White Bluffs and Hanford–The Beginning, The Middle, and The End

Main street in Hanford, 1915

A Long Time Ago…

In the beginning, many millions of years ago, basaltic lava flows covered the plains of eastern Washington. Many layers of lava covered this area, 10,000 feet thick in some places. Over millions of years windblown soil settled over the lava fields, creating a rich loess environment.

Then along came the Ice Age, which lasted from about 100,000 years ago to about 13,000 years ago. Huge glaciers blocked Lake Missoula, sending huge volumes of water cascading through the hardened lava flows. The flood created what is now known as the “channeled scablands.” Canyon-like formations, called coulees, are part of the scablands. The flood waters flowed through these coulees at nine cubic miles per hour, or 385 million cubic feet per second! In comparison, the Amazon flows at a rate of “only” six million cubic feet per second. The Wallula Gap was too narrow for passage of all this water, so a lake backed up behind filling the Pasco Basin, including the Hanford area.

White Bluffs takes its name from what is known as the Ringold formation, which was created by the catastrophic floods. The only exposed portion is the light and dark layers on the east bank of the Columbia River. The white layers are a lime-like deposit called caliche. Caliche, consisting of calcium carbonate, is usually deposited under very arid conditions over a long period. This deposit is from 20,000 to 30,000 years old.

Not long after the ice sheets receded and the floods ended, humans moved into what is now Washington State. These first people lived peacefully with their environment, gathering plants, hunting deer, and fishing for salmon from the mighty Columbia River. The Wanapum Indians inhabited the Columbia Basin from the mouth of the Yakima River to the Saddle Mountains to near the present day Beverly. Now known as Priest Rapids Indians, they were closely connected to the Yakama, Palouse, and Nez Perce tribes and had a similar language. Pinah, their main village, was on the south bank of the Columbia River. They called the Columbia River, “Chia-wana,” meaning “big river.”

Before white man arrived, many western tribes were struck by small pox. The Indians must have wondered what they had done to so displease the gods! When Lewis and Clark arrived in 1805, as much as 20 percent of the indigenous peoples had died because of their susceptibility to the disease. The arrival of white men ended an epoch of human occupation that had lasted for thousands of years.

Early Settlers

Soon after Lewis and Clark mapped the Columbia River corridor, explorers and businessmen flocked to the West. Fur traders used the Columbia as its main route to the Pacific Ocean. Canadian David Thompson explored the upper Columbia between 1807 and 1811. Not to be outdone, John Jacob Astor established a fur post at Astoria in 1811 and founded Ft. Okanogan. In 1818, Ft. Nez Perce was established near the site of present day Wallula. Mountain man, Jed Smith, followed the Columbia in 1827. In 1853, the Longmire Wagon Train traveled through the White Bluffs-Hanford area. The train followed an old Indian trail to Cold Creek just below Rattlesnake Springs. The “white bluffs” were visible north of the trail.

Before extensive settlement by white farmers, what became known as the Priest Rapids Valley was an arid desert. Natural resources lay under the Rattlesnake Mountains waiting for discovery. Wild horses and buffalo roamed the valley. Huge jackrabbit populations flourished. Fossils would later be found of prehistoric elephants and antelope that once lived here. The desert teemed with wild plants that Indians used for medicine or food. To the uninitiated it was a land of bunch grasses and sage brush.

Those abundant brunch grasses attracted the first settlers to the area–it was perfect for grazing cattle. Chief Kamiakin brought cattle to the Yakima Valley in 1840. Ben Snipes brought his cattle to the Priest Rapids Valley in 1855. Snipes later became the biggest cattle rancher in the state. In 1861, Jordan Williams also brought cattle to White Bluffs, one of the earliest settlements along the Columbia.

As the number of wild horses proved, the land was also suitable for horses. About 1880, Ben Rosencrance moved into the area and started an 87-acre stock ranch for horses. The Rosencrances furnished horses to the Northern Pacific railroad when it was working on its line between Spokane and Ainsworth.

As the Indians knew, this area could have severe weather. The early settlers experienced their first bad winter in 1880-1881. That year, about 80 percent of the horses and 20 percent of the cattle died. Most ranchers were not able to recover from their devastating losses. Many who made it through that winter lost animals in the harsh winter of 1886-1887. Because of this some ranchers started planting a few crops to see them through hard times.

