HANFORD REACH > Oral Histories

Agnes, Catherine, Monica, and Theresa: the Borden sisters

When the government determined that this would be the area to work on the Manhattan project, families were given thirty days, some of them two weeks notice, to move. It was after May that year that most of the people were let go. Our father was the first white boy born in White Bluffs; Theresa was the last baby born. And he was born in 1898, and she was born in 1943. Our family history was there since the mid-1800s.

This was one of the major areas for fishing for the Indians, the Wanapum. That became a problem when they started putting the dams in... My father and mother helped the Indians with government paperwork, for many of those years that we’re talking about now: the thirties, forties. They had the right to fish just below our place; there was a big rock bar, and that’s where they pitched their tents and put up their drying nets. And they would come in after the Area was closed. They’d come through the Area. They came down and crossed, because there was no fence there, and they had been there for a millennium. So they just kept coming across the Area.

Johnny Buck was always at our house. And our fathers, I would say there was a pretty strong bond between them. Nobody knew how old Johnny Buck was. But they grew up together over the years, from the time Dad was born, until we moved. Johnny was like a practicing priest: a medicine man, and a sage; he was very highly thought of... [One] thing that Dad done, maybe him and Johnny had some kind of an agreement. They had a large burial ground. And Daddy protected that with his life. Because anybody that was going over to dig beads or arrowheads done it at night; they knew they weren't supposed to. And many a night he would get up, and see a fire over there. And he would go down, row across the river, and make sure that they filled in the graves that they had dug into, and put everything back that they had taken. Sometimes I think he wouldn’t get home until noon, the next day.

There’s a very sad line in the books written about the Area. The question was, how did the Army Corps choose this area for Hanford, this wing of the Manhattan Project? There’s a very sad line, and it reads, “They chose the area because there were an insignificant number of white people, and negligible Indians.” And I'm one of those insignificant ‘negligibles...’ Daddy and Johnny were sitting right there where you are one day and Johnny said something to the effect that he didn't feel negligible. And Daddy says “Well: I’m insignificant...” Johnny did not feel negligible. And Daddy did not feel negligible.

Lots of people think White Bluffs is just a big vast desert. The fact is it had lush orchards along the Columbia River. And in that day and age, the twenties, thirties, forties, the fruit from those orchards was transported by refrigerated railroad cars. And the cars were refrigerated with big cakes of ice that were made at the ice plant that my father was responsible for. So that's what kept that fruit going from coast to coast... This was pre-Hanford. We had to go through peach orchards, to get to school.

White Bluffs had no trees. But they had the river. And orchards. And in the spring that river was chock full of logs. And that's how they built the houses. They had a sawmill, and whoever caught the log in the river and got it in, then he had the lumber from it. And they built their boats; they had a boat shop there, they built boats… Some pretty fancy ones. Great trees came downriver all the time, because there were no dams to stop them... This is a house from White Bluffs. They moved the houses; you had to buy the house in Hanford, or White Bluffs, for two hundred dollars. And then they put ‘em on truck wheels, and they moved them. This house was made with river logs; this house has what they called “donkey rigs,” brought by the river.

And it was very self-contained; there was a bank, a post office, a drugstore, hotel, a couple of grocery stores, and a theater, which was also part of the livery stable. The “Rawleigh man” came with his car, and he had all the spices, and vanilla, and the brush man came… And there was every denomination of church; if they didn’t have a church building they met in somebody’s house, which was ours, a couple of times. There was a train to come in to White Bluffs, and down the river; it was part of the Milwaukee line. I think it would run more in the fruit season than in the wintertime though they shipped a lot of sheep in and out. Anyway, we would get on; it went from Othello to White Bluffs, I guess it just went on down to Hanford. Us kids used to ride it by ourselves. We got to climb up the ladder and sit up in the little crow’s nest, and see the whole world! You had a vista dome! You know, we just thought we were king birds. There wasn’t too much between White Bluffs and Othello to get in trouble with… There still isn’t.

Then Hanford and White Bluffs were closed off; Richland kept going; it became the government town... Locke Island was not claimed. That island was ours for an impossible use, because you couldn’t get into the Area. We were always supposed to be able to return when the war effort was over. We’d be glowing in the dark, now... Finally, Mom just gave it to the government... We had no access to it; it was inside the Area. And it was a hundred years, or something like that, before we could have gone back.

You would be challenged to imagine forty thousand people almost overnight descending on that… I’ll use the word desert. From all over the United States, New York, the South, trainloads of people came in. And it was trailer houses, forever and ever and ever...

Thirty years ago we would not have discussed this; you were not to talk about it. Let's say forty years ago. People say, “Why didn’t you say anything?” You were not to talk about it... We really did not know that we were doing plutonium for the atomic bomb. Never heard
of it… We did not know.

And when our father did come home after being scrubbed raw, in white coveralls, a couple of times: we just knew that he got too close to radiation. But we certainly did not know what my father was doing. In fact, our father dying of cancer: there was this big effort to give remuneration, for the loss of your father. So you went through all these interviews: "What did your dad do, where was he, did he ever get in contact with radiation..." We would have never known that! The people asking the questions would probably have known more than we ever did.

And all of us worked there, at one time or another, when we became young adults. Once, they took just my shoes. I stuck one foot out of my panel truck… Everybody, these guys in white suits were hollering. Well, I thought I’d better get out of there! So, I stuck one foot out… And somebody screamed, “No!” So I took it right back in… So they took my shoes. And my truck. Those weren’t good moments… All I did was deliver documents, and sometimes mail. And I had this nice little panel truck. I was in the right place, at the wrong time… I never got the shoes back. I lost many a pair of gloves and coveralls. Cause each time you’d come out, you were wanded down. In my case I had to go into all the Areas every day, and sometime the inner Areas inside of the big Areas. You all went through a metal detector, each time… Anyway. They would just take my gloves off and hand me another pair… A clean pair...

You just didn’t talk about it. You never know what the next man was doing, or the next woman. After the dropping of the bomb, we knew. We learned that what we made here contributed to that. But you really did not have any detailed knowledge, I should say understanding, of what it meant. I didn’t have any understanding… Well, I don't think anybody had.

They truly didn’t get the money to move on; they got it afterwards, not for three or four years, some of them. But they still had to go. They had to leave in the spring, and the crops were already set on the trees… The peaches, and the cherries… Remember those apricots?