Hanford's Southern Connection Rail Line

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 6/25/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10804

Hanford's Southern Connection rail line is a 12-mile section of railroad through Richland in Benton County, completed in 1950 in order to provide a second, and more secure, railway line into the Hanford Engineer Works site (later called the Hanford Nuclear Reservation). Before 1950, Hanford had been served by only one rail line, which entered from the northwest corner and connected with an internal line. As the Cold War developed in the late 1940s, Hanford authorities determined this sole rail access was too vulnerable to disruption or sabotage. So they negotiated an agreement to build a new southern track to connect Hanford's rail lines to the main freight lines of the Union Pacific and Northern Pacific railroads south of Richland. Construction began in 1949 and was finished ahead of schedule in 1950. Soon the new line was handling all Hanford rail traffic. In 1998, after operations at Hanford had wound down, the Southern Connection was transferred to the Port of Benton, which leased it to the Tri-City & Olympia Railroad Co. The line continues to operate as a freight service for Richland industries.

A Gigantic Expansion 

For a few brief months after World War II, it seemed as if Hanford's work was finished. This massive nuclear engineering project -- which sprang up nearly overnight in a huge expanse of central Washington sagebrush land -- had helped develop the atomic bombs that ended World War II in 1945. However, the world soon learned that the age of nuclear armaments was just beginning. In 1946, the Soviet Union signaled its intention to build nuclear bombs. The nuclear arms race was on, and Hanford Engineer Works was more crucial to national security than ever. Not only would Hanford remain operating, it would also have to be bigger -- much bigger.

In 1947, General Electric, which operated Hanford, and the federal Atomic Energy Commission, Hanford's governing authority, announced plans for "a gigantic expansion of the Hanford plutonium manufacturing capabilities" (Gerber, 33). It would be "the largest peacetime construction project in American history up to that time" and would cost more than the entire Hanford wartime project (Gerber, 33).

As expansion plans took shape, Hanford authorities had to solve one particularly glaring transportation problem. The Hanford Engineer Works was served by only one rail line, which entered at the far northwest corner of the sprawling Hanford site. It was a Milwaukee Road branch line from the small town of Beverly, located on the Columbia River northwest of Hanford. That branch connected, at the Riverland Classification Yard near Vernita, with a Hanford Works interior railway. The interior railway extended through the Hanford reservation, but it ended before it reached the city of Richland at the opposite, southeast corner of the Hanford site. The railroad was, essentially, a dead end.

A Vital Necessity 

Relying on this single rail line created several serious "inefficiencies and risks to the government" (Stapp, Knobbs, Powers, 28). First, no freight traffic could reach the reservation from the south or southeast, where most of the major rail lines converged on the Richland-Kennewick-Pasco area. Second, getting supplies from Hanford's main warehousing area in Pasco to Hanford's Richland staging sites required a roundabout 240-mile rail journey -- for a trip that was only about 12 miles as the crow flies. Third, and most crucially, it made Hanford entirely dependent on one particularly fragile transport link.

"The northern line paralleled the Columbia River ... and passed along the base of hills and steep slopes, making the railroad vulnerable to sabotage, natural rock slides, and damage from rising flood waters," according to a 2013 historical documentation report prepared by Northwest Anthropology LLC, which tells the definitive story of the Southern Connection (Stapp, Knobbs, Powers, 28).

In the increasingly charged atmosphere of the Cold War, the government could not afford the risk that one of its key nuclear facilities could be crippled because of a single washed-out -- or bombed-out -- section of track. "A supplemental rail connection was considered a vital necessity," said a recently declassified 1951 report on the railroad's construction ("Design and Construction History," 1).

Hanford authorities had already considered a southern rail link during the war years. In 1943, they conducted preliminary planning on a southern link, but the project was shelved due to more pressing war priorities. Yet as Cold War expansion plans advanced, authorities decided a permanent solution was vital. General Electric and the Atomic Energy Commission began negotiating an agreement with the Union Pacific and Northern Pacific railroads to build a 12-mile rail link -- to be called the Southern Connection -- between the existing Hanford railroad north of Richland and the main line of the Union Pacific-Northern Pacific just south of the city. An agreement was signed on November 6, 1947.