Thomas Howe opened the first ferry on this section of the Columbia in 1861. Then the Oregon Steam Navigation Company developed the White Bluffs road, which connected the Okanogan River with Fort Colville. By 1866, White Bluffs became the connection point between the Dalles and Pend O’Reille, for shipments bound for the Colville, Upper Columbia, Kootenai, and Blackfoot mines. White Bluffs built many hotels and stores in the boom. However, when the Mullan Road was completed between Walla Walla and Fort Benton, Montana, that route proved an easier passage for freight. The boom was over for White Bluffs.

An early story of White Bluffs tells of a stagecoach ambush during one of the gold shipments. The robbers were novices though, and two got shot by the men guarding the gold. Men at the other end of the line formed a posse. Expecting that their fate was sealed, the robbers stashed the money before they were caught. The gold was supposedly stashed somewhere across the river where the town of Hanford would be, though no one has ever claimed to have found any gold there.

In the 1880s, Jordan Williams revived the ferry. He later sold it to George Borden, a cattle rancher. Borden operated the row ferry until 1900. Then he bought a horse-powered ferry, which became the main service for river crossings. The new ferry was quite a novelty–the horses would walk in a circle around a capstan that powered the paddle wheels. The only time the ferry did not operate was if there was too much ice. Otherwise it served its purpose very well until 1906, when the ferry was replaced with an engine-powered barge.

The Turn of the Century

People still traveled by horseback or horse and wagon. Roads were still no more than trails, and many were long-travelled Indian paths. There were no cheat grass or tumbleweeds yet, as those species were introduced later. There were no trees and no big rush to get them; trees cost money to irrigate. There was some timber being hauled in, however, for building homes. Strawberries were one of the first cash crops since they could be planted and harvested in a single season.

In 1905, the counties were repartitioned. Benton S. Grosscup, a landowner and chief counsel to the Northern Pacific Railroad, named the county Benton, after Thomas Hart Benton, the Missouri senator who championed legislation for homesteaders. The county had previously been called Ferguson County, after James Leo Ferguson of Chehalis. But those appointed as county officials failed to qualify, so the county was never legally formed.

Other improvements were coming to White Bluffs. In 1905, the Northwestern Improvement Company promised irrigation for 30,000 acres. The company also put a line of steamers on the river that same year. The irrigation and the steamers both helped boost the growing population. The Priest Rapids Development Company also helped the water situation by putting in a complete artesian well.

By this time the town on the east side of the river was growing. So when Mr. Gustave brought a group of forty families to the area, they were settled on the west side of the Columbia, where a new White Bluffs was born. The other factor that made this move necessary was that the bluffs were so high that pumping water up that high would have been difficult.

In 1906, the town of Hanford was established when the Hanford Irrigation and Power Company was built. Both the town and the company were named for Judge Cornelius Holgate Hanford. He and a group of Seattle/Tacoma industrialists built the power plant at the foot of Priest Rapids, giving the area 20,000 HP of electricity. Hanford would later be platted and built about seven miles down river from White Bluffs.

With regular ferry service and promise of reliable irrigation and electrical power, White Bluffs and Hanford started booming. Real estate offices across the state were selling White Bluffs property. Telephone lines were popping up around the towns. In 1907, E.J. O’Larey began publishing the White Bluffs Spokesman, which ran until the late 1930s. In 1908, W.W. Watson, started a newspaper to serve Hanford citizens, called The Columbian. Freighters were starting to bring large amounts of timber, machinery, mail, and people up the river. A stage was set up to run between Prosser and White Bluffs. A new grade school was built halfway between Hanford and White Bluffs. The First Bank of White Bluffs was established in 1909. A pharmacy, real estate office, livery, and telephone company were added to the landscape around 1909.

In 1910, catastrophe struck. The entire business district of Hanford was destroyed by fire. G.L. Turner discovered the fire smoldering in his room of the Columbia Hotel. Before the fire could be put out, the hotel, the Enyeart building, and the Griener building were destroyed. Many businessmen who used the facilities had insurance to cover their losses, but many lost everything they had. The ever present fear of fire was not enough to keep people from coming here though. The 1910 census recorded 369 people living in Hanford and 323 in White Bluffs.

The next decade saw continual growth in the White Bluffs-Hanford area. In 1911, the White Bluffs Hog Breeders Association was formed, and in 1912, the White Bluffs District Growers Association and the Hanford Growers Association were incorporated. A transportation ferry began service at Hanford. In 1911 the Annual Kennewick Grape Carnival began. The festival was a fair for produce grown in the Lower Yakima and Priest Rapids districts. White Bluffs and Hanford took many honors with their grapes, strawberries, melons, and vegetables. The fine grapes grown here got the attention of the Welch’s juice company, which still processes juice in downtown Kennewick.

