West Richland -- Thumbnail History

  • By Kate Kershner
  • Posted 8/29/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10441

West Richland, located in Benton County in the Columbia Basin, is considered part of the Tri-Cities, along with Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland. Historically, Indian tribes camped and fished the Yakima River around the West Richland area. Near the turn of the twentieth century, settlers began to enter the region and create small irrigation systems for farming. Two small towns, Heminger City and Enterprise merged to form West Richland and after that, in 1955, the town was formally incorporated. As nearby Richland's population exploded with the establishment of the Hanford Engineering Works, West Richland maintained a smaller agrarian community. The recent influx of viniculture and wineries has added new industry and tourism, and by the 2010 census the population had grown to 11,811.

Early Days

The Chemnapum and Yakama tribes occupied the Yakima Valley and the area now known as West Richland. The tribes fished the Yakima River for salmon near what is now Horn Rapids Dam. They kept a longhouse on the land until the early twentieth century. 

By 1805, Captain William Clark (1770-1838) of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Canadian explorer David Thompson (1770-1857) had both come the Yakima Valley, and noted robust Indian fishing activity. In 1818, the North West Company established Fort Nez Perce near what is now the town of Wallula. (Fort Nez Perce at Wallula was later renamed Fort Walla Walla -- not to be confused with the U.S. Army's Fort Walla Walla located on what is present-day Walla Walla.) Trappers began to establish themselves in the area, and in September 1853 the Longmire Wagon Train passed through what is now West Richland. The first wagon caravan to pass through the Cascades Mountains using Naches Pass, the Longmire expedition crossed the Yakima River near Horn Rapids on its way through the region. 

For a two-year period between 1863 and 1865, West Richland was included in what was called Ferguson County, before the handful of settlers that lived in the area (which included most of present-day Kittitas and Yakima counties) decided they didn't need any government administration. West Richland became part of Yakima County in 1865, and was folded into Benton County in 1905.

Settlement and Irrigation

In the 1870s, settlement began to thicken in the Yakima Valley. Private irrigation was introduced in 1879; farmers drew water from the Yakima River, creating small, individual irrigations systems to water the arid shrub-steppe landscape to make grazing lands for cattle. The McNeill family was one of the first to settle the West Richland area. Alex McNeill became the sheriff of Benton County in 1905.

In 1892, the Yakima Irrigation and Improvement Company built the first iteration of the Horn Rapids Dam, which provided irrigation to the area.

A School and a Road 

By November 1889, a school district was formed to meet demand as families were now dispersed throughout the area. Hannah Van Horn became West Richland's first teacher; classes were held in her home until a school was built in 1896. Van Horn was paid a dollar a day for her work. After the construction of the Van Horn school, children in what is now West Richland had to cross the Yakima River on their daily commute. They braved the choppy waters in a flimsy rowboat, which didn't sit well with at least one mother. Lena Fallon gathered signatures and petitioned the Yakima County Commissioners to build a bridge. The bridge, built north of present-day Van Giesen Street, was christened Fallon Bridge in her honor.

Well before wineries provided revenue from out-of-town visitors, West Richland had its first brush with tourism. In 1912, a few South Dakotan businessmen decided the nation needed a cross-country automobile highway. They plotted a route, rallied funds, and agitated for improvements and signage at a time when roads were badly maintained and poorly marked. The Yellowstone Trail Highway, one of the first highways marketed for automobile leisure travel, cut a path through what would become West Richland. By 1917, the route allowed for some of the first road trippers and early tourists, who entered the town on the Fallon Bridge. But as federal highways were built -- and as the Depression picked the pocketbooks of the middle class -- the appeal of lesser-used routes like the Yellowstone Trail diminished.