An Extremely Attractive Deal 

The deal required the two railroads to pay the U.S. government an initial fee of $100,000 and then $25,326 each year for 25 years, until the project was paid off. It was a good deal for the railroads, which would have access to 12 miles of new track and a new bridge over the Yakima River. Also, they could use the line for free after the final payoff. It was also an "extremely attractive" deal for Hanford, which would be repaid for all construction costs and would also save a great deal of money in freight charges, since freight mileage would be reduced so drastically ("Design and Construction"). The Interstate Commerce Commission granted its approval on September 28, 1948.

The project consisted of several major components:

  • New track both north and south of the Yakima River, connecting the Hanford Railway with the main Union Pacific-Northern Pacific line.
  • A Yakima River Railroad Bridge.
  • A smaller bridge crossing the Columbia Irrigation District's irrigation canal.
  • An "overcrossing," or overpass, of U.S. Highway 410.
  • The Richland Classification Yard, which was essentially a rail yard, office, and scales.

Contractor J. A. Terteling and Sons of Boise, Idaho, was awarded the majority of the work, under the supervision of General Electric and the Atomic Energy Commission.

Ahead of Schedule and Under Budget 

Construction began on August 15, 1949, and the date of completion was set for July 20, 1950. Construction did not go entirely as planned. First, a national steel strike in 1949 disrupted supplies and set the project back at its outset.

Then, a tragedy occurred during construction of the Yakima River Railroad Bridge. Pile-drive operator Alfred E. Smith (ca. 1908-1949) disappeared from his perch on the bridge and drowned on November 23, 1949. His body was found the next morning. This fatality did not slow construction significantly, but it resulted in several safety changes. Non-swimmers were no longer allowed to work on the bridge; workers were required to wear life jackets; improvements were ordered in the catwalks and railings; and adequate lighting was provided for night work.

Mother Nature also caused significant delays during construction. The winter of 1949-1950 was exceptionally cold and the Yakima River became completely iced over. No pilings were driven on the bridge between December 30, 1949, and February 15, 1950, because of the icy conditions. A photo taken in January 1950 shows men walking across the river at the bridge site.

However, Mother Nature was also responsible, indirectly, for the fact that the Yakima River Railroad Bridge and the Southern Connection were both completed well before the July deadline. Uncommonly high water had been projected in the Yakima River that spring, so to make sure that the project was completed before the river crested in June, Hanford officials offered J. A. Terteling and Sons an extra $1,000 per day for every day that the railroad was completed before June 2, 1950. This incentive worked. The first train rumbled over the Yakima River Railroad Bridge on May 23, 1950, during a test run and opening ceremony attended by a crowd of officials and spectators. A reporter who attended the event wrote:

"Regular usage of the new spur will begin in early June. ... No passenger nor mail service is contemplated at this time. The spur is intended principally for freight destined for the Hanford Works project" ("Trial Runs").

Some final riveting and painting was completed shortly after the opening ceremony. The final cost was $1,916,568, which was "$572,432 less than the authorized funds" ("Design and Construction"). The project came in under budget partly because some of the costs were shifted to related side projects.

The Southern Connection 

The most visible component of the Southern Connection, the Yakima River Railroad Bridge, also called simply the Yakima Bridge, was 639.2 feet in length. It consisted of a "steel span bridge with steel pile piers and timber trestle approach" (Stapp, Knobbs, Powers, 16). It was built partly from recycled parts. Five bridge spans from older bridges were purchased from the Union Pacific Railroad and incorporated into the design. Two of these spans dated from 1899 and three dated from 1910.

The Richland Classification Yard consisted of more than 16,000 feet of track, including a "'Y' turn-around track" ("Design and Construction," 25). This was located just north of Richland, not far from the spot where the new Southern Connection line hooked up with Hanford's existing railway.

The "overcrossing" of what was then U.S. Highway 410 (the U.S. highway route through Richland was later designated U.S. 12 and subsequently also Interstate 182) stretched about 210 feet and also included a timber-trestle approach. The bridge over the irrigation canal spanned 27 feet and was made mostly of steel with two concrete abutments. Then there was the railroad track itself, which at long last connected Hanford's interior rail line to the main Union Pacific and Northern Pacific tracks south of the Yakima River.

This new line proved to be vastly more efficient than the old northern route -- so much so that the Riverland Classification Yard near Vernita soon closed. The new Richland Classification Yard "became the focus of rail operations" and within a few years, "all rail service at Hanford came across the Southern Connection" (Stapp, Knobbs, Powers, 32).

