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In early March 1943, Priest Rapids Valley residents looked forward to a good harvest. Although valley farmers suffered during the Great Depression, rising crop prices caused by the ongoing war in Europe led many to finally see light at the end of the tunnel. These dreams shattered on March 6 when residents received official letters notifying them that the United States government had requisitioned their land for the war effort and that they were to vacate their homes within 30 days. Military officials with the Manhattan Project had selected the valley as the site for the world’s first plutonium production facility. Known as the Hanford Engineer Works (the Hanford Site), this installation eventually encompassed 670 square miles selected for its isolation, access to electric power from Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams, and proximity to the Columbia River. The evictions displaced approximately 2,000 people and destroyed many of the small communities throughout the valley.
American history is filled with similar tales. During the mid-nineteenth century the federal government pressured Native American tribes to cede vast portions of Washington State, enabling successive waves of Euro-American traders, gold miners, ranchers, and farmers to settle the Priest Rapids Valley. These settlements blossomed in the early twentieth century when irrigation projects watered the arid shrubsteppe. Hanford and White Bluffs were two of the largest towns in the valley, and in 1940 had populations of 463 and 501 people respectively. Richland had a population of 247 but hundreds more resided on farms surrounding the town and homesteads and small communities dotted the valley. The Wanapum Tribe also lived here as they had done for thousands of years. Few people realized how suddenly this would change.
Residents later recalled seeing “surveyors, engineers, and appraisers” in early 1943. At the time few realized the significance of these sightings. At the start of the year the government had quietly prepared to requisition the region and on February 23 a federal court sanctioned these plans. Authorities publicized this decision on March 6, notifying residents in Hanford, White Bluffs, the farms around Richland, and surrounding communities. Emotions “ranged from resignation to shock and disbelief, [and] to anger and bitterness.” Residents had spent decades investing time, savings, and energy into their farms, and many cherished the bonds of friendship and community that held these towns together. Hypotheses about the Hanford Site’s purpose ranged from a poison gas factory to toilet paper plant, but few explanations eased the emotional and financial burden carried by those facing eviction.
Inconsistent eviction dates added to confusion. Although most notices gave residents 30 days to leave, Army officials postponed evictions for people with farms near the edge of the Hanford Site until after fall harvest. Food was a vital resource in wartime. Indeed, after farmers were evicted the government used prisoners to pick remaining fruit, and some orchards remained in cultivation until the end of the war. Although the government offered residents compensation for lost property, different eviction dates and fluctuating crop prices created discrepancies when government appraisers assessed property values. Observers and residents also argued that appraisers were poorly trained, used sloppy measurement techniques, and grossly misjudged market values. Many evictees successfully sued the government, and courts often doubled the compensation farmers received. Some rulings increased the land valuation “as high as 600 per cent.”
None of these rulings could reverse the displacement of Priest Rapids Valley residents. Although traces of Hanford and White Bluffs remain, bulldozers destroyed most of these communities. Workers even exhumed bodies buried at White Bluffs Cemetery, reinterning the remains at the nearby town of Prosser. Many evicted residents eventually resettled in towns around Washington. Forced to buy new land at a time when prices were high, they often could not replace what they had lost. A few chose to stay as Hanford Site employees. Richland remained standing, converted by Manhattan Project contractor DuPont into a “company town” built around servicing the Hanford Site. Many buildings were used as offices and houses for government workers and in 1944 the town’s population numbered 11,000 people.
The establishment of the Hanford Site also severed the Wanapum tribe’s access to the valley. Although they received special permission to fish near White Bluffs in 1943, the military revoked this decision two years later. Over the following decades, former White Bluffs and Hanford residents came together at annual reunions to reminisce about the communities they lost. The Priest Rapids Valley achieved renown, first as the region where America’s nuclear arsenal was created and later as the repository for catastrophic quantities of environmental pollutants, but the communities that once stood here and the dreams of the people who lived in the valley remain buried underneath the sand and in distant memories.