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News & Press: Community Spotlights

AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on Arco

Friday, November 30, 2018  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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The Arco Recreation Hall, built in the 1930s as a WPA project, houses the Arco City Office and the gymnasium which fills the rest of the building. The sign in neon lights above the door proclaims Arco becoming the "First City in the World to be Lit by Atomic Power," which occurred on July 17, 1955. Elevation 5,320 feet.

Arco is a city of contrasts. Geologically, it is located where the high mountain peaks of the Challis National Forest and Lost River Mountain Range end and the more recent lava flows of the massive Snake River Plain begin. Technologically, it is both a pioneer town and the first city in the world lit by atomic energy.

The city is located in the Big Lost River Valley. The Big Lost River flows just west of the city and then disappears into the porous basalt Snake River Plain Aquifer that extends over a 20,000-square-mile area and is more than 10,000 feet deep.

Lava flows, high mountains and buttes frame Arco and the valley. Idaho’s tallest mountain, the 12,662-foot Borah Peak, lies 45 miles northwest. Idaho Falls is 67 miles east.

Surrounding the city are irrigated crops; rangeland; native meadows and high-desert brush, trees and grasses.

Historical Tidbits

The first recorded history of the Lost River Country is in 1823 when Antoine Godin’s French fur traders tried to follow the Big Lost River from the mountains across the desert to the Snake River. They called it the "Lost River" because when it reaches the porous lava formations of the Snake River Plain and Aquifer, it sinks into oblivion. Located 20 miles east, across the Lost River Mountain Range, is the Little Lost River.

Permanent settlement began in 1878. Ranchers and farmers moved into the area, filed homestead claims, diverted water from the streams for irrigation and began to produce food for the silver, copper and gold miners and prospectors working the area.

A stagecoach station between the mines of the Wood River Valley and the smelters in Montana marked the future site of Arco. In 1884 prospectors discovered silver 18 miles west of Arco. They named their find the Horn Silver Mine, and the boomtown that grew up around the mine, Era.

In 1901 the Oregon Short Line Railroad built a line from Blackfoot to Mackay. Arco became a train stop and the commercial hub of the area. New businesses opened, and nearby businesses—including the stage station—moved to the new site. Buildings in Era were dismantled and moved to the growing community. Unfortunately, the records of who platted the city have been lost.

Because Arco was located near the intersection of the railroad and stage line, the residents wanted to name their community "Junction" and applied to U. S. Postal authorities for a post office.

Postal authorities denied the application, stating that the name Junction was already overused. However, the U.S. Postmaster General Charles Emory Smith personally offered an alternative. At that time, German physicist and radio pioneer Georg von Arco was visiting Washington. Perhaps wanting to impress the foreign visitor, Smith offered "Arco" as the name for the new community. The petitioners accepted.

Given the subsequent relationship of Arco with nuclear generated electricity and the concept of an electrical arc, it would be hard for a first-class advertising agency to come up with a more fitting name for the city.

The city’s official newspaper, The Arco Advertiser, began publication in March 1909 and has been publishing continuously ever since.

In September 1909, investors proposed construction of Mackay Dam, a project, to irrigate 90,000 acres of which over 75 percent was west and south of Arco. With 570 registrations, it was the area’s most successful land dispersal under the Carey Act.

However, the project was oversold. After disputes and lawsuits were settled, there was only enough water to irrigate 15,000 acres.

On November 24, 1909, Arco became an incorporated village. On February 6, 1917, the Idaho Legislature approved creation of Butte County with Arco as the county seat.

In 1951 Arco became an incorporated city. At that time, city leaders generated revenue by selling its electrical power generation facility to Utah Power & Light for $115,000 plus 2 percent of the facility’s gross revenue for 25 years.

A Legacy of Atomic Energy

Beginning with the establishment of the Navy gunnery range that operated from 1942 to 1947 and followed by the creation of Idaho National Laboratory (INL), federal programs have offered good paying jobs for many Arco residents.

INL began in 1949 when the Atomic Energy Commission established the National Reactor Testing Station, the predecessor to INL on a 570,000-acre site west of Arco. Employment from INL became a stabilizing force for the Arco labor pool as mines were playing out and farms were becoming less labor intensive.

On July 17, 1955, Arco became the first city in the world lighted by atomic energy. Electricity generated by Boiling Water Reactor No. 3, known as BORAX-III, at Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1, or EBR-1, produced 2,000 kilowatts of electrical power for about two hours. This power replaced the normal electrical transmission to Arco. EBR-1, the world’s first nuclear reactor to produce usable amounts of electricity, is now a Registered National Historic Landmark and museum located 20 miles southeast of Arco.

Researchers at INL also developed the first U.S. Navy propulsion systems for nuclear-powered submarines, and INL provided the training facilities for thousands of submarine sailors.

Amenities and Attractions Today

Arco has four public parks, the largest of which is Bottolfsen Park named after C.A. Bottolfsen, a native son who served as Idaho’s governor from 1939 to 1941 and again from 1943 to 1945. The parks have a variety of attractions including picnic and children’s playground areas and ball fields. The city also has a library and a mile-long greenbelt.

The Idaho Science Center Museum, a nuclear history park and museum for the "Submarine in the Desert," is currently under development. The museum commemorates the role Arco played in the nation’s research and development of atomic power. The 24-foot-high, 70-ton sail, or fairwater tower, of the atomic submarine Hawkbill stands at the entrance.

Each year on the weekend of July 17, Arco celebrates "Atomic Days." Festivities include a Saturday morning parade followed by breakfast in the park, mud volleyball, running and walking marathons, sidewalk sales and a barbeque. There is a rodeo on Friday and Saturday evenings. In addition, the city hosts a baseball tournament with teams coming from as far away as Utah.

The 750,000-acre Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve begins 18 miles southwest. The preserve includes Idaho’s Great Rift, the source of the lava flow that created this unique landscape.

About nine miles north is the 10,773-foot-high King Mountain. The Craters of the Moon Preserve and the area around King Mountain provide hiking and camping in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter. Hang gliders also use King Mountain for their sport.

Natural Rock Bridge, a unique natural feature, is eight miles due north. Big Southern Butte, another unique natural feature, lies 15 miles southeast.

A variety of outdoor activities is available around Arco. Anglers enjoy the many high mountain lakes, and there is excellent hunting for deer, elk and antelope. The area has several all-terrain vehicle trails. Rock hounds find exciting specimens of agate, jasper, crystals and various other rocks in nearby areas open to the public.


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