muriel j smith 120aThe day the American Empress tourists spent visiting Richland, Washington and the surrounding area was almost too full of information with too much diversity to be able to take it all in, let alone remember it. Cruising on the America Queen sternwheeler following the trail of Lewis and Clark had been educational, exciting, and relaxing to this point, but delving into the 20th century and the area’s involvement in the Manhattan Project and how the little town of Hanford grew in population from 300 residents to more than 25,000 added an entirely new dimension to an incredible experience.

We missed out on visiting the museum at the Washington State Park set aside for Sacajawea, the Shoshoni Indian woman who accompanied Lewis & Clark in their journey to the Pacific; that was because the state either forgot to turn the power on for the season or there was breakdown in the electrical system of some type. What was evident was the breakdown in communication between the state and the cruise company since the on/off busses continued to stop at the park and volunteers continued to tell the drivers there was no admittance to the museum.

But there was so much to learn in so many other areas. The Hanford Reach, for instance.

empress hanford reachPHOTO: The Hanford Reach

A reach is a stretch of uninterrupted level river, the beginning and ending of which are chosen for geographic, historical or other reasons, like landmarks, topography or gauging stations. The Hanford Reach is a national monument which is unique, since there is no monument, simply a 51-mile long stretch of the Columbia River between Priest Rapids Dam and Richland. It’s an area that’s never been dammed or dredged, so there are lots of bars, ponds, and sloughs that form the natural, undisturbed habitats for salmon, sturgeon and steelheads, among other fish. The Museum there is a spectacular conglomeration of stories, exhibits, and culture of both the environmental importance of the area and the impact building the Atomic Bomb had and continues to have on the desert and rivers in the area.

There’s an entire gallery at the Museum devoted to the Manhattan Project. It tells a rather sad story about the people who lived there and explains why and how the activities that took place there and displaced all the residents resulted in an American victory and the end of World War II.

empress hanford museumPHOTO:  Local newspaper announces secret of Hanford Product

Hanford was a tiny town where the people who settled in the beginning of the 20th century made their living farming and built up their community. They had their own railroad link to the transcontinental railroad, a hotel, a bank, and its own schools for both elementary and high school students.

But in 1943, in the midst of World War II, the town was condemned by the federal government; residents weren’t told the reason why, but they were given 30-days to vacate their homes and all the property they owned; most of the buildings were destroyed behind them. The high school remained, and it was used as the construction management office for what became known as the Hanford Site.
The school is still there, although a bit beat up by the experiments and trials that took place there.

Once the Army, who owned the more than 600 square miles of land along the Columbia River, destroyed all the homes, they had contractors build the “alphabet houses,” a variety of styles of homes built for the workers and their families brought to the area to work at the Hanford Site. From the 300 farming families who lived there prior to the war, the town exploded into 25,000 residents in the two years from 1943 until the dropping of the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, bombs made, at least in part, at the Hanford site. Riding through Richland, it’s easy to spot the prefabricated duplexes and single-family homes that still stand as their own testimony to the families who were moved in to produce the material to build those nuclear weapons. The Project and Army influence were disbanded in 1947 and today many of the area’s properties are on the National Register of Historic Places. For those fascinating by the role of nuclear weapons in defense of the country and the uranium necessary to build them, the cruise ship also offered a premium excursion for an extra fee to get a close look at the B Reactor. I opted out.

empress s housePHOTO: S House

Much more fun was getting back to the riverboat and hearing Riverlorian Laurence Cotton tell some great stories about the Oregon Trail and answer just about any question you could have about anything along this fascinating trip, the people who made it so historic, or the wildlife you might encounter.

NEXT: Games, music, relaxing river cruising for the day.