works is testament to his brilliance as an administrator.

Almost overnight, the Tri-Cities went from a few tiny farm towns to a makeshift city of 50,000 construction workers. The Corps had to provide the infrastructure needed to sustain that metropolis almost from scratch.

Barracks, recreation halls, cafeterias, administrative buildings, offices for scientists and engineers, health care facilities, a bank, movie houses, funeral parlor, beauty shop, laundry -- everything needed to create a city -- was hastily erected in the desert.

Construction of the plutonium production facilities involved the use of 8,500 major pieces of construction equipment, the building of 345 miles of permanent roads and 125 miles of railroad, excavation of 25 million cubic yards of earth and the placement of 780,000 cubic yards of concrete, along with 1.5 million concrete blocks. Forty thousand carloads of material were received, including 40,000 tons of steel and 1.6 billion board feet of lumber.

The pace of progress at the Hanford Engineering Works would be unimaginable today.

Scientists achieved the first self-sustaining chain reaction at the University of Chicago's Stagg Field squash court less than three weeks before Matthias' historic flight over the Columbia Basin.

Two months after Matthias' trip, condemnation proceedings were launched for the farms along the Hanford Reach. A month later, workers broke ground for the government town of Richland. By August 1943, construction started on Hanford's B Reactor.

The plant first went critical Sept. 26, 1944, only 15 months after construction began and less than two years after the experiment in Chicago proved it was possible to control a nuclear reaction.

The bomb dubbed Fat Man, made from Hanford plutonium, was dropped on Nagasaki in August 1945. Within days, the Japanese surrendered.

The plants made to win the war grew into a massive Cold War complex, producing 53 tons of plutonium before Hanford's last defense reactor ceased operations in 1987.

The influence of Matthias' decision continues to drive the Tri-City economy today as the Department of Energy spends billions of dollars on cleaning up the environmental mess left behind.

Saturday's dedication of Matthias' statue is 11 a.m. at the Richland Public Library. A big turnout is warranted.