The settlers who came to the shrub-steppe land along the Columbia River wanted to create a utopia where the Hanford nuclear reservation now lies.
They succeeded for a time, creating the shared irrigation programs they envisioned to turn the desert to farmland and using the river and then a new railroad line to get the luscious fruit they grew in the Mid-Columbia sunshine to market.
They weathered the Great Depression and then sent their sons to fight in World War II, said Colleen French, the Department of Energy national park program manager.
Then the federal government forced another sacrifice on them. They were required to give up their farms, their businesses and their homes for a secret wartime project. The people who had built communities were scattered across the United States.
“It is a bittersweet story,” French said.
The story is told in a new tour being offered by DOE that gives the public a look at what remains from their pre-Hanford nuclear reservation life.
“The tour is a way to honor their contributions to the American West as well as what they gave up for the Manhattan Project,” French said after a practice run Wednesday for the tours that start May 26.
The land along the Columbia River from near the Vernita Bridge around the horn of the river was once green with irrigated crops and orchards.
Today, with no one farming the land since it was seized by the federal government in 1943, visitors still can see the remnants of fields. They remain checkerboards largely free of sage and scored with the marks of former irrigation rows and borrow pits.
At the Bruggemann Ranch between Hanford’s B Reactor and the Vernita Bridge, Paul Bruggemann had bought about 125 acres in 1926.
He married a local school teacher, and by 1943 the couple had about 600 acres and an irrigation system for apple, peach and apricot orchards, as well as berries, feed grains, hay and pasture. The Bruggemann peaches were known as some of the best in the area.
“While it really doesn’t look like it now, it was a thriving operation,” said Hanford tour manager Russ Fabre on the practice tour Wednesday.
The couple’s son, Ludwig Bruggemann, was about 5 when two Jeeps drove up the road to the ranch. Army officers with papers stepped out to say, “You have two weeks to leave,” Ludwig remembered on his first visit back to the ranch as an adult.
The ranch was one of the properties seized in an area about half the size of Rhode Island to produce the plutonium that would fuel the nation’s first atomic bomb. It was exploded in the New Mexico desert, and the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, which helped end the war, would follow.
Ludwig’s father talked about his lost ranch for the rest of his life, his son said.
The federal government tore down the stone house the family lived in, the silo and a barn.
Still standing is a long stone building that the family called the “ranch house,” and Hanford officials call the warehouse. It likely was used for storing equipment. With it is the cook house.
Visitors who look up can pick out faces formed by stones on the warehouse chimney. The building’s arched windows are underlined with stones.
Down river is the former town of White Bluffs.
Settlers started building in 1861 on the north side of the Columbia River, but after a major flood in 1894 they moved to the south side of the river.
When a railroad line was built, the town moved again in 1913 to be closer to the new railroad depot. “Sagebrush Annie,” as the train was called, arrived once a week to provide one-day express delivery to the coast for the fruit grown along the Columbia River.
The White Bluffs Bank remains standing, but barely.
In its day it was said to be burglar-proof, though it was robbed at least twice.
Money from one robbery was never recovered after the suspected robber was killed by police. Legend has it that he buried the loot somewhere between White Bluffs and Moses Lake.
The bank, measuring just 25 by 35 feet, will be rehabilitated by fall, with the interior restored down to its gold leaf, French said.
Farther downriver was the town of Hanford, where the two-story high school remains. DOE plans to stabilize and retain only the shell of the building. Blue sky now shows through the empty windows as visitors look up to the roof.
The trees on the ground outside the school still are wrapped in the cables government employees used to pull them down after the town’s residents were forced to leave.
Elsewhere, rows of stumps mark where orchards once stood.
Some believe that the federal government destroyed the orchards to send a message to settlers that there would be no returning to their farms. Another possibility is that trees were removed for security so there would be no place for enemies to hide once plutonium production began, Fabre said.
When the government took over the town of Hanford, it had 250 residents. The population dropped to zero and then soared to 50,000 within six months as it became the site of the construction camp that built the wartime Hanford nuclear complex, Fabre said.
The population disappeared from the desert as quickly as it came, Fabre said. With much of the wartime construction finished, the first layoff covered 18,000 workers. Other wartime sites were still recruited workers, so they dispersed across the nation to jobs waiting elsewhere.