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When a town disappeared | Issaquah residents share story of White Bluffs
Don Skelton, 92, and Walt Grisham, 91 have breakfast and dinner together every day at University House in Issaquah. But more than their connection at the retirement home, they share a history that most people have never known.
It was 1943 when the March 11 issue of the Kennewick Courier-Reporter carried the headline: “Richland, White Bluffs and Hanford area to be taken by massive war industry and mass meeting called at Richland to explain the war projects to residents.”
However, nothing was really explained and residents were ordered out of their homes and off their lands.
White Bluffs and Hanford were wiped off the map to make way for the 640-square-mile Hanford Nuclear Reservation. It would be years before anyone knew what was going on at the ultra-secret facility.
First Bank of White Bluffs is all that remains in White Bluffs; Hanford High School is all that remains of the farm town.
Friday, Oregon Public television will be at University House to film Skelton and Grisham for an upcoming documentary on the eradication of White Bluffs and Hanford, a little piece of sad and tragic Washington state history that for 70 years was a huge secret – except to those who lived it.
In 1943, Walt Grisham was in England, a ground crew member of the Army Air Corps, now the U.S. Air Force.
“Uncle Sam gave me a greeting,” he said of being drafted.
He had no idea his hometown was being evacuated until he came back in 1945. All he knew was what he saw in the London newspapers about an atomic program in the United States.
When he tried to return to White Bluffs, which was at the bend of the Columbia River, north of Richland, he wasn’t allowed to go there. The land had become part of the Manhattan Project, a research and development program by the U.S. that produced the first atomic bomb during World War II. It was there that the plutonium was produced to make the bomb that obliterated Nagasaki, Japan, Aug. 9, 1945.
Grisham’s family had moved to White Bluffs in 1931 so his dad, Joseph, could manage his uncle’s orchard. By the time the war came, all eight of his siblings had grown and left the nest, so only his parents remained in the home when it was taken by the government.
“They got notice to be out,” Grisham said. “No help, no transportation, no money.”
To add insult to injury, the government used assessors from eastern Washington and Montana to assess the land. Many of them didn’t have a grasp of the value.
“They (the appraisers) were instructed to evaluate the property at half-value,” Grisham said. “They were to forget about the fences and wells and treat it like it’s bare land.”
Even those who accepted an offer from the government didn’t receive their checks for 90 days or more.
Grisham’s family home was pushed into the basement and burned. Orchards also were burned to clear the site. Even remains of approximately 177 people buried at the White Bluffs Cemetery were moved May 6, 1943 to the East Prosser Cemetery about 30 miles away.
Skelton’s family arrived in White Bluffs in 1925, living there until 1943. His family remained in their home for a little over 90 days as their property wasn’t needed immediately.
The home then sat there empty until the mid 1950s when it was moved down by the Columbia River with a “For Sale” sign placed on it. Eventually, it, too, was destroyed.
“There was a lot of indiscriminate destruction,” Skelton said.
Skelton said the government used immigrant prisoners to pick the fruit from the lush orchards; his family never saw any money for their fruit – he doesn’t know where the money went.
Both men went to White Bluffs High School, but since Grisham was younger, the two really didn’t associate at the time.
A football injury kept Skelton from being drafted, but he did go into the Civilian Conservation Corp, a New Deal program that existed from 1933 to 1943 for unemployed, unmarried men to work manual labor jobs related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural areas.
He went on to Washington State University and studied agricultural engineering, graduating in 1945. Skelton would work with the Bureau of Reclamation project responsible for irrigating the Columbia River Basin before a lengthy career with the Corps of Engineers.
When Grisham returned from the war in Europe, he went to the University of Idaho to become an educator. He taught school in Shoshone, Idaho, and later in Ft. Collins, Colo. while pursuing a master’s degree, finally returning to Washington where he taught high school in Pasco.
It was upon returning to Washington in 1954 that he learned of annual reunions for former White Bluffs and Hanford residents. The gatherings were stopped about five or six years ago, he said. Too few survivors remain.
Grisham doesn’t think the Hanford site ever will be totally clean. He said he knows of 75 acres that are permanently damaged, and extremely contaminated. Skelton said the tanks used to store plutonium waste always will be contaminated.
An article in the Feb. 13, 1993 Centralia/Chehalis Chronicle states that Hanford was contaminated with some 440 billion gallons of liquid wastes, plus 177 steel storage tanks containing lethal levels of radioactivity.
“Cleanup is expected to take more than 30 years and cost upwards of $50 billion,” the article states.
It wasn’t until 1968 that the former residents of White Bluffs and Hanford were let back in to see their old land.
Grisham said one of the first things he wanted to do was show his kids Black Sand Bar, a favorite beach on the river. They were swimming when a Hanford security officer told them to get out. The security officer radioed a call center, and listening in was Harry Anderson, who knew Grisham. He told the guard to leave them alone.
“This was a neat little country town, surrounded by small farms, the power was provided by a dam at Priest Rapids,” Grisham said. “Everybody knew everybody.”
Unfortunately, it also was what the government wanted.
“It had all the elements they needed,” Grisham said, “good transportation, clean cold water (to cool the reactors). It was easy to set up a security system and there was lots of open space.”
Made all the more possible by no farms – and no people.
The White Bluffs Bank closed in the early 1940s before the government evacuation. The shell of the building is all that remains of White Bluffs. Photo courtesy of “Tales of Richland, White Bluffs and Hanford 1805-1943” by Martha Berry Parker
The shell of Hanford High School is all that remains of the school. Photo courtesy of “Tales of Richland, White Bluffs and Hanford 1805-1943” by Martha Berry Parker