Heminger + Enterprise = West Richland

Through the Depression and World War II, agriculture dominated the place now known as West Richland. But it was that name -- West Richland -- that caused the first public issue. For most its history, the area didn't have a name to call itself. So when Carl and Vera Heminger arrived in 1948, they snapped up 80 acres of land with the idea of making it a "model city" with the name of Heminger City (History of West Richland: 1805-1943). But Heminger overestimated the appeal of his name: In February 1949, residents voted to name the city Enterprise. That same year, Carl Heminger, undaunted, founded Heminger City about a mile away from Enterprise.

After World War II the area began to modernize. By 1948, the Rural Electric Association installed power lines, and telephone service was offered. A fire department was formed in 1953. That same year, the residents of Enterprise and Heminger voted to combine the towns under the name of West Richland. By a vote of 99 to 39, both Enterprise and Heminger City were rechristened West Richland. Carl Heminger was disappointed, but he still had a healthy appetite for grandiosity. "I'm leaving. I feel this was an attack on me personally. I don't know where I'll go, but there are 47 other states with no Heminger City, so I have a big field" ("Heminger City's Name Goes So Heminger Will Go, Too").

Not long after, West Richland held a vote on June 7, 1955, to incorporate. In August 1955, the town limits were extended to finally annex all the rest of Heminger's acres.

In another curious episode of town history, the Brotherhood -- a group dedicated to communal living -- once resided in the area. Dates for the colony's residence (and its general philosophy) are murky, but the group's legacy lives on in what West Richland still refers to as the Brotherhood Subdivision (or Brotherhood Addition), a few hundred acres that were annexed in 1956.

Unlike its close neighbor Richland, West Richland did not receive an influx of residents from the building and eventual operation of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. When, in 1958, Richland voted to incorporate, its population had reached 22,970. By contrast, at West Richland's 1955 incorporation the town had only 600 residents.

The relatively small size of West Richland didn't exclude it from bizarre political episodes. By 1959, the town had around 1,000 residents, but one thing it didn't have was a mayor. Mayor Robert Marlow had moved to Sitka, Alaska, in September 1959, but failed to officially resign his post as mayor. This meant the City Council's hands were tied; it wanted to appoint a new mayor, but couldn't. "It has placed the Council in a somewhat confusing situation," council H. J. Barott noted, with perhaps a dose of understatement ("Mayor Moves; W. Richland Confused"). The situation resolved itself when Barrot stepped in as mayor pro-tem.

By 1965, West Richland was in dire straits financially. Between 1960 and 1965, a one-time surplus of $6,107 had dropped to a deficit of $607. "While this is not meant to be critical of those who administer the financial affairs of the town, it is necessary to inform them of the circumstances as they exist," state auditor Robert V. Graham (b. 1921) cautioned ("West Richland Warned of Deficit"). The city eventually pulled itself out of financial danger, but the warning might have prompted a 1966 drive to merge with Richland, a proposition voters ultimately rejected. 

A Pastor and His Crimes

As West Richland continued slowly growing, there were a few scrapes that got the little town in the headlines, and some were downright tawdry. In 1992, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in West Richland made national headlines. A Tri-City Herald reporter began investigating claims from the pastor that he was a former Mafia hitman, responsible for 28 deaths.

Instead of uncovering one sensational history, the reporter unearthed another: The reporter found that the minister had actually murdered his wife and strangled a girlfriend in 1970, and was currently jumping parole while he preached the Good Book in West Richland.

The minister later told his congregation he had lied about why he was in jail to impress his current wife, who had been a prison pen pal -- and perhaps a little more inclined to start a relationship with a tough Mafioso than a wife-killer. After the true story came to light, the minister was extradited to Illinois, despite some church members rallying around him.

The Horse Manure Problem

West Richland's population stayed under 5,000 until the early 1990s. But a sense of small-town pride remained. After the population hit 6,500 in 1995, an ordinance to limit the amount of horse manure left on sidewalks met with significant backlash when horse riders claimed it was worded in such a way to make it illegal for them to hop in the saddle on city streets.

