Hanford High School may be nothing more than a gray concrete ruin standing among the sage on the Hanford nuclear reservation.
But an air of grandeur remains about the two-story building, graced with tall, multi-paned windows and a front porch where students would gather for an annual photo.
It's an indication of how important the school was to the community, Colleen French of the Department of Energy told Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., on Thursday.
Murray visited some of the few buildings that still stand from the days before the
586-square-mile nuclear reservation was created to produce plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.
She saw the high school, the White Bluffs bank and the Bruggemann warehouse, all of which could be included in a Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
B Reactor, which Murray also toured, is planned as the Hanford jewel of the proposed park.
But supporters also want to tell the story of the people forced to abandon their homes and businesses to allow the secret nuclear complex to be built along the Columbia River during World War II.
A national park would
showcase technical achievements, including the construction of the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor in 13 months from ground breaking to finish. But it also would be an opportunity to show what the region gave up for the war effort, Murray said.
Her father grew up in Kennewick and she remembers him talking about the settlers forced to leave their homes, she said. About 1,500 people were displaced from what would become the Hanford reservation.
Now the roof is gone on the gym that makes up half the high school. But the front and back staircases to classrooms still stand, and green paint still can be seen on the top of the porch over the front entrance.
Pieces of red brick lie on the ground behind the school, part of an elementary school added as the town prospered.
"There was no way to know that in 1943 it would all end," said DOE archaeologist Mona Wright.
Homes and most businesses in the agriculture towns of Hanford and White Bluffs have long since been torn down. The high school almost met the same fate. Demolition started and then stopped.
"While most people look at the old school and bank and see fallen-down old buildings, we see them as they once were and remember our friends," the late Annette Heriford said when former residents rallied 20 years ago to convince DOE to preserve what was left of the school and bank.
DOE's plan today is to save the high school as a ruin, making structural changes only to stabilize it for visitors to the proposed national park.
But the tiny brick First Bank of White Bluffs will be restored.
The engineering work has been completed and construction could begin in the fall, French told Murray.
"We want it to be to totally visitor accessible," French said.
White Bluffs, where sidewalks still form paths among desert grasses, was once a thriving community. The bank was built in 1907 when irrigation projects were bringing settlers to the area to convert the sage and bunch grass covered lands into orchards and to build businesses.
"There are not many places like this that when they were closed down in '43, they were just left," Wright said.
Gone are the Liberty Theater and Opera House, a Catholic church, hotels and other businesses that once lined the streets of the town's business district.
Perhaps the Bruggemann ranch warehouse has the most personal story to tell.
The Bruggemann family lived near the Columbia River and what now is Highway 24 until Army officers arrived in a jeep on a winter day in 1943 and told them they would have two weeks to leave.
The Paul Bruggemann family lived in a stone house -- wood was scarce in the desert -- and on 400 acres grew vineyards and fruit trees and raised sheep and turkeys.
A cobblestone warehouse still stands in sight of some of the former plutonium production reactors that would be built along the river. The long building was built with care, its arched windows underlined with rows of smaller stones.
Murray walked out into the tinder-dry grass that now covers the acreage, searching the ground for the irrigation pipes that once turned the ranch green.
A bill has passed the U.S. House that would create a new historical park that could allow the public to visit the old ranch, the Hanford High School and the White Bluffs bank, along with
B Reactor. It also would include sites in New Mexico and Tennessee where workers raced to create nuclear bombs, as U.S. leaders feared that Germany also was developing a bomb.
A Senate bill passed out of committee with help from Murray and Sen. Maria Cantwell,
D-Wash., but it still needs a vote of the full Senate. That could happen this fall.
"Nothing is easy in Congress as we all know, but everybody is working hard to get it done," she said.
- Take a peek inside the Bruggemann ranch house in an interactive panorama
- Take a peek inside the old Hanford High School gym in an interactive panorama
- Take a peek inside the White Bluffs Bank in an interactive panorama