Vault at historic White Bluffs bank opened for first time in decades

Michael Warren, top, and Lloyd Hink, both of DGR*Grant, work to loosen the door to the vault at the historic White Bluffs Bank at Hanford.
Michael Warren, top, and Lloyd Hink, both of DGR*Grant, work to loosen the door to the vault at the historic White Bluffs Bank at Hanford. Tri-City Herald

The roof has come off the tiny White Bluffs bank and the windows are gone.

It stands as a shell in the shrub-steppe lands of the Hanford nuclear reservation, unused since the federal government confiscated land for the Manhattan Project in 1943.

There’s not much left to see inside, except one intriguing feature — a vault with a sealed steel door.

The thick-sided concrete vault had been incorporated into the walls of the bank when it was built in 1909, and bank officials had bragged that the structure was burglar-proof.

Thursday the vault was opened for the first time in decades.

It was part of work to rehabilitate the historic building, which is under consideration for inclusion in the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

Officials weren’t sure what they would find inside. They knew the vault had been opened at least once during the years it belonged to the federal government.

Kirk Christensen, manager of the B Reactor Preservation Project for Mission Support Alliance, had talked to a worker who remembered the vault being welded closed in the 1970s. No one seems to remember why.

The vault did not give up its secrets easily.

Sparks flew as Michael Warren of DGR*Grant ground away the welds on the vault. But the door did not budge. Three DGR*Grant employees and many tools, including a pry bar, were needed to loosen it.

As workers stood back, Lloyd Hink of DGR*Grant Construction pulled open the door.

First out of the vault came the odor of animals that had made themselves at home inside.

Then, sunlight shone on the bright eyes of two startled mice.

After Christensen brushed aside some of the debris of plaster chips and sticks, there was the vault’s treasure: a single darkened penny.

Its date said 1975.

Christensen had been expecting to find it. The worker who told him about the vault being welded shut had remembered dropping a nickel and a penny through a hole left after the combination lock had been removed.

But workers waited to look for the nickel until Hanford’s biological control team had been called to clear the vault.

Because the bank is included in legislation creating the new national park, the federal government is required to preserve it and make it accessible to the public. It’s one of just a few pre-World War II structures still standing at Hanford.

Land along the Columbia River was picked to build the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor as the nation raced to produce an atomic weapon during World War II, knowing that Nazi Germany had the same goal.

The people in the small communities of White Bluffs and Hanford had their homes and businesses seized by the federal government for the secret project.

“These people have a story,” Christensen said. “If all the buildings go away, their story goes away.”

Part of the Manhattan Project National Park at Hanford is expected to tell the story of the settlers, first attracted by the promise of the Homestead Act’s 160 acres and later responding to developers’ advertisements for acreage irrigated with Columbia River water.

Prices for the produce grown there were booming as the United States entered World War II, said Colleen French, the Department of Energy national park program manager at Hanford.

“It’s important that we honor the contributions of people who built the town sites under difficult conditions with great success,” she said.

The two towns, serving the families on the orchards and farms that surrounded them, were flourishing communities with an ice cream parlor, a barber shop and a Sears, Roebuck and Co. store.

At the center of White Bluffs sat the bank, at the only place in town with a double-wide sidewalk. French imagines that people gathered there to chat.

The only building that the federal government left standing in White Bluffs was the bank, measuring just 25 feet by 30 feet. Inside was a lobby with a teller’s window, a manager’s office and the vault.

The plaster walls were robin’s egg blue with a gold scroll design at the top. A chandelier provided light and two pot-bellied stoves warmed the space. Bits of linoleum found under the base molding show that the pattern seen in old black and white photos was a patriotic red, white and blue.

Construction work on the building began only after extensive consultation with the park service to come up with a plan, French said.

Rather than restoring the building, officials settled on rehabilitation.

“We are bringing it back to life but not using every original material,” French said. It will not have to be treated as an artifact, but can be visited by the public.

Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates of California was hired for its historic expertise to do the design and engineering work, and DGR*Grant Construction of Richland is doing the construction work.

The construction company started with removing what little that was left of the roof, said Ernie Warren, the DGR*Grant field work supervisor. Only three of about 20 trusses were still intact. A bat house was hung on a pole for displaced bats.

The floor had deteriorated until the crawl space could be seen in many places. It was removed down to the dirt beneath it.

Careful work went into removing the door jambs and trim, the backdoor from the manager’s office and the window sashes and trim.

The wood work will be restored and installed back into the bank. A lab has been commissioned to identify the type of wood used, from fir for the floor to mahogany for the window frames.

The decorative cast iron surround that framed the vault is gone. It had been assembled from a kit that supplied the pieces. But an identical surround has been located in New York and will be copied, Christensen said.

The bank building was constructed of an early form of concrete blocks, then called liquid stone. They were made on site from river rock and sand in two pieces, with front and back pieces joined together.

It was a building material that the historic architecture firm had not seen before, Christensen said.

The next step will be pouring concrete for footings to support a new floor. Then the walls will be shored up to repair the masonry.

Rehabilitation of the bank should be completed in early 2016, French said.

“We’re trying to replicate it to make it look like that era so people can enjoy it,” Ernie Warren said.

But additions like rebar in the masonry should make it sturdier than when it was built in 1909 and advertised as burglar-proof.

The bank was robbed 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.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews