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Collene Dunbar’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Collene Dunbar first arrived the Tri-Cities in 1950. She spent her childhood there while her father worked in construction at the Hanford Site. In this interview, she recalls her experiences growing up, and describes local perceptions of Hanford. She details discrimination faced by African Americans, local agriculture, and how the area has changed over the years. Dunbar also recounts her time working in construction and maintenance in the 200 East Area at Hanford, and shares her impressions of how secrecy and security were maintained at the site.

Date of Interview:
September 13, 2012
Location of the Interview:


Cynthia Kelly: Okay, why don’t we start by having you tell us your name and spelling it?

Collene Dunbar: My name is Collene Dunbar, C-O-L-L-E-N-E, and it’s pronounced Coll-ene.

Jeffrey Nalezny: And your last name is spelled?

Dunbar: D-U-N-B-A-R.

Nalezny: Thank you.

Kelly: Great! Thank you very much. Now we’re here to talk to about your life, your life in Richland. So can you tell us when you came here and why?

Dunbar: We came here in 1950. My dad worked in construction. He was a pipe fitter. He held many cards in those days because of travel and all. The work was not available in Vancouver, Washington, where we lived. So he asked if he could go to someplace close to Ridgefield, Washington, just out of Vancouver. When the union got back to him, they sent him to Richland, Washington, not knowing what was going to happen. This is how we came in there. That was a different world then than it is now.

Kelly: Can you describe the difference between Vancouver and Richland, and how you remember it? Your first impressions as a young girl arriving in Richland?

Dunbar: Well, it was all desert. A lot of those years at that time it was the termination winds. You got used to that and all the dust. We were close to the Columbia [River], which was really, really nice. Not realizing it was the Columbia that we had come from in Vancouver, the same Columbia that came here. We were right by the water. The main highway came from Richland with all the workers from the Manhattan Project, the cleaning up and some of that.

The weather was nice. We liked it better because we could be out more. The water was neat. We watched the Blue Bridge being built. That was kind of nice to watch that as a child. We would go out for entertainment at nighttime when the big group came through, knowing they were from out in Richland to that place way out there during the Manhattan Project.

My neighbor, they had six, seven kids, and I got real friendly with one of the girls. She came into my house asking my mother if we could go swimming. We went up to the irrigation dig, not knowing what it was. Weeks later, my mom found out it was an irrigation ditch that you did not go into. That was the farmer’s water that they watered their farm with – whatever they were growing in those days. In town we had Welch’s Fruit and they had the concord grapes. There was rows and rows and rows of them, and they smelled so good. They did mint, which was real new to us.

When we lived in Vancouver, there was a lot of fruit and vegetables. We would pick strawberries in the summer, and start with all the different berries. I think the last ones were black halves. They were big. It was really kind of neat to pick those, because you felt that you got more money. Then we would do apples. Probably not much more down there.

When we came here, there was the asparagus fields. We didn’t know what was going on. We would see the people picking it, and we wondered why. They had that little knife, sharp knife, and just going along and doing that. The grapes, the concords, were very, very popular around here. This is before the wine grapes came in years later, much later. They had the alfalfa there; they were growing that also.

It was kind of interesting coming from an area that had a lot of farming to a totally different kind. Actually, they had apples and different things, but over the years, I’ve seen all the other things that have come in, which is kind of fascinating to watch. And then being aware of what’s going on, instead of just being a country girl. So in that kind of field, we didn’t have to pick berries anymore after we got out of school. Moving here was quite an eye opener.

We would walk a lot when we came here because we were in town. We would walk in the summertime. We would go to Pasco across the old bridge, old Green Bridge, and we would go to a place called Young’s. This is where we would go get our Easter dresses. Then we would walk back over the bridge, which was kind of neat.

I remember standing with my mom, and it was getting towards evening. We were visiting somebody down on the Kennewick side that we had run into. I was seeing a lot of the black people going back over the bridge. I asked my mom, “Why are there so many black people going back over the bridge?”

She said, “There’s a blue law in the Tri-Cities that the black people have to be back over and into Pasco by dusk.”

