Richland -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 1/08/2008
  • Essay 8450
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The city of Richland, one of the Tri-Cities along with Pasco and Kennewick, is on a site near the confluence of the Yakima River and the Columbia River that has been occupied for at least 11,000 years. People of the Wanapum, Walla Walla, and Yakama tribes fished and hunted in the area and established a small village called Chemna. The first non-Indian explorer to visit the area was Capt. William Clark (1770-1838) of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, who canoed up the Columbia to the mouth of the Yakima. The first cattle ranchers arrived in the 1860s, but settlement did not begin in earnest until the 1890s when farmers began to irrigate in the lower Yakima Valley. One of those farmers was Nelson Rich, after whom the small settlement was named in 1905. The town was incorporated in 1910, yet for decades remained a tiny agricultural village. When World War II arrived, Richland had only 247 residents -- but then in 1943, the federal government acquired Richland (along with Hanford and a vast surrounding area) as part of secret wartime project to build an atomic bomb. By 1944, the population had boomed to 11,000, almost entirely workers on the Hanford project. By 1950, Richland had 21,809 residents and was nearly double the size of nearby Pasco and Kennewick. In 1958, the federal government relinquished ownership of Richland and it was incorporated as a first-class city. Today many Richland residents continue to work at Hanford, in environmental cleanup, yet Richland has diversified its economy into technology, medicine, education, and transportation. Its population as of 2007 was 45,070, and it is part of the Tri-Cities metropolitan area of 168,850.

Early Years

The northwest corner of the confluence of the Yakima and Columbia rivers has long been a natural spot for human habitation. People of the Wanapum, Walla Walla, and Yakama tribes fished for salmon near a long-established village called Chemna, at what is now called Columbia Point. In winter, they lived in pit houses, dug two feet into the ground and covered with poles and mats made of rushes.

The first written description of what is now called Richland came on October 17, 1805, from Capt. William Clark in the journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, when he canoed up the Columbia from a camp at the Snake River confluence. He rowed about eight miles to the spot where a "western fork" (the Yakima) enters and reported that the rivers were filled with "incrediable" (sp) numbers of spawned-out salmon and the shore was covered with many mat-covered Indian lodges.

He noted that the land was filled with "a weed or plant about 2 & 3 feet high" (probably sagebrush) and that there was "no wood to be seen in any direction" (Clark).

Fur trader and explorer David Thompson (1770-1857) arrived on July 8, 1811, and wrote that the "Ska ee man a" tribe (probably Yakama) reported that the winters were mild and the "snow falls only about 1½ ft deep & soon again goes off" (Thompson). He also said the Indians survived on abundant salmon, caught by seine net, and plenty of deer.

In 1847, Father Pascal Ricard, a Roman Catholic missionary, built a small log chapel near Chemna and named it Mission St. Rose. It lasted only one year. The next summer, he moved his mission up the Yakima River in search of warmer weather and a warmer reception from the Indians.

Ranchers and First Settlers

The first ranchers arrived in the area in the 1860s and 1870s. According to historian Barbara J. Kubik, the area that is now Columbia Point was called Grant's Meadows after an early rancher. Yet the fierce winter of 1880-1881 killed off most of the area cattle, along with the entire ranching industry.

Settlers turned to irrigation from the Yakima River in an attempt to make this dry land suitable for hay, grain, vegetables, and fruit trees. Ben Rosencrance had been ranching on the south side of the Yakima since 1880, but in 1888 he moved across the river to the present site of Richland. He filed a homestead claim of 1,700 acres and soon other farmers followed. Nelson Rich built a pump and ditch in 1890 and Rosencrance built a wooden water wheel. By the turn of the twentieth century, irrigation canals crisscrossed the area and farmers were snapping up land.

A New Town

In 1904, W. R. Amon and his son Howard S. Amon bought up both the Rosencrance and Rich farms. The Amons, with other investors, incorporated the Benton Water Company to bring irrigation and electricity to the area and proposed a town site on the present site of Richland. A contest was held to name the fledgling town; the name Benton won, because it was in the newly created Benton County. However, the U.S. Post Office said the name sounded too much like Bentsen, Washington, and the Amons proposed the name Richland, partly because it was Nelson Rich's land, and partly because it connoted rich and fertile farmland. The name Richland was accepted in 1905 and the little town was incorporated in 1910. It had a bank, a restaurant, a hotel, general store or two and three churches.