In 1912, the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul railroad line came to White Bluffs. In 1913, the line was extended to Hanford, where trains were able to turn around. Two years later, when train service was established as the major mode of transportation, most of White Bluffs relocated to be near the depot, moving away from the ferry landing. Also that year record snowfalls caused thousands of starving jackrabbits to attack orchards in search of something to eat. One of many floods picked up a steamer, carried it down the river, and smashed it into the bridge at Pasco. As if Mother Nature hadn’t already done enough, a huge summer electrical storm wiped out electricity and high winds caused extensive damage.

In 1916, the severe weather brought an unusual complication. The previous winter had been so severe that the usually prolific rabbit population had been decimated. With their usual diet unobtainable, coyotes started preying on farmers’ livestock. Somehow the coyotes had contracted rabies, and farmers were afraid their livestock would contract it and die. Ten counties were warned to keep their dogs tied up, lest they meet an infected coyote. The hazard existed for several years, and by the time the scare was over, some domestic animals had died and several humans had been bitten, though there were no fatalities. Also in 1916, the Hanford High School was built.

The World Intrudes

World War I interrupted the daily lives of White Bluffs and Hanford residents in 1917. Both towns contributed generously in cash and in war bonds, collected by the Red Cross. Other fund raisers and auctions collected even more money for the war effort. Men between the ages of 21 and 30 registered for the draft.

Between activities undertaken in support of Americans overseas, regular chores were somehow still completed. But even proceeds from annual events were donated to the Red Cross. The knitting clubs made sweaters and socks to send to soldiers. Families did their part by conserving food that was needed overseas, such as pork, milk, vegetables, and flour. Those whose vehicles were not required for their work had to ration their gasoline. Ladies canned jams, jellies, and preserves for the troops, the only instance in which their allotment of sugar could be exceeded.

By the end of 1918, the war was over and people soon relaxed back into their routines. But White Bluffs and Hanford were not through showing their patriotism. The state was looking for a place to relocate soldiers who had been trained under the Federal Farm Board Farm Training Course. White Bluffs-Hanford won the bid with their eloquent portrayal of the benefits of the mid-Columbia. Soldiers and their families began arriving in 1922, adding to the population and the economy.

The 1920s

The decade following the war brought hard times. Prices for crops were plunging. Many had to get bank loans to stay afloat. Others were diversifying their crops so if a natural disaster occurred, there would be something to take to market. School lunches were possible only with donations by neighborhood farmers. Those who were lucky enough to have salaried jobs from the government were often the only ones keeping the economy alive. To try to bring more money to the county, the soldiers’ settlement was opened to the public. Frost damaged cherry, apricot, peach, and prune trees one year. Severe winds destroyed at least half the Winesap apple crop another year. Mother Nature dealt another blow with crippling winters; one was so harsh that the Columbia River froze hard enough that a herd of 2,500 sheep could be driven across it!

However, not all was gloom and doom. In 1922, there were enough students to justify building the new White Bluffs High School. The White Bluffs Band was formed. A basketball league was formed for the county’s smaller schools. Crops were still taking awards at state fairs. At the end of the decade there were more than 400,000 fruit trees in the district. Granges were forming around the state to help protect farmers’ rights. Men and women were lining up to get the required driver’s licenses–applicants required two witnesses that could attest to the driver’s ability! This new driving ability came in handy for the moonshiners, making and selling their own whiskey!

The spring of 1922 was the setting for the White Bluffs Bank robbery. Mr. Sells, who lived across from the bank, woke from a sound sleep when he heard a barking dog at 1:00 a.m. Thinking the man he saw was an employee, Mr. Sells called out to him. When the man, and two others who joined him, ignored his calls, Sells realized something was amiss and called the sheriff. A posse was formed from law enforcement agencies around the county. About twelve hours later, the three men were captured, but they denied any knowledge of the crime. The sheriff was sure they were the robbers, though, and they were convicted and sent to prison.

The 1930s

The 1930s brought a lot of exciting news that kept people glued to their radios and newspapers. Orson Welles created a national panic with his famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. The Lindburgh baby was kidnapped and found dead three months later. Amelia Earhart made the first solo flight across the Atlantic by a woman and is later lost at sea. E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company patented the miracle plastic–nylon. In 1939, a German scientist created the first atomic explosion. Little did White Bluffs and Hanford residents know, it was this important event that would contribute to drastic changes in their lives four years later.

