Benton City is a small municipality of some 3,000 residents on the north bank of the Yakima River near the center of Benton County in the Columbia Basin region of southeastern Washington. A hunting and fishing ground for a number of Native American tribes until the conflicts of the mid-1800s, the area saw little non-Indian settlement for another half century, until Benton City was platted in 1909 in hopes (not fulfilled) of becoming a railroad hub. After two unsuccessful attempts to make it the county seat, Benton City centered its economy on the fertile agriculture of the Yakima Valley and incorporated formally in 1945. Although the Hanford nuclear reservation brought some attention to the area, the city remains agrarian in focus and has become known for its viniculture and wineries.
Yakama, Umatilla, Klickitat, Wallula, and other Indian peoples all used the area in which Benton City was later developed. After the 1850s wars between some tribes and American troops and settlers, many tribal members began to be relocated to reservations and non-Indian settlement slowly increased in the area. Benton County was created by the state legislature in 1905. The county, and city, were said to be named for U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858) of Missouri. The explanation for the name isn't entirely clear, although in the 1959 History of Benton City, published by the History Committee of the Community Development Program of Benton City, there is speculation that a large population of Missouri settlers coming to Washington might have led to the tribute.
Hopes for a Hub
When the Oregon-Washington Railroad and Navigation Company (ORWR&N) decided to build a new railroad across the Yakima River to the town of Kiona in 1907, it spurred growth on the north side of the river, and Benton City was platted there in 1909. Before the town was much of anything, railroad engineer F. L. Pitman chose to erect a railway station in the area for the ORWR&N. He bought land from homesteaders David and Ellen McAlpin, who had been granted their plot in 1897. The 158.2 acres were sold to Pitman for $422, but the McAlpins and their family stayed in the area for many years. The station was built in 1909.
By this time, investors were taking out ads in Spokane papers enticing people to come to Benton City. A proposal to make the town a central railway location (for the Spokane cutoff and Wenatchee, North Columbia branches) looked promising. The ads bragged of Benton City's electric light and power plant, and promised that $4 million would be spent to improve the town as would befit any decent rail hub. For a while prospects were encouraging: Benton City was the early junction point between the Walla Walla and North Yakima lines with up to 10 trains daily by 1912.
But the plan to make Benton City a grand hub didn't work. Some blamed the 1909 death of railroad head E. H. Harriman (1848-1909), who was supposedly spurring action for the lines to end at Benton City. The now out-of-favor land went into the Spokane and Eastern Trust. Soon after, Stephen J. Harrison founded the Benton Land Company to help organize the town.
The Question of the County Seat
In 1912, Benton City took part in a nasty fight to claim the seat of Benton County. In a rather brash move, F. L. Pitman (the same engineer who founded the town, and a prominent booster for its growth) decided in April 1912 that Benton City should overthrow Prosser, which the legislature had named county seat when it created the county seven years earlier. Sweetening the pot, the Benton City contingent promised to donate the land to build a courthouse. (A nice boon for taxpayers who didn't want to pay to buy the city block required.)
The idea wasn't entirely sound. Benton City had been in existence for only a couple years and wasn't even an incorporated city. But it was located in the center of the county, and the claim was made that future growth there would be substantial -- a claim that probably needed to be put forth, since there wasn't much to speak of in Benton City at the time besides (quickly fading) dreams of railway bounty.
Benton City wasn't the only town to throw its hat in the ring. A few months later, Kennewick officials said they too would like to have the county seat, claiming that, with the center of the population in eastern Benton County, Kennewick was a more logical county seat. They were perturbed that Prosser officials had announced that a new courthouse would be built and felt that the residents of the county should have some say in where their tax money was spent.
In a very heated debate, covered at length in the regional press, Kennewick newspapers accused Prosser of setting up Benton City to split the vote and keep the seat in Prosser. (A 60 percent majority had to be achieved to change the seat.) Indeed, a majority of the 256 signatures on the petition for Benton City were Prosser residents.
The accusations flew for months before the election, and even received a rather bemused mention in The Seattle Times, which said that to residents of Benton County, the county seat "is the question that is agitating them to the exclusion of the presidential claims of Wilson, Roosevelt, or Taft, of the gubernatorial ambitions of Lister, Hay, or Hodge" and that "the fight is the one which engrosses the minds of the Benton County citizens to the practical exclusion of all other questions and the state candidate who puts in any time here should have plenty of it to spare for there is small likelihood of it doing any considerable amount of ... good" (Darwin).
