Take a literary tour of the Tri-Cities of southeast Washington, which has inspired poets, fantasy writers and historians with its rich mix of dramatic landscapes and history, from Kennewick Man to the Manhattan Project.
The Tri-Cities area of southeastern Washington may look sun-baked and windswept if you blow through it on the freeway, but these communities at the confluence of the Yakima, Snake and Columbia rivers — Kennewick, Richland and Pasco — are rich in literary inspiration. Several authors, from a prizewinning poet to a best-selling fantasy writer, have lived and worked here, and their books owe a debt to this region’s landscape and history.
To get there, on your next road trip east of the mountains, hang a right after you cross the Columbia River at Vantage, and head south along State Route 243. You’ll drive through a sere landscape punctuated with orchards and vineyards until the road meets back up with the Columbia as it bends eastward.
Rising to the north, the brown ridgeline called Wahluke Slope is part of Hanford Reach National Monument, an area encompassing the only non-tidal, free-flowing section of the Columbia River in Washington. Seventy years ago, the Reach was fenced off as a security buffer to the Hanford nuclear reservation.
A Tri-Cities reading list
Books mentioned in this article include:
The Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs(Ace Books).
“Plume” by Kathleen Flenniken(University of Washington Press).
“Made in Hanford” by Hill Williams (Washington State University Press).
“Atomic Frontier Days” by John M. Findlay and Bruce Hevly(University of Washington Press).
“On the Home Front” by Michele Stenehjem Gerber (University of Nebraska Press).
There’s still no public access to this portion of the Monument — but fans of Patricia Briggs’ urban fantasy series might easily imagine seeing a shape-shifting coyote streak through the sagebrush. A New York Times best-selling author based in Pasco, Briggs has witches, werewolves and vampires roaming through the Tri-Cities in her wildly popular Mercy Thompson series.
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Assuming you’ve dodged any supernatural creatures, cross the Columbia via the Vernita Bridge, heading for Richland on SR 24/240. Ahead lies Rattlesnake Mountain, claimed as a cultural site by the Yakama Nation, and asserted by local boosters to be the world’s tallest treeless mountain. Whether or not that’s true, it is inspiration for former Washington state Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken, who describes the peak as “mistress of dust storms, wildfires,/windswept and monochrome — ”
Flenniken grew up in Richland, the daughter of a white-collar employee of the Hanford nuclear production site in the 1960s. After college, she worked there, too, as an engineer. Even when her career shifted to Seattle and poetry, she turned her attention back to her childhood home. Flenniken’s award-winning collection of poems about Hanford, “Plume,” is a good way to enter the local landscape and mindset.
In 1943, the U.S. Army purchased 600 square miles along the Columbia in the Hanford Reach area. The government evicted the residents of the farming hamlets of White Bluffs and Hanford, then hired droves of engineers and construction workers to build the facilities that would house the Manhattan Project, a top-secret effort to create weapons-grade plutonium.
An architect was given three months to design a community that would house the influx of new arrivals. Streets were platted and named after Army engineers. Blueprints were drawn up for different housing options, and each was assigned a letter.
Richland’s “alphabet house” neighborhoods still stand, and some of Flenniken’s poems describe how these cookie-cutter neighborhoods molded Richland’s cohesive identity. From early on, community members were proud to play a role in whatever the government’s secret project was. Several nonfiction books document the transformation of this area from desert to nuclear reservation, and the unique culture that resulted — among them Hill Williams’ “Made in Hanford” and “Atomic Frontier Days” by John M. Findlay and Bruce Hevly.
This summer you can take a bus tour from Richland to the B Reactor at Hanford to view for yourself the world’s first full-scale plutonium production reactor. The site, decommissioned in 1968, underwent an extensive cleanup by the Department of Energy and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2008. Late last year it became part of the brand-new Manhattan Project National Historical Park. The DOE continues daily contamination monitoring of all areas open to the public.
From a distance, B Reactor looks like a massive stack of Legos. Once you get inside, it’s an engineering wonk’s dream: dials, pumps, meters and carefully calibrated systems on a colossal scale.
Genial volunteers, many of them retired Hanford nuclear engineers and physicists, serve as tour guides. They capably explain the physics behind plutonium production and the quantum leaps in engineering that took place at Hanford.
If you go
Visiting the Tri-Cities
B Reactor Tours: For tour information, go to manhattanprojectbreactor.hanford.gov/
The Reach Museum: Find hours, exhibits and more at visitthereach.org/
East Benton County Historical Society & Museum:ebchs.org/
This facility produced the plutonium used in the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Still posted in the plant, the front page of the Aug. 14, 1945, edition of the local newspaper proclaims, “PEACE! OUR BOMB CLINCHED IT!”
Colleen French, DOE program manager for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park at Hanford, notes that since the National Park Service became involved last year, the guides are receiving additional training in “how to share the more complicated context” of Hanford: the ethics and impacts of enabling nuclear warfare, the health effects on Hanford workers, and the long-lasting environmental ramifications.
By the 1980s, Hanford had become the most contaminated nuclear site in the western world. For good background on that topic, read “On the Home Front.” Author and historian Michele Stenehjem Gerber spent more than a decade digging into stacks of declassified DOE documents to understand and write about the government policies and actions that led to Hanford’s toxic legacy.
Today Gerber is one of the women profiled in the “Daughters of Hanford” exhibit at The REACH Museum, an architecturally imposing interpretive center that overlooks the Columbia River in Richland. The REACH is a carefully designed destination with hands-on activities for kids and permanent exhibits on the Manhattan Project, Hanford Engineering Works and Hanford Reach National Monument.
The East Benton County Historical Society & Museum, just a 10-minute drive away in Kennewick’s Keewaydin Park, is an even more intriguing venue. Here you’ll find a very lightly curated jumble of curiosities — from arrowheads to ladies’ fans to prison ledgers, and a modest display on Kennewick Man. To learn more about the controversy surrounding this ancient skeleton, which was discovered 20 years ago on the banks of the nearby Columbia River, you’ll find a great reading list on the website for the Burke Museum, Washington state’s museum of natural history and culture.
Before leaving the Tri-Cities, stroll along the Columbia — there are trails and parks on both sides of the river. You won’t be seeing what Kennewick Man saw 9,000 years ago, but give yourself a moment to contemplate the powerful waterway and region that have sustained and inspired people for millennia.