Even in town, farm plots far outnumbered city-style blocks. Historian W. D. Lyman wrote in 1919 that the earliest strawberries in the state come from Richland "on account of the warmth of the weather and the very quick, rather sandy soil" (Lyman). Richland would retain its agricultural character for the next 30 years, becoming known mostly for strawberries, grapes, potatoes, hops, and tree fruits.

Growth was slow, largely because Richland had no railroad access -- the trains were routed through Richland's much larger (at the time) neighbors to the south, Pasco and Kennewick. Transportation of any kind was a problem in early Richland, sandwiched as it was between two major rivers. Bridges across the Yakima were repeatedly washed out until a concrete and steel bridge was built in 1907. A highway between Richland and Kennewick was completed in 1926. A cable ferry across the Columbia at Grant's Meadow had been established in 1894 and it became a vital link to Pasco until 1931 when it was rendered obsolete by auto bridges.

Richland and surrounding areas had a brief natural-gas boom beginning in 1914, when gas deposits were discovered in the Rattlesnake Hills, just to the northwest. Those wells were tapped out by about 1940. Richland was hit hard by the Great Depression and the resulting decline in farm prices.

Transformed by War

When World War II arrived, Richland was still a sleepy farm village with a population of only 247. Pasco and Kennewick were much larger at around 7,000 each; the concept of the Tri-Cities did not yet exist.

As 1942 progressed, the farmers and merchants of Richland had no idea that a delegation from the Manhattan Engineer District, a super-secret branch of the Army Corps of Engineers, was flying over Richland and the tiny towns of Hanford and White Bluffs just north, and choosing it as the site of giant plutonium and uranium production site for atomic weapons. This dusty, sagebrush-covered land on the west bank of the Columbia had the requisite clean cold water, electricity, and isolation.

Richland residents had the first hint of monumental changes to come when registered letters arrived on March 6, 1943, informing them that their homes, farms and businesses had been condemned by federal court order for undisclosed war purposes. They would be paid for their property's appraised value and given, in most cases, 30 days to evacuate.

At a mass meeting soon after, more than 1,100 residents gathered to talk about the situation. They were united in supporting the war effort, but they were understandably stunned at the scope of the sacrifice they were being asked to make. They issued a statement saying that they were already contributing to the war effort by producing "vegetables, fruits, poultry and dairy products, all of vital importance" and even though they were in no way "protesting" the action, they asked to be "permitted to produce and harvest the 1943 crop" (Spokane Daily Chronicle, "Condemning").

Others challenged what they felt were low appraisals. Yet they soon realized that no amount of talking would change their fate, although they soon learned that the deadlines for leaving the town would be extended. Some farmers were allowed to stay on until their crops were harvested; others would stay on to work at the Hanford Engineer Works, as the project was named. But in the end, only about 10 percent of Richland residents would remain, according to Kubik. The others moved to Pasco or Kennewick or left the region entirely. The old Richland became, virtually, extinct.

The New Richland

Meanwhile the new Richland was being built at an astonishing pace. In its new capacity as a 16,000-resident bedroom community for the Hanford works, the government began building thousands of homes, duplexes, apartments, and dormitories. Construction began just weeks after condemnation and continued at a blistering pace through 1943 and 1944. The old businesses and the old high school but not the brand new grade school, went down; new ones went up to serve the huge influx of workers from all over the country.

 To house most of the Hanford workers at nearby Richland, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its contractor, the DuPont Company, engaged Spokane architect Gustav Albin Pehrson (d. 1968) to plan an entirely new village. He designed a variety of homes, ranging from very modest duplexes to two-story single-family dwellings with four bedrooms and two baths. Despite the speed of the project, all were quality construction. Each style was assigned a letter of the alphabet, hence the moniker “letter houses,” “ABC houses,” or “alphabet houses.” To this mixture of Pehrson houses, prefabs and ranch-style homes not of his design were added to accommodate the growing work force. Many of the letter houses are still in use today, although most have been updated.

Some newcomers were not exactly happy to be in this dry, dusty, treeless country.  Dust storms were frequent in 1944, and came to be called "termination winds" because the morning after, "there would be a long line of workers at the employment office seeking to draw their termination pay" (Kubik).