A ten-year-old child, I’m standing there, saying, “That is not fair.” If they didn’t want my money at nighttime, I wouldn’t give it to them during the daytime. So this is another thing to learn as a ten-year-old child about this prejudice, which I didn’t know growing up. We never had that. My parents weren’t like that. So that was another experience that was very interesting.  

Kelly: Were the schools segregated then?

Dunbar: No, as far as I know. I have no idea in Pasco, because we really basically in those days stayed in our town and not very far. To go to Richland was a long way in those days, and of course we were clear downtown in Kennewick. Going to Richland it took half an hour, and you didn’t go around that much.

Another thing that I really, really enjoyed: in the late ‘40s I came to see my aunt. She was living in the trailer park in Richland. As you go up the hill, even now it still has it, but you go up George Washington Way and you did a kind of loop and that’s where they were.

Camp Hanford was the Army base there. Right next to it was this camp, the trailer park, and there were rows and rows and rows of them. If you go up there now and wander in that one part off to the left when you first go up the hill to the 300 Area, these rows. In those days, the   didn’t have bathrooms. They would have one bathroom each row, which was quite long. You would have to walk down there to go to the bathroom, do your showers, do your laundry. I was about seven, eight years old. So you know, I had no idea where we were.

There was parks there. Right across, there was the movie theater, fairly close. Right as you come up the hill, we used go to meet my aunt, who was still there when we moved there in ’50. The park right across from Camp Hanford was a park that a lot of people came to, and we would have our picnics. So that was the big excursion for us during that time.

Kelly:  There’s a General Groves Park right on the Columbia River in Richland. Are you familiar with that?

Dunbar: No, we didn’t go into town. We just kind of went out straight out and that was it. I don’t remember being around there at all.

Kelly: All right. Maynard [Plahuta] said, and you may not remember which person’s story this is, but some story about a hospital where children were born. Do you have children? Is that your story about Columbia Hospital?

Dunbar: We did go visit early on into Richland. A friend of ours was in the hospital. It was just all those government houses. They had built one, and not really a hospital. We went in there, and was surprised. It was just like going into a home. So it was kind of interesting.

As high school kids, we would walk around Richland. I was in the choir, and we would go from Richland and get all together with all the Tri-City choirs. We would walk along the Richland streets. I don’t know if it was air or what was coming up from the ground. They had grates where they could see smoke coming from below.

We would say, “Ah, that’s all the stuff we’re staying away from. That’s why nobody wants you in Richland.” [Laughter]

I mean we were in junior high at the time. So we had no idea what Richland was. They didn’t talk about it much in school. I don’t remember that either.

Nalezny: But you knew there was something out there you were supposed to stay away from, huh?

Dunbar: Pardon me?

Nalezny: But you knew there was something you were supposed to stay away from.

Dunbar: Yes, oh, definitely. Richland was kind of a “do not go there because of all the atomic stuff!”

Kelly: Since the bombs were dropped in ’45 and you’re talking about ’55 or so, you knew the general purpose of Hanford, right?

Dunbar: Correct.

Kelly: Right. But still people didn’t talk about exactly what they did, right?

Dunbar: Correct. In those days, everything was supposed to be real secretive. Even after Camp Hanford left – that was in ’58 – you talked about subsidies from the houses in Richland. They only paid rent, but if your light bulb broke they would come in and take care of that too. So really they were basically subsidized. Richland really had the attitude they were just a little bit better than somebody else. They had that for years.

It’s probably in the last twenty years. It’s nothing like it was then. At the time we moved in, I think Kennewick was the smallest, and then Pasco and then Richland. Richland always was the biggest one. In the years it’s kind of switched around differently. West Richland has kind of built up too. In those days we didn’t know what West Richland was.

Kelly: So what is the economy of Kennewick and Pasco? Are they totally different from the atomic work, or are they spinoffs? What do people do?

Dunbar: It was said that if you worked in Richland, they were very, very rich, because they didn’t have to do this. Painting of their houses were all done. They weren’t like regular people. In school each year, they would hand you a piece of paper. If your parents worked out there, the schools got X amount from the government. I didn’t know what it was. You would see it handed out. Not realizing my dad did work out there. See, I was so young. I really didn’t ask what area or anything about that until I went out there in ’79.

Kelly: Why don’t you talk again about what your dad did.

