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Sunday, August 12, 2007

In Idaho: A famous town you never heard of

By Dick Hirsch
Arco, Idaho, had its day. It made page one headlines all over the world and they are still celebrating that event 52 years later.
It is just a dot on the map in southern Idaho. The dot is bigger than Picabo, Butte City or Carey, but Arco is still just a dot on the old road between Boise and Idaho Falls. Most travelers will take the freeway, bypassing the smaller towns altogether, and thus missing some evidence of past glory. As we approached the town little did we know that Arco had its moment of fame.
It was Andy Warhol, the pop artist and media celebrity, who famously predicted that because of the extraordinary networks of communication now so readily available, every person would eventually have his or her 15 minutes of fame. He said that in 1968, well before the Internet was operational and before cable TV made news a 24/7 commodity. Those developments surely made it even more likely that fame would be readily available, eventually coming to all who patiently waited.
If that prediction applied to humans, it certainly could be applied to remote and unsung communities. Arco, Idaho 83213, with a 2003 population 1,016, the county seat of Butte County, clearly qualifies for inclusion in the fame category. The sign on the facade of the town hall tells the whole story, and what a surprise it was as I drove down W. Grand Ave., slowing for the town’s traffic light. The sign announced:
“First City in the World to be Lit by Atomic Power.”
No kidding. Who could have expected such an historic development in the middle of the sagebrush and tumbleweeds of the Idaho desert? Most people regard Idaho as a state in the northwest, adjacent to Canada on the north, and that view is correct, but much of the land is arid, and Arco sits in the middle of a desert. Of course we stopped and had a look around, meeting some of the local folks, and having lunch at a place called the Deli Shop.
They have a salad bar, and before you participate you decide whether you want to use a medium size Styrofoam plate for $4.59 or a large size for $4.99. We went for the medium size, and the management encourages customers to stack veggies as high and tight as you wish. We chose the Deli Shop over Pickle’s Place down the road, mostly because the mid-day temperature was 97 degrees and I just didn’t feel in the mood for Pickle’s specialty, the Atomic Burger.
My only regret is that we passed through Arco about a week late, thereby missing the 52nd annual weekend celebration of Atomic Days, commemorating that exciting time when Arco achieved international fame. The Atomic Days features included a parade, rodeo, horseshoe pitching tournament, and ping-pong ball drop from the airplane of the Butte County Sheriff’s Department, among other activities. It is always a big weekend, and some folks trek from as far as Darlington or Bellevue to join in the fun.
The observance marks the historic day---July 17, 1955---when Arco temporarily was disconnected from the power grid and was lit by atomic power. How did that happen in such a remote location? Well, Arco isn’t as remote as some might think. It is about 22 miles from what is known as the Idaho National Laboratory, a huge research site--it covers 890 square miles of desert---where scientists and technicians have worked for decades on nuclear power assignments.
Back in the ‘50s it was important to show the potential of nuclear power as an energy source, so the authorities at the lab proposed the idea of lighting Arco. Everybody seemed to think it was a great idea, so the planning and the testing proceeded and on that warm summer Sunday evening switches were thrown, buttons were pushed, lights flickered briefly, and then history was made.
It lasted about an hour or so, at the end of which Arco was reconnected to normal service and by that time the news was already spreading, the dateline of ARCO, Idaho, was soaring toward front pages everywhere. The only negative response came from some Russian galoot who claimed some remote village there had already claimed that achievement.
But nobody paid much attention, especially in Butte County. Things returned to normal in Arco and folks settled back to enjoy their fame. You should stop in the next time you’re in the neighborhood.



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