RICHLAND — Franklin T. Matthias was a young officer working at the Army Corps of Engineers’ Washington, D.C., headquarters when scientists hundreds of miles away at the University of Chicago created the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction.
In less than a month, Matthias was soaring over the villages of Hanford and White Bluffs in a military observation plane, scouting locations for what would become the most massive construction project of World War II — one that drew thousands of workers to the Mid-Columbia and altered the region’s landscape and its future irrevocably.
The world’s too.
Before the plane touched back down, Matthias knew he had found the site. Not long after, Gen. Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, tasked him with managing construction.
Today, a sprawling park along the Columbia River in Richland bears Groves’ name. But what about Col. Matthias, the man who built Hanford?
A new public honor is in the works, thanks to some Richland residents.
The woman behind the Historic Streets Project in Richland is coordinating the creation of a pair of busts of Matthias. “He was the only one who never got any notoriety. We thought, ‘we better give credit where credit is due,’ ” said Karen Miles, who’s working with AMVETS Post 397 on the project.
Two artists are creating the busts.
Michael B. Salazar this week finished a terra-cotta bust; he worked off a single photograph of Matthias, taken when the officer was in his 30s. A couple of days ago, Salazar handed the bust off to Ron Gerton, who will use it to make a mold and create a separate bronze bust.
Miles’ idea is that the bronze bust will be displayed at the Richland Public Library and the terra-cotta bust will go to the historic B Reactor; the city and the Department of Energy, which owns the B Reactor, will have to sign off on the placements.
Maynard Plahuta, president of the B Reactor Museum Association, said Matthias deserves recognition locally.
“It’s almost mind-boggling when a guy can get all that accomplished under the gun,” Plahuta said. “There’s some great, great effort that he put forth.”
The artists working on the busts live in Richland.
Gerton has a particular connection to Matthias and the place he helped build: He worked for the Department of Energy for almost 30 years.
“(Matthias) did a great job for a young man in totally uncharted territory. It’s pretty impressive,” Gerton said.
Salazar said he hopes the busts will help educate younger generations about the colonel’s importance in Mid-Columbia history.
Miles said plaques with biographic information about the colonel will accompany the busts.
The project price tag, including materials, should be about $5,000 to $7,000, Miles said.
Donations are being sought to cover costs.
Contributions can be sent to AMVETS Post 397, P.O. Box 1840, Richland, WA 99352.
Miles plans to arrange a dedication later this year. Matthias died in 1993, but his son has said he will attend, she said.
She said she sees the sculptures as a way to “give recognition where it’s due.”
“It’s something the whole Tri-Cities can take pride in, and honor this gentleman,” she said.