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News & Press: Community Spotlights

AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on Atomic City

Friday, September 8, 2017  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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Atomic City Texaco Station

Atomic City lies on the eastern side of the Idaho National Laboratory’s 570,000-acre reservation about midway between Arco and Blackfoot.

Vast acreages of desert landscape and prehistoric lava flows surround the city. The 7,517-foot-high Big Southern Butte and landmark lies 10 miles southwest.

Historic Tidbits

In 1862 Tim Goodale, a trader acquainted with the American Indian and fur trader trails north of the Snake River, led a group of Oregon Trail immigrants on a shortcut beginning at Fort Hall and rejoining the main trail east of Boise near Mayfield.

The trail passed a few miles south of what is now Atomic City and north of Big Southern Butte. Goodale’s Cutoff became one of the more heavily traveled routes on the Oregon Trail.

In the early 1870s prospectors discovered gold on the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River southwest of Challis. For several years, the Blackfoot-Challis stage and freight wagon road passed near what is now Atomic City.

Historically, the present site of Atomic City was not a particularly noteworthy location. Most activity centered several miles southwest at Big Southern Butte where people periodically sought to utilize Big Southern Butte as an observation station, to prospect for metals or to enjoy its natural resources.

Around 1940 a lonely service station was the only modern facility on the desert road connecting the cities of Arco and Blackfoot. The owner strategically located his service station about midway between the two cities to provide an important service to travelers whose vehicles had mechanical, radiator, tire or fuel problems, common occurrences with the vehicles of that day.

At that time, the U.S. Navy operated a proving ground and gunnery range several miles north and west of the service station.

In 1949 the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission—now the U.S. Department of Energy—created the National Reactor Training Station—now the Idaho National Laboratory (INL)—and authorized construction of laboratory and test facilities on the Navy proving grounds—now part of INL’s 570,000-acre reservation.

Among the first to be constructed were nuclear reactor facilities several miles northwest of the service station.

To accommodate the large amount of traffic to and from the site, the federal government made improvements to U.S. Highway 26, making the road a straight drive across the desert between the junction of U.S. Highway 20 to Arco and Blackfoot. The improved road bypassed the service station by about a mile but provided access using the old road, Taber Road.

Thousands of construction workers came to the INL site to build the test reactors and facilities. Many found homes in nearby cities and commuted to work.

Other workers chose the service station site and set up temporary quarters because it was the closest place where water, gas and other services were available. A collection of trailer houses and tents soon sprang up and, before long, over a thousand people lived near the service station.

This boomtown growth prompted an almost immediate need for a municipal organization to manage the common needs of the community. Prior to applying to the Bingham County Commissioners for incorporation, residents debated what to name their new town.

Initially they named the city "Fury" because everyone was in a fury to get the town built. On reflection, most residents rejected that name and began calling the new community "Midway" because it was halfway between Blackfoot and Arco. However, when it came time to file the incorporation application, residents agreed on naming their town "Atomic City." They felt the name was appropriately distinctive and would be an attraction for INL employees who wanted to live nearer to their work.

On August 4, 1950, Atomic City became an incorporated village.

Atomic Energy and Construction Workers

The U. S. Atomic Energy Commission’s decision to construct its nuclear laboratory and test facilities on what is now the INL reservation provided the basis for construction workers to found Atomic City.

So long as the construction activity continued, the city prospered. When the construction projects were completed, the jobs dried up and the workers moved away.

By 1960 the population had declined to 161. A few years later, the population dropped to around 25 where it has remained until the present time. Today, many of the city’s residents are retired.

Atomic City is the only boomtown in Idaho that owes its brief period of growth and prosperity to construction workers and atomic energy.

Amenities and Attractions Today

The city’s quiet rural setting is perhaps its most valuable attribute. For those who prefer living away from urban areas but close enough to access the amenities of larger cities, Atomic City is a perfect place.

The vast high-desert surroundings are primarily public land open to hiking, camping and hunting.

Prehistoric volcanic buttes dot the landscape. The largest of the buttes is the 7,517-foot-high Big Southern Butte. It lies 10 miles west of the city. The butte is a National Natural Landmark, an ecological island supporting vegetation including aspen and lodge pole pine. Harsh weather often shrouds this massive four-mile-diameter butte. At the top, winds of 80 miles an hour and several feet of snow are common.

Boating and fishing are available at American Falls Reservoir. The closest boat dock on the reservoir is at Aberdeen, 35 miles south.

Sixteen miles northwest is Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 (EBR 1), a National Historic Landmark and visitors center. On December 20, 1951, ERB 1 produced the world’s first usable electricity generated with nuclear power. Scientists demonstrated this historic event by lighting four electric light bulbs.

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