One resident said, "We live in a rural environment and we love it that way. We don't care if there's a little bit of horse poop on the ground" ("Town's Horse Owners Get Their Dander Up Over Ordinance Limiting Manure Left Behind"). Seventy horse owners demanded the ordinance be rewritten to ensure that West Richland's streets remained friendly to horses. 

The Water Problem

Significant growth in the area took place from 1995 to 2005; in that time the population nearly doubled to 10,210. With population growth came fear that as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation slowly phased out operation, jobs would disappear from the region. One of the most pressing issues was water use and water rights. Family farmers were finding that the rights to the water on their land were more valuable than the crops they cultivated.

As West Richland expanded, the town was eager to get that water for the town's use. But a 1977 law made it difficult for a farmer to transfer water rights. Originally intended to stop corporate takeovers of farms, it was broad enough to make it difficult for family farmers to sell their water rights to a municipality. In May 2011, Washington Governor Gary Locke (b. 1950) signed a bill to ease restrictions and expedite water transfers.

What's in a Name?

Throughout West Richland's history -- tracing back to the beginning if you count the Heminger/Enterprise debates -- there were persistent efforts to change the name of the city. In 1978, the issue again came up when Mayor Fred Burton suggested a name change, unhappy with the confusion with nearby (and much more substantial) Richland. The proposal stalled, but would reignite in 2006, as a faction of the Chamber of Commerce pushed for the name "Red Mountain." However, the Red Mountain Winery Association was not pleased with the proposal and the idea was dropped. 

In 2012, West Richland's uneasiness with its name again surfaced when Mayor Donna Noski proposed a gradual departure from the name West Richland over the course of a few years. Pointing to a desire for the town to have its own identity as something other than a suburb of bigger Richland, Noski said, "a sense of community builds around a name. I think that really helps it feel more like a home and a town that's yours and not just a bedroom community. In terms of issues we have around economic growth, it help us to attract people directly to West Richland as opposed to them thinking they're in some other city" ("West Richland Mayor Considering Name Change"). 

By 2013, the town was still entertaining the thought of changing its name, and even had the City Council forming sub-committees and entertaining community meetings on the issue. However, there was still not an overwhelming uproar to change the name. As one resident said, "all of us who were raised in this area know it as West Richland and I'm sure the city engineers have other things to do" ("West Richland Trying to Change Their Name").

Wine Country 

From 2002 to 2010 West Richland became one of the fastest-growing cities in the Pacific Northwest  as it continued to benefit from the expanding viniculture industry. (Washington saw a nearly 300 percent increase in wineries from 2000 to 2010.) By 2009, West Richland had expanded the area zoned for industrial growth to make room for wine-industry-related facilities for grape crushing and warehouses and the like. During these years tourist revenue and revenue from nearby Red Mountain wineries strengthened. In 2009, West Richland's Black Heron Spirits Distillery and Port became one of the few distilleries in the state.

In 2013, West Richland began looking into adding another feature to appeal even more to wineries. After the Port of Kennewick bought the Tri-City Raceway in 2008, West Richland began trying to figure out how to leverage the space for development and growth. A proposal in May 2013 called for a winery effluent plant that would treat and mitigate the by-products of the winemaking process. It is said that the effluent plant would attract wineries by adding an environmentally friendly disposal method, while also saving them a bit of money. 

As of 2013, the population of West Richland was estimated at 12,184.