Dunbar: Well, I know he was a pipe fitter, plumber, steam fitter, welder. He did all of that. In Vancouver I would go on jobs with him and learn the trade. He left when I was about twelve and went to different places because there wasn’t a lot of work around here. So it was kind of nice to go and learn. He said, “If you go with me, the rules are you will be a gofer for me. You will know what tool I need, and go and get it and bring it back.” I always wanted to be doing something. But other than that with my dad there really wasn’t a lot, being gone when I was twelve. So not too much here once we got here, not going on the jobs with him.

I remember Pasco, going there and doing sprinklers on that. I went with him to Kennewick building the Kennewick School, which is still now there. The sprinklers over the auditorium: those sprinklers are still there. I showed my kids, “Grandpa put those in.” I’m sure they’ve probably have redone it since then. But it was an experience going with him. 

Kelly: So you yourself worked out in the area. You became one of them.

Dunbar: Uh-huh. It was really kind of neat because I went to the 200 Area. It was probably ’78. There were different kinds of workers. Some were checking the welds and the double wall tanks. That was kind of interesting to watch that go out. Knowing what they were talking about all those years ago, but not until I really worked out there did I really see it. And even then, people asked you questions. They finally started to open up some of that information that we never had before. But like I said, that’s about all I can say about my dad and the working and being out there.

Kelly: What do you think of Richland today? You live in Kennewick still. Is Richland still another world?

Dunbar: Well, I actually live in Richland. I’m about that far into Richland. Pasco and Kennewick were always with football and all of that. Richland was in a different group, I think. We would get together with them. Pasco and Kennewick were always back and forth fighting, but not too much in Richland. But if there was a problem in Richland, Kennewick and Pasco would group together to get the big guys in Richland. There were distinct things they used to do back and forth to the schools, which you don’t see as much now. Of course, you got more high schools and it’s just not the small town. It’s gotten to be a bigger town.

The blocks out there in Pasco – those are the people that came over after World War II and got the land. They had to produce something in the land to get the acreage. I don’t know exactly. I don’t want to do that unless I know what I’m talking about. But that was always interesting to check with people that were in the blocks and find out the background of that.

In ’58 when Camp Hanford came out, that was about the end of the subsidy for Richland people with the buildings. All of a sudden, it was like they kept saying, “Years from now, you’ll not know where you finish Kennewick into Richland.” So that’s why I say living in Kennewick all those years and living about that close into Richland right now is a little bit different. After all these years, I finally say, “Yes, I do live in Richland, not Kennewick.”

Nalezny: Going back to those days when there was that evil smoke coming out of the ground. Were there stories that were told among the kids, or were there boogiemen or were there creepy things that you kind of imagined were going on?

Dunbar: Well, it was really kind of different. We should have just said “What is it?” but then you’ve heard so much you didn’t dare ask. With the smoke coming out of those vents, we would walk and make sure we didn’t go underneath those or by them. But you hardly see them now.

I’m going, “What else were they doing then that they aren’t doing now?” But I mean this was downtown around Richland, down by where the federal building is now. It was more or less like kids scaring the other ones. You don’t want to be involved in the Richland kids. The shirts we used to wear: “We live in the Tri-Cities. Don’t stand too close to us. We glow in the dark.” So that was always fun to do, but it was a joke. It was kind of neat when they finally opened it up because people were very interested, and to this day they still are interested in what goes on out there. But a lot of it is just talk instead of finding out. But if you’re so secretive, you always want to know what’s going on.

Kelly: What do you think of the efforts to save the B Reactor and some of the other properties out there that tell the story to the public?

Dunbar: I’m kind of torn personally. A friend, Gene [Woodruff], he has quite the involvement in that, keeping the B Reactor up and doing the museum and stuff like that. It’s sad to see because I worked out there. It’s just sad to see some of it going. But you know, open up and find out. Get the stuff cleaned up where people can use that whole area out there. It’s a beautiful area. Where you can start farming, like it is across the river from there.

Nalezny: Have you been out to the B Reactor?