Even most of the workers did not know exactly what they were building at Hanford. They didn't find out until August 6 and 9, 1945, when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The secret was out: The Hanford Engineering Works had made the plutonium used in the Nagasaki bomb.

"Everyone at the Hanford Engineering Works feels that he or she has really done his part in ending this war," said Col. Franklin T. Matthias (1908-1993), the head of the project (Kubik).

Atom-Bustin' Village

The city embraced its new fame and immediately adopted a new slogan, "Richland: The Atom-Bustin' Village of the West," with a mushroom cloud logo. Columbia High School (now Richland High School) changed its mascot name to The Bombers. Yet with peace came uncertainty about the future. DuPont, the main contractor at Hanford, pulled out at war's end, and was replaced by General Electric. The Hanford Engineer Works was renamed simply the Hanford Works and was under the jurisdiction of the new Atomic Energy Commission.

As it turned out, Hanford and Richland were busier than ever as the Cold War heated up. Nuclear weapons were being manufactured at a brisk pace and Hanford became a key research site.

In 1950, Richland's population had mushroomed to 21,809, which made it nearly twice as big as each of its formerly dominant neighbors, Pasco and Kennewick. Yet Richland was still not an independent city like nearly every other city in America; it was wholly owned by the United States government. Everything – the houses, the shopping centers, the schools, even the furniture in the houses -- was federal property.

Many of the residents of Richland were happy with this paternal arrangement -- for a while. They voted down a self-government initiative in 1955, partly over concerns about how "disposal" -- the government's sale of property to the residents -- would be carried out. Later that year, a federal law was passed giving Richland and Oak Ridge (a government-owned "atomic" city in Tennessee) five years to make the transition from federal city to self-governing city. Housing appraisals were conducted; once again, residents protested that the appraisals were too high. Appraisals were subsequently lowered, allowing residents to more easily purchase their homes and businesses back from the government.

An Independent City

On July 15, 1958, Richland voted by a four-to-one margin to incorporate as a first-class city, with a population of 22,970. It immediately became the 11th largest city n the state.

The Hanford works continued to dominate the city's economy, although throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a number of private technological industries grew up as an outgrowth of the Hanford works. During this time, Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick formed an unofficial alliance to give the area more effective marketing clout; they became increasingly known as the Tri-Cities.

Today, Richland continues its role as a bedroom community for Hanford, where many residents are still employed in the environmental cleanup of that vast site. Yet it also has diversified into a number of other industries, including medicine, education, and high-tech research. It is the site of a full branch campus of Washington State University. The city has become integrated into the larger Tri-Cities economy.

The city's 2007 population was 45,070, making it the 20th largest city in the state. 


Barbara J. Kubik, Richland: Celebrating Its Heritage (City of Richland, 1994); Ted Van Arsdol, Tri-Cities: The Mid Columbia Hub (Chatsworth, Calif., Windsor Publications, 1990); W. D. Lyman, History of the Yakima Valley ([Chicago]: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1919) 884-885; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Benton County, Thumbnail History" (by Elizabeth Gibson), and "Construction of massive plutonium production complex at Hanford begins in March 1943" (by Kit Oldham) (accessed January 6, 2008); William Clark, The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Vol. 5, Oct. 17, 1805, ed. by Gary Moulton (Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 1988); David Thompson, Notebook 27, July 8, 1811, Archives of Ontario;  ""A Bit of Richland's History," City of Richland website (; "US Is Condemning Three Towns, 193,833 Acres of Land," Spokane Daily Chronicle, March 10, 1943, p. 1; "Col. Matthias Heads Project," Spokane Daily Chronicle, March 11, 1943, p. 1; "Richland Folks Fears Lessened," Spokane Daily Chronicle, March. 14, 1943, p. 1; “The ABC Houses of Richland,” Tri-Cities Real Estate website accessed May 8, 2009 (; “Richland, Washington Government Letter-Houses,” East Benton County Historical Society website accessed May 8, 2009 ( See also David W. Harvey and Katheryn Hill Krafft, “The Hanford Engineer Works Village: Shaping a Nuclear Community,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring 2004), 29-35.
Note: The name of Father Pascal Ricard was corrected on October 22, 2008. The essay was expanded slightly on May 8, 2009.

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