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 Published by the American Geological Institute
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences

October 2000

On Exhibit

A River Runs By It
The Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science and Technology

Alma Hale Paty
As the Columbia River flows through Washington state to the Pacific Ocean, it meanders close to a small but vibrant museum known as the Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science and Technology (CREHST). Located in the city of Richland, part of the Tri-cities area encompassing the cities of Pasco and Kennewick, CREHST houses a diverse yet fascinating array of materials and exhibits aimed at educating the visitor about the natural and man-made history  — and  future — unique to this region.

Steered by the slogan “Where Knowledge Flows Through Time and Technology,” CREHST’s exhibits flow from those recounting the geologic history of the Pacific Northwest to those documenting the area’s human history — rich in an area that served as a secret, government-sponsored city supporting the United States’ research into nuclear energy and defense.


Details, Details

The Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science and Technology is at 95 Lee Boulevard in Richland, WA, 99352.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Phone and Web: (509) 943-9000 and 

Ice age floods, rocks, fossils, fish and animals all vied for my attention. The tour begins with “The Great Floods: Cataclysms of the Ice Age,” a video documenting the latest in geologic thinking about the unusual landforms of Washington, Idaho and Montana.

It is thought that during the ice age of 15,000 years ago, an ice dam on the Clark Fork River in Montana created Lake Missoula, 2000 feet and estimated to be as large as a present-day Great Lake. Its faint shoreline is still visible today. When the ice dam broke, the lake drained in 48 hours, with the water rushing through present-day Washington to the Pacific at 65 miles per hour, carving out 50 cubic miles of earth. Deep channels known as coulees were formed, resulting in a tell-tale, braided landscape dotted with transported basalt blocks 30 feet in diameter.

Although geologist J. Harlan Bretz first postulated the idea of ice age floods in 1923, it was not until the advent of aerial photography that the geologic evidence of 30-foot high, two-mile wide ripple marks came to light. The video helped me understand the topography I saw driving from Spokane to Richland.

Continuing the geologic story, a permanent exhibit at CREHST features the geologic history of the Northwest, with a mural on the “Cascade volcanic activity and its relationship to the Northwest junction of the continental and oceanic plates.” Offering a quick Geology 101 lesson, 15 numbered, hands-on rock samples are situated below the mural. I could match the rocks to the numbers on the mural and thus learn where and how the rocks were formed.

Appropriately placed next to this display is an active seismic monitoring station. Because this area of the country is prone to earthquakes, this station duplicates the monitoring taking place at the Hanford nuclear reservation (I was comforted by the low activity it recorded).   Continuing to the museum’s lower level, I moved from rocks into biology. Lining the stairwell are models, designed by artist Jim Martin, of 35 of the Columbia River’s fish species, including Lamprey, King Chinook Salmon, Black Crappie and Dace.

And moving to the visitor’s attention to larger species, two dioramas from a bridge from natural history to human history: a diorama of stuffed animals and birds local to this dry area of southeast Washington, and another of the Native Americans who first lived in the area.

Most of the remaining exhibits focus on the lives and culture surrounding the secret Hanford Engineering Works. Established during the height of World War II, the Tri-Cities area was home to 51,000 construction workers and engineers. These workers helped build the T-plant, a chemical separation plant that is the crucial third step in the production of radioactive plutonium. CREHST exhibits highlight the culture of secrecy and control that permeated this area.

One exhibit records how Hanford’s workers donated a day’s wages to support the construction of a Boeing B-17, the Flying Fortress. Christened on July 12, 1944, the Hanford-supported plane was named Day’s Pay.

A result of 40-plus years of plutonium production is the millions of gallons of radioactive chemical waste stored in the center of the 560-square-mile Hanford site.

Another series of panels highlights the ongoing environmental restoration of the Hanford site taking place under the 1989 Tri-Party Agreement among the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Washington.

Several objects and exhibits were not on display only because the current housing of CREHST is temporary. In keeping with its mission statement of preserving “the future of science and technology in the Columbia Basin,” CREHST plans to build and move to a new facility within the next five years. It will be near the flowing Columbia River, where knowledge flows through time and technology.

Paty is founder and president of A Capital Resource, a Washington-based consulting firm specializing in mineral resource issues and education.