In the end, Prosser ended up retaining the county seat, as Kennewick's 55 percent majority fell short of the 60 percent needed. Kennewick received 2,114 votes to Prosser's 1,547. Benton City got a paltry 185. The fight proved so draining that in 1913 the state senate passed a bill proclaiming that no petitions to change the county seat could take place until 1920. Which didn't stop the issue from flaring again once the legislatively imposed hiatus ended: In 1922, two prominent Benton City land owners, Stephen J. Harrison and L. L. Todd, donated land for a new courthouse in Benton City. In a terrific Halloween prank right before the November 1922 election, some local "pranksters, not all of them under 21 years of age," hauled a stolen outhouse to the designated land and put a sign on it reading "The home of the future county courthouse" (History of Benton City, 37). However, this was the closest Benton City ever got to the county seat. Prosser retained its title after the 1922 election (as it did nearly nine decades later in 2010, when Kennewick -- though not Benton City -- bid yet again for the county seat).
Fruit Not Rails
During the course of both county-seat fights, it was unclear which was more significant to Benton City: the growth of farming or the emphatic lack of growth in the railroad. Increasingly, agriculture was becoming the economic staple of Benton City. By 1911, the Washington Nursery Company was getting inundated:
"Orders were pouring in for Nursery stock for this new farming region at a great rate, mostly commercial stuff, namely apples, peaches, pears, and cherries in large quantities. The new townsite was to be set to fruit" (History of Benton City, 31).
With the 1915 extension of the Sunnyside Canal, irrigation entered the Benton City area, and was much celebrated. The Seattle Daily Times cited the Prosser Independent-Record to point out "the improvement will more than double the acreage of irrigated land tributary to Kiona and Benton City" ("A Canal of Its Own").
Although early residents had been promised an explosion of population to accompany the important new railway line, the reality by 1918 was much starker: the town was not going to be a grand rail hub. Less than 50 residents called the town home, and almost all of it was farmland. Several farmers filed a successful vacation of a portion of Benton City's townhood petition, and in 1919 taxes were lowered when the county acknowledged that residents of the decidedly un-booming town were overpaying for their land.
The legacy of railway hopes still shaped the geography of the town. One of the most significant features of early Benton City was the Benton City Hotel built by Harrison and Todd, who later led the second attempt at getting the county seat. The three-story building was built for more than $40,000 in 1909. The hotel typified the early promise of the area, as town boosters and residents imagined the 48-room inn would become a central core for businessmen and travelers in the bustling railroad city. But as the railroad plans dried up, it instead housed workers. It burned to the ground in 1926.
As is the case with most agrarian communities, the fortunes of the people of Benton City rose and fell with crop booms and failures up until World War II. Alfalfa, apples, cherries, peaches, and asparagus became staples, although the 1959 history notes how hard apple farming was for farmers in the area:
"From one spring to the next they soon found apple growing was a continuous round of work. Pruning, picking up brush, irrigating and spraying throughout the spring and summer. In the fall ... making apple boxes, harvesting the apples and hauling the fruit to the warehouses in the town of Benton City" (History of Benton City, 27).
By World War II, the population around Benton City fell, with men off to war and a slow agricultural economy. But at the same time residents began to develop an inkling that their area was becoming a place of interest to rather important folks -- although no one was quite sure what for. The History of Benton City recounts an anecdote from A. F. Johnson, a beekeeper in the region, who recalled the change one summer in the early 1940s. After his bees pollinated the Wenatchee and Chelan crops, Johnson and his family decided to place them in the hills around Rattlesnake Range (just north of town), and see if he could develop a honey operation. Since they had to haul water up themselves, the Johnsons spent considerable time in the hills. That was when they began to notice the two crews of surveyors who were also occupying the hills for substantial parts of the summer.
"No amounts of hints prevailed on these men to give out the slightest information as to who or why they were so very interested in this back country far from a railroad. It turned out afterwards they had no idea what the score was any more than we did. At home Mr. Johnson would sit in a deep study often scratching his head in deep bewilderment saying ... "What can it be? The Government has to be at the back of it whatever is going on out there. It is something awful, awful big but I can't figure it out" (History of Benton City, 39).
Indeed, Hanford Engineer Works (a nuclear facility that held the first large-scale reactor), would prove to be big, and most certainly with the government at the back of it. As nearly 60,000 people poured in throughout 1943 to help build the plant, Benton City got its fair share of new residents in the spillover.
