The tiny bank of the White Bluffs ghost town looks as it did when its doors opened circa 1908, welcoming customers into an upscale building that reflected the growing wealth of the region.
It’s the only building that remains standing in White Bluffs, once the social and business center for the farming communities of the Hanford area.
For the first time, visitors will be able to step inside the historic structure north of Richland when this year’s National Manhattan Project Historical Park tour season starts this week.
The government tore down almost all buildings after it seized 670 square miles of grass and brush of the shrub steppe landscape along the Columbia River, displacing settlers and Native Americans.
A then-secret nuclear reservation would be created to produce plutonium as the Allies raced the Nazis to develop the world’s first atomic bombs during World War II.
“We almost lost her,” said Colleen French, the National Park program manager for the Department of Energy at Hanford.
Before an extensive rehabilitation of the 25-by-30-foot bank began, the southeast wall had collapsed.
Inside, you could see the sky through the roof where its trusses had fallen. You had to be careful where you walked so as to not fall through to the foundation where pieces of the floor were missing.
“Most people considered it too far gone,” French said.
But its supporters persevered on a multi-year rehabilitation project.
It was that important, they believed, to help people understand the sacrifices made during WWII.
By 1943, the people of White Bluffs, which had about 1,500 residents, had sent most of its able-bodied men off to war.
Then the U.S. government told them it needed more from them.
“Their story, their sacrifice, is why our team was focused so much on getting this (bank) rehabilitated,” she said. “We wanted to honor the people of the townsite.
”They had already given their sons to the war effort and then they were to give their homes, their farms, their life’s work for a top secret government project,“ French said.
Her team wanted a place to take visitors to help them visualize life before the Manhattan Project and help them understand what residents gave up, packing up and leaving just weeks after the government told them their property was being seized.
White Bluffs once had a hotel, newspaper, ice cream parlor, dentist office, law office, real estate office, car dealership and gas station.
But the bank was the only business in town with double-wide sidewalks, which met at the bank’s front door, giving people a place to chat.
As plans were made to rehabilitate the bank, French’s team was warned that it could do more harm than good. The building was in such fragile condition that work on it could cause it to collapse.
”DOE had never done any maintenance on the building and it had deteriorated significantly over the years,“ French said.
After each strong wind storm, her team went out to the bank near the Columbia River, hoping to find it still standing.
It was not until Una Gilmartin, a structural engineer and historical preservationist, came up with a plan to deconstruct the most damaged sections of the building and then rebuild that it began to look like the building could be saved.
The failed roof, the parapet that rises at the front of the building, the floor and other collapsing areas were removed, and the walls braced.
As the building was reassembled, rebar and grouting were added inside its walls, which were constructed of an early form of concrete block with two interlocking sides that were fitted together.
Rebar and beams were added to the roof to tie the building together and keep it from tumbling in a earthquake.
Inside, rain-soaked plaster that had pulled away from the wall was repaired or replaced. Flakes of the robins egg blue interior paint were collected to duplicate the color.
The floor had been covered with remnants of red, white and blue linoleum. Although it could have been replicated, it is not known when the linoleum was added, so the original oak floor was rehabilitated instead.
One of the challenges of the rehabilitation was the bank vault.
The bank is a small building, just large enough for a lobby with a teller’s window, a manager’s office and the vault.
The vault had been incorporated into the walls of the bank when the building was constructed, and bank managers had bragged that the structure was burglar-proof.
In fact, it was robbed twice. Money from one robbery was never recovered after the suspected robber was killed by law enforcement. Legend has it that he buried the loot somewhere between White Bluffs and Moses Lake.
When the bank was in use, the vault door was surrounded by decorative cast iron. But by the time plans for rehabilitation were being drawn up in 2013, it was long gone.
There is one known historical photograph of the interior of the bank. The photo, dating to the early 1920s, was used to search the internet in the hopes of finding a similar decorative surround.
Instead, an exact match was found at a turn-of-the-century bank in Elmira, New York. The design was digitized and an exact replica was cast for the White Bluffs Bank.
Whether the bank will be furnished will be decided by the National Park Service.
”We tried to do the right thing, to have our designs provide for future public access, to make our improvements invisible to visitors and to ensure the building would endure for the next several hundred years,“ French wrote in an application for a historic preservation award.
Last week the rehabilitation project was given the 2018 Washington State Historic Preservation Office’s Valerie Sivinski Award for Outstanding Rehabilitation.
Visitors to the Manhattan Project National Historical Park at Hanford can sign up for either a bus tour of pre-Manhattan Project facilities or historic B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor.
Tours, which in recent years have been held on selected weekdays and Saturdays, have been expanded to include holidays, including Memorial Day and the Sunday before it, and July 4.
The tour season starts this week and ends mid-November.
Tours leave from an interim visitor center at 2000 Logston Blvd., Richland. Participants on either tour younger than 18 must be accompanied by an adult and a signed release form is required.
To register for the tour telling the story of the lives of settlers and Native Americans before the Manhattan Project, go to tours.hanford.gov/historicTours. Registration for B Reactor tours is at manhattanprojectbreactor.hanford.gov.
Registration also is available for both tours by phone at 509-376-1647.
Officials also are interested in hearing from residents who were displaced by creation of the Hanford nuclear reservation and their descendants to arrange tours and as they prepare to hang the Park Service arrowhead sign at the White Bluffs Bank. They can call the registration number.
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