Traveling THE u.s.a. – Chapter 13 – Idaho

Idaho — how can I even start?  I had never been to Idaho so I really didn’t know what to expect.  Of course the given subject would be — POTATOES!  We did go to the Idaho Potato Museum.  It was a small place in Blackfoot, ID, and it was fun and informative.  I didn’t know there was so many things about potatoes.  I’ll just give you photos to explain that, because there are two places that we went to see that need explanations, 1) because of how unusual one place was, and 2) because one has kind of a creepy history.  Here’s potato pictures first:

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve:

The Monument and Preserve encompass three major lava fields  and about 400 square miles of grasslands to cover a total area of 1,117 square miles. The most recent eruption at this locations was 2,000 years ago.  Animals and plants have a very hard time living there as there is a constant wind, and the lava absorbs heat which can bring soil temperatures up to 150 degrees.

The first area we visited was Devil’s Orchard.  It’s 1/2 mile area with a paved loop through the area.  The large rocks are actually Cinder Crags that broke off from the cinder cone eruptions.  They are also called Monoliths.

The second area we went to was the Inferno Cone.  It is a mountain of cinders thrown from the volcanic eruption.  It’s a 200’ climb up.  When you get to the top, there is a full 360 degree view of the preserve.  The wind was wild up on top.  The other interesting thing was on the way up, it was barren with one little plant trying to grow out of he cinders.  At the top, there is actually a tree and foliage.  My biggest surprise was when my phone rang up there, and I actually had a FaceTime call with my oldest granddaughter!  That was a pleasant surprise.  Her first question she asked was, “Where are you?”  My answer, “On top of a volcano!”  The air was also thin at the top.  We were already at a high elevation, so it was nice to get the call, and give me time to catch my breath.

I wouldn’t normally show such an awful photo of myself, but this is how windy it was on top of the cone.
This hill doesn’t look so big until you notice the people coming down from the top. It is 200′ up.
A view on our way up.
Another beautiful view on the way up.
This lone plant is trying to survive in the cinders. When on top of the mound, I was surprised to see vegetation.
Coming down the hill–long walk down–our car is in the parking lot.
A 360 degree look at the whole park from the top of the Inferno cone. It was really windy on top.

There were two places we didn’t go.  One was the Tree Molds.  We actually started hiking there, but it was a long upward hike, it was hot, and we ran out of water.  We decided it was probably not a good idea to go all the way there.  The tree mold area is where the lava burned the trees so fast that the shape of the bark on the trees can be see in the now cooled lava (rock).

We were hoping to go hiking into the caves, but unfortunately, we would have been turned down.  In 2006, a deadly fungus was introduced to the bat population in the United States.  This fungus causes a fatal disease called the “White Nose Syndrome.”  One has to get a permit to enter the cave, but they must first answer the question of if one had been in a cave since 2006.  Yes, we were in Carlsbad Caverns in 2013, and again just this past May.  Their website stated: 

“If you have items that have been underground since 2006, you will need to agree to leave them behind before we will issue you a permit. Any clothing or any other item that has been in any underground space cannot be worn into the caves at Craters of the Moon, even if it has been washed or decontaminated.” 

We had the same hiking shoes we had on when we were at Carlsbad at the beginning of this road trip.  I would have to give up my watch and my phone.  Still I would not be allowed in, because I had my hiking shoes on.  Sadly to say, we did not get to explore the cave.

Atomic City, Idaho

As we were leaving the Potato Museum, we were driving west on I-26.  Half way between Blackfoot and Arco (where we were staying) was a sign for “Atomic City.”  It was a simple road sign pointing to a city that basically does not exist any longer.  The truth of it, though, is a bit more mysterious.  

Once a small town called Midway, Idaho, this city changed its name sometime in the 1950’s as the U.S. government had a nuclear power project going on in the area of this town.  They changed their name to Atomic City.  There were two nuclear reactors in the area.  The first one was the EBR-1, Experimental Breeder Reactor 1.  The goal was to make atomic energy.  On December 20, 1951, the reactor lit four light bulbs.  Four years later, Arco, Idaho (just down the road) became the first city in the world that was powered by nuclear energy.  

A road to nowhere.

Well, that story is not so bad, but this next one is.  During this same time, the U.S. government had an experimental nuclear reactor, called SLR-1, Stationary Low Power Reactor 1.  The idea of this reactor was to build and test a small reactor that could be easily transported by plane to remote areas such as the Arctic.  This reactor would be able to provide heat and electricity at remote Army stations.  This reactor became operational in October of 1958.  In December of 1958, the operation was turned over to the army for training and operating experience.  It was taken off line in mid-December 1963 for some maintenance and repair.  

On January 3, 1964, three army personnel, Jack Legg, Dick Burnes, and Richard McKinley (who was a new trainee), were in charge of restarting the reactor.  Their shift started at 4:00 p.m., and the crew’s first task was to reconnect the control rods to the drive rack that moved them up and down.  These rods had a history of sporadically being stuck, due to misalignment, corrosion, and wear.  This required manually lifting the hundred-pound rods about four inches. Lifting the rods too far could trigger a reaction, but Byrnes and Legg knew the risks.  Everything was going fine for a few hours as noted by a patrolman who had check on them at 5:00 p.m.  At 7:00 p.m. a phone call came in for Dick Byrnes.  It was his wife, and their short phone call ended with them coming to the conclusion to end their marriage.

Checking for radiation on the road the next day!

Here is what we do not know.  We do not know what was going on in the mind of Dick Byrnes after that telephone call.  There were several theories that caused the accident at 9:01 p.m:  1) suicide or murder suicide; 2) sabotage; 3) negligence; 4) just an accident.

Whatever the cause, Dick Byrnes pulled the central control rod too far which caused the reactor to go critical—within four milliseconds so much heat energy was created that the water surrounding the fuel source turned to steam.  The water slammed at 160 feet per second.  The whole vessel slammed 9’ into the air.  All three men were killed-Legg and Byrnes instantly, and McKinley within a couple hours.  When the firefighters received an alarm, they first thought it was a false alarm since they already had a few that day.  When the got to the reactor, they saw the radiation meters going crazy and knew it was a dangerous situation.

They strategized that only one man could go in at a time, and only for 60 seconds.  McKinley was struck in the face by radioactive shrapnel.  Byrnes was thrown back so hard his ribs broke and pierced his heart. At first they didn’t know where Legg was, until they discovered that the rod had shot up through him and pinned him to the ceiling.  In order to remove Brynes and Legg, they used a long pole with hooks on it to pull them out.  It took a week to remove Legg from the ceiling.  All three were extremely radioactive, and were wrapped in several hundred pounds of lead, placed in steel coffins, and buried under a foot of concrete.  Their bodies were not returned to their families.   Because these three men were so radioactive, even moving their bodies to a local cemetery was not feasible.  They were buried at a site nearby where radioactive material was buried.  This accident caused the end of the army experiment, and it took two years to completely clean the site.

This accident really shook the people in the area.  It was the first nuclear plant accident that cause death.  The people of Atomic City bolted from the area.  Between the 1960 census and the 1970 census, Atomic City had lost 83% of its population, which in 1970 census and today remain at about 25.  

I discovered a YouTube video that really explains what happened.  It is posted at the end of this blog, for those of you who would like to know more about what happened.

On a brighter note. A we drove down the highway, this midwestern city girl saw signs that were unfamiliar, so I took the liberty to take these signs literally!

Our trip through Idaho was definitely a unique experience.  We saw things that we never knew about before.  What a great surprise it was.  I am so glad we decided to tour this state for the first time.

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