The line carried "coal shipments for the Hanford power houses, and construction materials for the many new facilities that would be constructed in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s" (Stapp, Knobbs, Powers, 32). It played a role in building many of Hanford's best-known facilities, including "the 100-K reactors, the N Reactor, and PUREX," the facility for plutonium-uranium extraction (Stapp, Knobbs, Powers, 27).

The Port and the Railroad 

However, by the 1990s, with Hanford no longer producing plutonium, the U.S. Department of Energy determined that it no longer needed the Southern Connection railroad. In 1998 it transferred the 12-mile line to the Port of Benton, the public port district encompassing Richland and most of Benton County except the Kennewick area. The Port then leased the line to the Tri-City & Olympia Railroad Co., "which operates freight service for the community," with traffic including "frozen foods, metals, containers and locomotives destined for the repair shop ((Stapp, Knobbs, Powers, 27.)

Meanwhile, the Yakima River Railroad Bridge went through several partial transformations. In 1987, "the bridge deck was replaced, and in 1991, the rails were replaced" (Stapp, Knobbs, Powers, 16). Then, on February 22, 2001, disaster struck. A nighttime fire destroyed the bridge's 300-foot trestle section. The Associated Press reported that the fire destroyed "the only link between major rail lines and Richland's growing industrial area" ("Rail Bridge Fire). The story also noted that the bridge "provides the only rail access to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the city of Richland, and is the sole source of rail transportation for potato processor Lamb-Weston Inc., Henningsen Cold Storage Co., and locomotive rebuilder Targo-LRC" ("Rail Bridge Fire").

Port of Benton director Ben Bennett was quoted as saying "Holy mackerel ... I'm just speechless. I can't imagine what would cause anything like this. This shuts down the whole railroad" ("Rail Bridge Fire").

The fire started at about 8:20 p.m. and witnesses said it took only minutes for the entire wooden trestle to be ablaze. Subsequent investigation determined that the fire was caused by arson, but no arrests were ever made. Several trains and locomotives were stranded on the north side of the bridge. The bridge was considered so vital that the Port of Benton immediately inaugurated a $350,000 emergency project to rebuild it as soon as possible. It took slightly more than a month. On March 26, 2001, the repaired bridge was formally opened. The wooden trestles were replaced with steel so that no such fire could happen again.

In 2013, the Port of Benton proposed refurbishing the former U.S. Highway 410 overpass (now known as the Columbia Park Trail Bridge) in a similar manner. The Port intended to replace the timber trestle components of the overpass with steel, to eliminate the risk of a fire. The Port also planned to refurbish and strengthen the original bridge over the Columbia Irrigation District's irrigation canal.

As of 2014, the Southern Connection railroad remained a vital and well-used freight-transportation link in the Tri-Cities. The Yakima River Railroad Bridge, in particular, is a familiar landmark in the Richland-Kennewick area. Thousands of motorists pass by every day on State Highway 240, which crosses the Yakima River just a stone's throw downstream. Whether they know it or not, they are racing by a historic bridge and rail line that played a supporting role in the history of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Sources: Darby C. Stapp, James K. Knobbs, and Kara N. Powers, "Historical Documentation of the Southern Connection, Hanford Site Plant Railroad, Prepared in Support of the Port of Benton Railroad Bridge Improvement Projects, Richland, Washington," June 21, 2013, Northwest Anthropology LLC, Washington Department of Archeology and History Preservation number DAHP 011013-35-COM; "Design and Construction History, Project C-185, Railroad Connection South of Richland: Construction, Relocation and Rehabilitation," December 1951, declassified document, HW 24800-10, General Electric Hanford Works Accession No. RL-1-331911, Department of Energy Public Reading Room, Hanford Battelle Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Washington; Michele Stenehjem Gerber, On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992); David Harvey, "History of the Hanford Site, 1943-1990," Pacific Northwest National Laboratory website accessed May 24, 2014 (http://ecology.pnnl.gov/library/History/Hanford-History-All.pdf); "Trial Runs Are Made on 7-Mile Rail Span into Hanford Works," Spokane Daily Chronicle, May 24, 1950, p. 3; "Richland Worker Drowned in River," Spokane Daily Chronicle, November 25, 1949, p. 1; "Rail Bridge Fire Isolates Industrial Area," The Spokesman-Review, February 24, 2001, p. B-3; "Officials Optimistic About Rebuilding Span," The Spokesman-Review, February 25, 2001, p. B-2.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You