A working committee of local historic preservation specialists held their monthly meeting at the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Legacy Management (LM) Grand Junction, Colorado, Office on February 2, 2016. The group also participated in a private tour of the site’s historic log cabin. The committee consists of representatives from the City of Grand Junction, Mesa County, and the Museums of Western Colorado.

Dr. April Gil, Grand Junction Office Site Manager, provided a historical overview of the Grand Junction office, including the early use of the cabin, which has been nominated for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We want to share the critical role this site had in the Manhattan Project as the center for uranium exploration and processing,” Dr. Gil told her guests. “Uranium was key to developing nuclear technology and sparked many scientific innovations. We plan to restore the cabin and use it as a center for education and public outreach.”

“Operations were shrouded in secrecy during the Cold War, but now we have the opportunity to tell the story of the Grand Junction office and the scientists and engineers who applied their talents to developing the domestic uranium industry. The mission of the Grand Junction office has changed since the Cold War; the focus is [now] on long-term stewardship for sites contaminated by uranium processing.”

Due to early security measures, many area residents were unaware of the work being conducted at the site, so the cabin held great interest for the city and county preservationists attending the tour. The visitors explored what had been the World War II– and Cold War–era offices and the basement vaults, which, decades earlier, had secured classified records for the nation’s secret “Project X.”

The log cabin office building surrounded by a picket fence.
Photographer unknown, on file at the DOE Grand Junction, Colorado, Office.

In 1943, on what was once a 55.7-acre riverfront gravel mine, Army Second Lieutenant Philip C. Leahy established headquarters for domestic uranium procurement for the Manhattan Engineer District (MED). He didn’t know it at the time, but his role was to find uranium ore and invent refining methods to process that ore for shipping to enrichment facilities for the development of nuclear weapons.

On the Colorado Plateau of western Colorado, the city of Grand Junction had been selected for its proximity to remote vanadium mines, the site’s uranium-rich mill tailings, and the area’s available labor pool and employee housing possibilities. A Denver & Rio Grande Railroad spur already served the site and an abundant supply of water was available from the Gunnison River, which flows around two sides of the property.

Working from the cabin and an office in downtown Grand Junction, Leahy directed construction of a refinery that processed green sludge from vanadium mills into yellowcake—concentrated uranium oxide compounds. The site grew to be the country’s most important center for exploration, procurement, and experimental processing of uranium ores. The operation was located just behind a city cemetery and little more than a mile from downtown.

Project X was hidden in plain sight. When the MED mission ended upon Japan’s surrender, the Grand Junction facility stopped refining operations and transitioned to being the principal U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) office for acquiring and exploring domestic uranium sources for nuclear weapons production during the Cold War.

The facility later housed program operations for National Uranium Resources Exploration (NURE), the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act (UMTRCA), vicinity properties cleanup, decontamination and decommissioning, and, since 1985, for long-term surveillance and maintenance of legacy sites.

Kaye Simonson, senior planner who oversees historic preservation for Mesa County, was among the group of local preservationists who met first for a presentation by Dr. Gil and then toured the log cabin.

The log cabin office in 2012.

“Mesa County is happy to support efforts to list the DOE’s Grand Junction site on the National Register of Historic Places, which will help increase public awareness and appreciation of its very significant role in the modern history of the area, as well as the nation,” Simonson said. “The idea of creating an interpretive center in the cabin is particularly interesting, providing a venue to tell the important story of the Grand Junction site and all the contributions that have been made as a result of the work done here. It has the potential to provide educational opportunities for our local students, and will also be an attraction to visitors. We look forward to seeing the project going forward, and believe it will be a great asset to the community.”

Eight acres of site property were transferred from DOE to the U.S. Army Reserve in 2001. The remaining property was transferred to Riverview Technology Corporation (RTC), a nonprofit business-development entity sponsored by the City of Grand Junction and Mesa County. DOE now rents its LM office space from RTC.

A little more than 25 acres of the original Grand Junction office footprint, including the cabin; 15 main buildings; and 16 ancillary buildings, structures, and sites; have been nominated for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

Many artifacts have been donated by DOE, and the local museum will assist in curating those artifacts for display at the learning center, which is expected to host tour groups from schools and the public, showcase informative displays, and provide a meeting room for presentations.

The learning center is scheduled for completion in fall 2017, before the Grand Junction site’s 75-year anniversary in March 2018.