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Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Alum Discovers History of ‘Thayer Drive’

By Anna Fiorentino
August 2014 • CoolStuff

Thayer Drive Sign
Thayer Drive in Richland, Washington

Every week Jerry Greenfield ’61, Th’62, T’65 turns down Thayer Drive in Richland, Washington to attend Kiwanis Club meetings, visit the dog groomer, and advise the high school’s Key Club.

He first noticed the street—near George Washington Way and Robert E. Lee Boulevard—when he moved to Richland 35 years ago. “I just knew the road must have been named for Sylvanus Thayer. I asked someone who had been involved in the research of the streets and she said instead it had been named for a private in the Continental Army,” says Greenfield.

But a few weeks ago, he learned his hunch was correct. Thayer Drive is without a doubt named for Thayer School founder, General Sylvanus Thayer.

Jerry Greenfield
Jerry Greenfield ’61, Th’62, T’65

“My Kiwanis Club recently had a speaker who had worked as a volunteer for the city, researching and documenting all the city street names,” says Greenfield, who worked under the pioneers of aviation before World War II, on rockets for the Apollo moon shoot, and later in both financial computing and as a lawyer for Westinghouse. This local volunteer, Karen Miles, told him the Army would never have named the road for a private over a general, especially a general who was so important to the history of West Point – The United States Military Academy.

After graduating valedictorian from Dartmouth in 1807, Thayer entered West Point and upon completion was quickly promoted to major during the War of 1812. He returned to West Point as superintendent and over the next 16 years transformed it into the world’s leading military academy. In 1833, Thayer went on to serve as chief engineer for the US Army Corps of Engineers in Boston where he finished out his career over the next 30 years, overseeing the construction of Fort Warren and Fort Independence to defend Boston Harbor.

A century later, in 1943, a new generation in the Army Corps of Engineers took over about 600 square miles of the Hanford plateau along the Columbia River to build the first atomic bomb in an effort known as the Manhattan Project. While there were sites all over the country, within the Hanford site sat the towns of Hanford and Richland, home to just a few hundred people at the time—and today, Greenfield. The government chose to produce uranium and plutonium for the atomic bomb at the Hanford site due to the areas’ plentiful water supply and sparse number of inhabitants, who were given only a month or two to move out.   

The Army Corps of Engineers got right to work researching atomic energy, replacing most of the buildings in Hanford with labs and reactors and laying out an entirely new city with new streets named for army men—notably, Thayer Drive. The Hanford site became home to an eventual population of 50,000 during the war (Richland’s approximate population today), though most didn’t stay long.

“Few of the people involved in the project really knew what they were building,” explains Greenfield. “Everyone else was here for a few months, then sent elsewhere so they wouldn’t learn too much about the project.”

The first atomic bomb was ultimately tested in White Sands, New Mexico in 1945 and by the time word spread of what had taken place, two of nine bombs had already exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Within weeks, Japan surrendered and a truce was signed in Tokyo Harbor. Today, 70 years later, the government is still cleaning up the environment in Richland and surrounding areas, with no end in sight.

“Our city itself is a little piece of history. Were it not for the activities that occurred here during World War II, it is possible we might be part of the German or Japanese empires. At least we would not have won World War II,” says Greenfield. “I am particularly proud that the Army Corps of Engineers deemed General Thayer to be important enough to the history of our country to name one of the main arteries of our little town for him.”

“Although I’m sure most citizens are unaware of what contributions he made to the US, all Richland residents over ten years old must know of Thayer Drive, and if they look around, they’ll see a plaque in his name,” says Greenfield. 

A bronze plaque stands tall today at Thayer Drive, like those posted at nearby roads honoring each corresponding military officer. It reads: Brigadier General Sylvanus Thayer 1785-1872 ... In 1867 he endowed the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth and spent his last years arranging its curriculum.

Tags: alumni, history

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