One unexpected population that settled in during the war was right outside Benton City: a camp for state prison inmates. According to The Seattle Times, about 200 to 300 "trusties" lived a few miles north of Benton City and spent their days farming and harvesting the 800 acres of fields that the Hanford reservation set aside for agriculture ("Hanford Area Crops…"). In 1945, 500,000 pounds of cherries and 230,000 pounds of asparagus were harvested, along with potatoes, apples, peaches, pears, prunes, and apricots, totaling about $500,000 in crop value.
Incorporation and Politics
Benton City residents decided to formally incorporate as a city in 1945, and filed the petition in March. In a June 1945 election, 76 citizens voted for incorporation and 32 voted against it. Oscar Hanson (the town barber) was elected the first mayor. On July 14, 1945, the Secretary of State officially incorporated Benton City. By 1950, the town had 857 residents. Agriculture continued to thrive as the main commerce in the area, and a 1947 extension of the Sunnyside Canal brought even more water and irrigation, dramatically improving the land for farming and orchards.
In December 1956, Benton City made the regional news for its local politics. Mayor Maynard Repp and police chief Thomas Little were at a city council meeting when both "heatedly tendered verbal resignations after members of the street committee complained at the council meeting about the poor state of thoroughfares" (The Spokesman-Review). The city was not without leadership for too long, however, as Mayor Repp was apparently back at work by February 1957, when he was accused of spending city funds and hiring a police officer without approval of the council. Petitions for his recall were filed by members of the city council, and included the salient detail that the mayor also "cursed the people of Benton City" ("Benton City Talks Planned …"). The April vote, however, resulted in the cursed people of Benton City choosing not to recall Repp.
In the 1970s, Benton City's increasing farm production boosted the economy, and from 1970 to 1980 the population nearly doubled, rising from 1,070 to 2,087. In 1973, a call was put out to help pick the bumper cherry crop around Benton City. And that meant for about a month, the population would explode. Fifteen thousand pickers were needed to haul in the loads around the Yakima Valley, and because temporary housing wasn't easy to come by, people with trailers or campers were encouraged to come and earn their roughly six cents per pound of cherries. Half the pickers in the state during the time were white, and 40 percent were of Mexican descent, according to The Seattle Times.
But harvests are fickle. Just one year later, the estimated 14,400 migrant workers that came to Washington struggled to find work -- the California cherry harvest ended early and hot weather caused Washington's to start late -- and the demand for food stamps spiked. Interestingly, there was also a sharp rise in price for staple foods of the Latino diet from 1973 to 1974. Pinto beans, for instance, rose from $10 per 100-pound bag to $70, which led some to wonder if farmers were taking advantage of the temporary population.
The first indication that the Hanford nuclear reservation brought anything but positive attention to the area came in 1986. For the first time, the U.S. Department of Energy noted that weapons manufacturing was responsible for elevated plutonium levels in the ground soil. Benton City had the highest measure of plutonium contamination. DOE officials had previously asserted that any plutonium was due to weapon testing fall-out, and not production. In 2005, several "downwinders" (including at least one former Benton City resident) sued the government for health problems relating to the contamination.
In 2007, it was the plutonium cleanup that made news in Benton City. Rattlesnake Mountain (just a few miles outside Benton City) is a sacred site of prayer for Yakama Nation tribes, and the entire Hanford reservation is within the boundaries reserved for the Yakama to hunt, fish, and perform traditional ceremonies. The tribes wanted a thorough assessment of natural resources before the cleanup was completed, while the Department of Energy was keen to begin decontamination sooner.
Benton City in the Twenty-first Century
With the steady growth of viniculture in the area, the agricultural future of Benton City appeared a lot rosier. (Or, perhaps, rosé-ier.) Long part of the Columbia Valley and Yakima Valley American Viticultural Areas, in 2001 Red Mountain (just northeast of the town) was established as its own AVA, and wineries began booming. More than a dozen wineries and vineyards dot the area around Benton City, including Kiona Vineyards and Terra Blanca.
In 2008, a $16 million irrigation improvement project was also launched in the Benton City area to modernize the Benton Irrigation district. While the enhanced irrigation system proved useful to farmland in the area, it also had the bonus of increasing water flow and temperature for salmon recovery. Combined with a larger Sunnyside Division improvement, the two irrigation upgrades provided Benton City with a stream flow increase of 15 percent.
In a testament to the people who originally came to the area for agricultural work and settled there, almost 29 percent of Benton City's 2010 population of 3,038 residents was Latino, significantly higher than the 18 percent figure for Benton County as a whole. Benton City's Latino population showed a substantial increase from 2000, when it was about 19 percent.