All that seemed far removed from the everyday hardships brought on by the Great Depression. Back in White Bluffs and Hanford, production was up, but prices were way down for hogs, beef, sheep, and dairy products. Prices of other farm products, hens, fruit, and vegetables were less than half the price of the previous decade. The railroad had made getting products to market much easier, but the freight charges were difficult to afford. The price of gasoline went up too, so shipping by truck was also very expensive. Properties were devaluated, which meant farmers paid less tax on their property. This was a double-edged sword, since lower property value meant the maximum loan a farmer could receive against his property was smaller too.

Somehow people survived. Power companies kept the electricity turned on even though many had overdue bills. County officials established a surplus food exchange to help those less fortunate. Many went out of town to get work, even if only seasonal, just to get by. The Civilian Conservation Corps provided some jobs for Priest Rapids Valley residents.

The granges were doing their part by trying to improve farming practices. Farmers experimented with different fertilizers. Several pest infestations galvanized this effort when apples, strawberries, tomatoes, and soft fruit orchards were hit all at the same time. Efforts were under way to more adequately use dairy cows and dairy products.

In spite of the hardships, recreational activities went on as usual. The Kennewick Fair and the Fourth of July picnics were still held. School sporting events became even more popular in the post-depression years. The completion of the road between Richland and White Bluffs was another occasion for celebration. “Ma Perkins” announced her radio soap opera every afternoon except Saturday and Sunday, to provide a break from all the hard work. The White Bluffs Regatta became an annual event with rowing contests and bathtub races. Movies were shown at the Edmond Anderson Liberty Hall too.

Crops were as good as ever. Grapes grown by Jim Grierson gained national attention at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. Fruits and vegetables were being shipped all over the state, country, and even the world, though prices were still low. One woman, Mary Cox, was curious about where her pear shipments were going. She sent a letter with a shipment, asking the recipient to write her back. She received a letter from a chef in Alexandria, Egypt, telling her that her pears had been served at a banquet given by the King of Egypt!

In 1934, a school health program was started and for the first time diphtheria vaccinations were available. Physicals and tuberculosis tests were also available on demand. The new blue and white license plates arrived in 1935; all began with the letter “R,” the eighteenth letter of the alphabet, corresponding to Benton County’s status as the eighteenth most populous county. A new voter registration system went into effect in 1936–a voter no longer had to register for every election. In 1937, prices for produce started going up. Freezing crops to preserve them for market was becoming popular too. A commercial cannery opened its doors that year, with profits being paid back to the growers. After years of legal action, power companies in the Mid-Columbia were ordered to reduce their electrical rates, a boon for farmers trying to get back on their feet.

Mother Nature tested the farmers again in June with the famous “storm of 1937.” Cyclone winds blew clouds of dust that turned day to night. Trees were uprooted, and outbuildings, garages, and toolsheds were demolished. Cherries blew down, and peaches were “sand-blasted.” Electricity went out when 100 miles of power lines blew down. After the storm was over, light rain fell and settled the dust.

In 1938, the new Hanford High School was rebuilt and reopened after being destroyed by fire the previous winter. Students attended at the White Bluffs high school until the new structure was completed. Just when things were looking up for produce, more crop infestations plagued 1938. Curly top blight hit sugar beets. Grasshoppers and asparagus beetles attacked with a vengeance. Most crops did well by harvest, though, especially the apples, peaches, and pears. The Priest Rapids Dam was improved that year also, so power output would be available at a steady rate in the winter. The Priest Rapids Valley was recovering slowly but surely from the depression.

The Beginning of the End

The war weighed heavily on everyone’s mind in the new decade. The United States began a peace time military draft in 1940. Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, bringing the United States into the war in the Pacific. The U.S. sent 100,000 American Japanese to detention camps in an attempt to keep any dissidents from aiding the enemy. “Rosie the Riveter,” became a national symbol when, for the first time, hundreds of thousands of women took jobs to replace the men at war. In 1942, Enrico Fermi successfully achieved atomic fission, an event that further seals the fate of White Bluffs and Hanford.

As during the first world war, everyone did their part. Residents saved paper and tinfoil and donated scrap aluminum. The local Red Cross organized fund raisers to support war casualties and refugees. Farmers pitched in and collected the scrap iron and steel for the defense program. One contingent scoured the Saddle Mountain district, looking for likely places for minerals that could be manufactured into aluminum. Others were asked to donate any scrap aluminum laying around. Air raid wardens were organized. It really brought the war close to home when residents were warned that there could be blackouts in the Northwest–enemy bombers could identify dams at night by the patterns of lights. Rationing came early in 1942, especially for tires and gas. Of course, White Bluffs and Hanford sent off their share of soldiers for active duty in the military.

