Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Eminent Domain at White Bluffs

When I was little, my paternal grandmother periodically mentioned White Bluffs.  Grandma was always a bit sad about it.  I didn't understand at the time the significance that place held for her.  Nor had I any idea of the role that little town and the area surrounding it played in the history of the modern world.

I eventually came to understand that my grandparents had farmed near White Bluffs.  And that they had to leave.  And that leaving was not something they chose to do.

But the name White Bluffs was still a mystery to me.  I only knew it made Grandma sad.

When I got a little older, I tried to find White Bluffs on a map of Washington.  It did not exist.

More mystery.

At some point, probably well into adulthood, I put it all together.  I had asked enough questions and done enough reading on my own to figure out the mystery.  This brief history is probably still not fully accurate, but this is what I've pieced together thus far.

The town of White Bluffs had its start as a ferry site across the Columbia River.  Native peoples used the site for crossing the Columbia.  Later, The Hudson's Bay Company ran a trading post there. Miners on the way to the British Columbia gold rush could cross the river and stock up on supplies.  By 1850, steamboats came up the Columbia from Portland bringing people and supplies to join the packtrains heading north.

By the early 1940s, the region was a rich agricultural area and the small towns were growing.  The Milwaukee Road ran through White Bluffs providing residents the goods they needed and taking away the literal fruits of their labors.

According to the U.S. Government's Hanford history page
Hanford and White Bluffs epitomized the early American West.  Farming and agriculture were the dominant industries in these little towns, even though the area receives just seven inches of rain a year.  An early irrigation system provided water from the Columbia River to orchards and field crops, and fruit ripened more quickly here than in any other part of the Pacific Northwest.  Small, family-run stores and other businesses began to open after the turn of the century, and some of the earliest automobiles could be seen on the dirt streets of the communities.  A ferry docked near White Bluffs and shuttled passengers across the Columbia River.  A railroad called “Sagebrush Annie” carried riders between Hanford and White Bluffs.  Children attended schools in both communities and White Bluffs even had a weekly newspaper.
The worst years of the depression were finally over and things were looking up.

My grandparents had a farm outside of White Bluffs.  They had planted a vineyard and lovingly tended their vines.  They looked forward to harvesting their first full crop of grapes.

Then came the announcement.  I suppose it was a letter, but that is not clear from the history I can find.  Perhaps it was just a public announcement through posters and newspapers.

The government needed the land for the war effort.  Most residents had only 30 days to get off their land.  Some residents were given only a couple of days to two weeks to leave. 

As part of the Manhatten Project, the government needed a site well away from major cities and transportation centers, and yet near a plenteous supply of clean water.  It was here in the area around the towns of Hanford and White Bluffs, that the Federal Government chose to process the plutonium needed for the nuclear program.  The government used their power of eminent domain to take the land from the local people.

The area became the Hanford Engineer Works where the plutonium was processed for the first nuclear test bomb that was detonated at the Trinity site in New Mexico, and also for Fat Man, the bomb dropped over Nagasaki, Japan.

The Hanford site continued into the cold war as the primary plutonium processing facility in the United States.  Currently there is one power plant still in operation there.

Because nuclear science was in its infancy during the early years at Hanford, the area has very high levels of radioactive waste.  Clean-up is ongoing.

I have an uncle on my mom's side of the family who ranched and raised his family within a few miles of the borders of Hanford.  Uncle Max passed away last year on my birthday.  He had lived into his 90s.

Several years ago, I asked Uncle Max how he felt about the reports of the high levels of radioactive waste that were alleged to be slowly leaking into the area.  Max replied that he never worried about it too much.  This was his home and he farmed it the best he could and that was all he could do.

But he also said that the plutonium made in that facility probably saved his life.  You see, Uncle Max was fighting in World War II with the US Navy in the South Pacific.  Uncle Max had always figured, based on the rumors that were going around at the time regarding the plans for the ship he was on, that he and many others would not have come home alive were it not for the nuclear bombs.

All that remains of White Bluffs today is the bank.  It looks kind of lonely, doesn't it?


theMom said...

Mary, Joe here, I'm not sure if you were in on this particular conversation with Max, but what I remember him saying is that the orders had come down for his ship and several others in the area to arrange a landing on the beaches of Japan similar to the Normandy invasion. Max said his ship and their naval group were to establish the beachhead.

They were equipping and setting off for Japan when news came of the Bomb. Then, three days later, the second bomb and Japan's surrender. The second bomb at Nagasaki was the Hanford bomb as you described.

I miss Max.

theMom said...

Yes, Joe, I just didn't remember the details. Thank you for adding them.

Sarah said...

Through a partnership of DOE, WSU- Tri Cities and many other local groups, we have begun the Hanford History Partnership. Our first focus is to collect and record the lives and stories of those who lived in the White Bluffs/Hanford/Richland area and were evacuated in 1943.

If you would like to help, or just find out more about the history, please visit Ourhanfordhistory.org and https://www.facebook.com/OurHanfordHistory.


research intern

theMom said...

Thanks Sarah. Thanks for your research and for letting me and others know.

Nancy (Danielson/Wheeler) Mendenhall said...

I am one of the descendents from the White Bluffs orchardists . They arrived in 1907 and were evicted in 1943 with the rest. I was very pleased to find the search going on for family histories on facebook. I don't use facebook but someone showed it to me so I filled out the questionnaire on line and sent it in.A few years ago there was hardly anything about Hanford White Blufs and now there is lots. Most of t is for hikers and other nature lovers. I was able to go there once in the early 1990s with my uncle and was about overwhelmed. He would go overy year to those pioneer reunions. Is there anything else I should do? Good for you and your group to take this on!! I wrote a book about White Bluffs settlers based on my family a few years ago and would send your group a copy if they are interested and haven't seen it. "Orchards of Eden: White Bluffs on the Columbia, 1907-1943."

theMom said...

@Nancy, I'll repost your comment on the "Our Hanford History", facebook page. I think the way they have the page set up, you should be able to get to it, and see any comments, even though you are not a facebook user.

Thanks for being in touch.

Colleen French said...

Hello, my name is Colleen French and I work for the Department of Energy in Richland. For the past several years I've had the priviledge over overseeing the engineering and construction effort to save and rebuild the White Bluffs Bank. It will be done this year (2015) and I would love to have former residents and their descendants come to take a private tour and/or be there when we open it up for the first time.

I am also leading DOE's efforts to include the White Bluffs Bank, Hanford High School, 1908 HIP Pump House, and Bruggemann Warehouse (stone building just off the highway) interpreted as part of the new Manhattan Project National Historic Park created by Congress in December 2014. It will be a joint National Park Service/Department of Energy park.

I would love to hear from any of the former residents and/or decedents who have stories to tell, as we are also collecting Oral Histories (as Sarah said through the Hanford History Project) and these stories are critical to us understanding and honoring the former residents and their many, many accomplishments!

I continue to be awe-inspired by the hard work, ingenuity, spirit, and commitment represented in the landscape.

I would also be interested in organizing a tour for former residents and their descendants.

Getting the story of this area and its people told is long overdue!