Dunbar: No, I haven’t. I’ve gone by it. I have not gone to B Reactor. I worked in 200 East, and that’s where the double walled tanks were being built. I got to watch them being built. It was kind of neat to watch from the very beginning. With that big hole down there and how they poured the concrete. My instrumentation guys where I worked, they would take me out and show me how they put in their—

Kelly: Monitors, sensors—

Dunbar: Yeah, it was the line where they hooked it all up. And then how they put the stuff around it to find out and do the test, and to see if the welds were holding. Like I said, that was kind of interesting to watch. Now they’re talking about some of those leaking, and I can’t figure out how they can. That was interesting. 200 West, I had gone out a couple of times. That’s where the different buildings are. I think those are being torn down, kind of like the 300 Area.

You still cannot go past the white barricade, and I’m sure you guys found that out when you went out to take pictures. You have to be escorted nowadays still.

Kelly: Oh, we were.

Dunbar: Uh-huh.

Nalezny: Is it surprising how good those people were at what they did, or how efficiently they could get things done? I mean they were moving pretty quick.

Dunbar: Oh yes, yes. When I went out to work there, the first thing my mother said was, “How many books did you read?”

I go, “What are you talking about?”

She says, “Well, people I talk to, they really don’t have anything to do.”

I said, “I have never worked in a place that I didn’t have something to do out there.”

We were always busy. I said, “I don’t want that kind of thing talked about that is not true.”

It’s fascinating what they’re doing, and this B Reactor looks like it got a lot of support from people too. The CREHST [Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science and Technology] – I don’t know if you went there. That’s interesting. They have the guardhouse. They have those old buses out there. That was sad. They quit doing the buses. They built all this beautiful parking lot. All those years, they had the Bradley [Boulevard] parking lot and they built it up, and no more buses. That was a positive also for people living in Richland. They did not have to drive out there. They would go to the bus lot, get a bus, and go out.

Now in the early ‘60s, after I was married, my cousin worked out there. He would get on those buses. For a nickel, he rode all the way out. That was helpful. Other people had to drive. That’s why everybody said that the Richland people were so much better off money-wise. But they were taking those houses afterwards and selling them, and they would move out and build a new one. So that’s how they have built out towards the 300 Area where Camp Hanford was.

Kelly: For the people who don’t know what Camp Hanford was – you’ve talked about it many times – can you just take a second to say what Camp Hanford was, and explain what it was?

Dunbar: Camp Hanford was an army depot. The army has different posts. They had one in Richland. It was called Camp Hanford.

Nalezny: What went on there? It was just the base of operation and distribution?

Dunbar: As far as I know. They kind of kept to themselves. I’m sure Richland had a different thinking on that, because what they say about these guys that get leave to get off post. You couldn’t get into Camp Hanford, the army base at that time, either. So like I said, people who lived in Kennewick didn’t know a whole lot about what’s going on in Richland.

Nalezny: The way your mom talked, that you were out there reading. Are there other things you think that would surprise people to know about what was going on out there or the people or anything? Things that are misunderstood?

Dunbar: The biggest misunderstanding about that is people think there’s still a lot of – “zoomies” [radiation particles] is what they call them. When you get out there, you can’t believe the security, how they really watch what you’re doing. We can see things in town that if it was done out there in the Hanford area, we would be written up. You would be taken care of.

The security, the safety, is one of the first things out there in the area. They teach you how to pick things up, you know, and with your ladders, what you do or what you don’t do. I thought it was very, very impressive when I went out there. Some things were still security, but I think with any project you’re on, you’re going to have to have the security. But I’m impressed how much the safety is, what you do and what you don’t do out there.

Kelly: Generally people had to tow the line, or else they got reprimanded?

Dunbar: Correct! And that was before – what do you call them – the whistleblowers. I think the last whistleblower we had was in ’88, the two on that. I just happened to come in. Two whistleblowers worked for this one guy. And they took them out. They quit, but then my one boss and I were put into that function, knowing that you had to kind of watch – I don’t even know how to put that.

The people out there wanted to make sure you weren’t rattling the cage. That’s what they were saying. You really had to watch those people that were so upset, because they were whistleblowers, and the repercussions. So that was another reason they had to pick and choose who they put down there too. It was nice to help with that, but I only got to talk to this one guy once. Anyway, I was very impressed when I went out there, how well they take care of all of it.

Copyright 2012. The Atomic Heritage Foundation. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.