Though the war was much on their minds, residents had much to be thankful about. Grand Coulee dam was completed, providing electricity and irrigation for thousands of square miles. A new power station was built at Midway, just up river. A federal court ordered the Northern Pacific Railroad to pay back taxes, so Benton County received a much needed cash award of about $93,000. White Bluffs built the Oakley Hotel, to replace the Commercial Hotel that had burned down two years earlier. In 1942, Hanford High School got a chance to repay the favor the White Bluffs High School extended a few years before. The White Bluffs High School burned down, so Hanford High School shared its facilities with the displaced students. This gesture was typical of community spirit between the two towns.

In 1941, freak weather kept farmers hopping. Late frost and cold winter almost killed the asparagus crop and damaged the strawberry crop. Electrical storms hit the strawberries hard too. The summer alternated between extremely hot weather and electrical storms, which damaged the hay fields. One cloud burst caused floods and ruined crops all over the state.

Goodbye White Bluffs and Hanford

Then it was 1943, a year that would change history. The first couple of months were routine. The winter was extremely cold that year, with school closures and ice flows on the river. A small uproar occurred over the possible passing of a new state law that required alcohol content of wines to be no greater than 14%. This would have an adverse impact on growers in the Columbia and Yakima valleys, since their grapes contained much more sugar than that in their natural state. Rationing was still in full effect, with oil being rationed also; farmers could no longer count on having enough oil for smudge pots.

On March 6, the end of White Bluffs and Hanford was eminent. Residents of the Priest Rapids Valley and the Lower Yakima Valley received a fateful letter–the land was being taken for an important government project and everyone had between two weeks and three months to leave. No one was really sure why they had to leave. A March 1943 edition of the Kennewick Courier-Reporter gave them a hint of what was happening: “RICHLAND, WHITE BLUFFS AND HANFORD TO BE TAKEN FOR HUGE WAR INDUSTRY” said the headlines. A meeting was held by government officials to explain the evacuation situation.

The length of time a family had to move depended on what sector of the government grid you lived on. Some nicer homes in downtown White Bluffs and Hanford were immediately seized by the government to use as office buildings. Bill Schwisow had lived at Hanford and sold Standard Oil products. He was given three days to leave; his home was going to be used as an office for the Hanford Patrol.

Five hundred to six hundred families were affected. There was no disbursement officer, so payments to families were slow in coming. Families were told not to tell their sons or husbands who were at war, because their “displacement” might have adverse effects on the troops’ morale. Some were allowed to pack what they could in a car and told to come back for the rest later. When many returned, they found only a shell of their former house, much of it having been scavenged for wood or supplies by the government.

Some were lucky enough to get jobs on the project. Others worked in Pasco or Kennewick, providing services to the government, such as housing, transportation, and mail. But many others scattered to the far ends of the country, never to return to their wonderful homes on the Columbia River.

Throughout the 80-odd years of history of the White Bluffs-Hanford area, residents put up with many hardships. About every other year very harsh cold winters wiped out crops, froze pumps, crippled ferry traffic, and wiped out bridges. If the winters weren’t bad, the hot, dry summers picked up the slack. Temperatures were much hotter then than they are today–a challenge when doing any kind of farming work. The residents had to continually struggle with getting adequate irrigation–great things had already come out of the soil, if only they could count on a water supply! Just when it looked like the irrigation problem would be resolved permanently, the government came in and ordered them all to leave. The Depression hit this area as hard as it hit the rest of the country and by the time the economy was recovering, the families had to give up everything they had worked so hard to accomplish. Somehow, these hardy pioneers persevered.

In 1968, for the first time former residents were allowed to tour the area where their homesteads used to be. Not much remained from the early days. The shell of the old Hanford High School faces the river. Some old blacktop roads are visible beneath the tumbleweeds and cheat grass that have invaded the Columbia Basin. The old highway was still being used for workers who travelled to the outer areas of the Hanford Site. The only thing that remained was the spectacular view of the geologic formations that inspired the name of the former town of White Bluffs.

White Bluffs and Hanford are gone forever, but the history, people, and memories will be cherished for years to come!

FROM THE COURIER, October 1995
Official Publication of the
205 Keewaydin Drive P.O. Box 6964 Kennewick, WA 99336-0602