Sources: Pat Allstead and Bonnie Bretz. "History of West Richland," West Richland Chamber of Commerce website accessed July 2013 (http://www.westrichlandchamber.org/contact/history/); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Richland" (by Jim Kershner), "North West Company builds Fort Nez Perce on future site of Wallula" (by David Wilma), "First emigrant wagon train crosses Naches Pass through the Cascade Mountains in the fall of 1853" (by Kit Oldham), "First trains cross the Northern Pacific Railroad bridge spanning the Columbia River between Pasco and Kennewick on December 3, 1887" (by Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed July 2013); "Heminger City's Name Goes So Heminger Will Go, Too," The Seattle Times, December 22, 1953, p. 12; "Enterprise Votes to Change Name," Ibid., March 16, 1945, p. 2; "Cleric Preaches 48 Hours in Record-Setting Talk," Ibid., February 8, 1955, p. 13; "6 New Cities To Share In Liquor Profits," Ibid., September 6, 1955, p. 7; "Mayor Moves; W. Richland Confused," Ibid., October 7, 1959, p. 37; "Dial Phones to Link 3 Towns," Ibid., March 11, 1960, p. 44; "West Richland Warned of Deficit," Ibid., July 14, 1965, p. 47; "Seattle's Population Up 30,000 Since '60 Count," Ibid., July 25, 1968, p. 63; "West Richland seeks new identity," Ibid., December 30, 1978, p. 9; Nicholas K. Geranious, "Pastor's Murderous Past," Ibid., January 7, 1992, p. A-1; "Town's Horse Owners Get Their Dander Up Over Ordinance Limiting Manure Left Behind," Ibid., September 17, 1995, p. B-1; Jason Hagey, "Tehe and Yakitat All But Lost in History of Benton County," Ibid., January 12, 1997, p. B-8; "Tri-Cities Leaders Press for More Water," Ibid., January 9, 2000, p. B-4; "Small City Claims Water Law is All Wet," Ibid., May 10, 2000, p. B-4; Rebecca Cook, "Water-rights Law New Tool Against Drought," Ibid., May 11, 2001, p. B-5; "Renaming Area Battle Looms," The Spokesman-Review, November 26, 1953, p. 6; "Gates Named New Mayor," Ibid., March 10, 1960, p. 6; "Wife-killer Plans Return to Richland," Ibid., February 21, 1992, p. B-1; "West Richland Residents Protest Bridge's Closure," Spokane Daily Chronicle, August 9, 1957, p. 3; "West Richland Growing Fast," Ibid., January 5, 1982, p. 6; "West Richland Names Mayor," Ibid., August 19, 1964, p. 5; "West Richland Petition Gets Hearing Tomorrow," Ibid., November 17, 1954, p. 3; "Church Divided by Revelation," The Vindicator, January 7, 1992, p. A-4; "Columbia River Images" website accessed July 2013 (http://columbiariverimages.com/Regions/Places/fort_walla_walla.html); "2008 Annual Budget," The City of West Richland; "The Yellowstone Trail History," Yellowstone Trail Association website accessed July 2013 (http://www.yellowstonetrail.org/); "West Richland Economic Development Plan," Barney & Worth, Inc., June 2008; Jane Sander, "West Richland Mayor Considering Name Change," KNDO website accessed July 2013 (http://www.nbcrightnow.com/story/22463141/west-richland-mayor-considering-city-name-change); Frances Watson, "West Richland Trying to Change Their Name," KEPR website accessed July 2013 (http://www.keprtv.com/home/video/West-Richland-trying-to-change-their-name-209273811.html); Kristi Pihl, "Effluent Treatment Project Designed to Attract Wineries," Tri-City Herald, May 19, 2013, website accessed July 2013 (http://www.tri-cityherald.com/2013/05/19/2401129/effluent-treatment-project-designed.html); Ruth Swain, "Red Mountain Development Among Keys to Growth," Ibid., March 28, 2010, website accessed July 2013 (http://www.tri-cityherald.com/2010/03/28/952927/red-mountain-development-among.html); John Trumbo, "West Richland Growth Area Expands," Ibid., January 27, 2009, website accessed July 2013 (http://www.tri-cityherald.com/2009/01/27/459123/west-richland-growth-area-expands.html); Kristi Pihl, "Tri-City Raceway Plan on Track for Success," Ibid., May 19, 2013, website accessed July 2013 (http://www.tri-cityherald.com/2013/05/19/2401122/tri-city-raceway-plan-on-track.html); "2006 Comprehensive Plan," City of West Richland; "2010 Census," website accessed July 2013 (http://factfinder2.census.gov/), "West Richland Tries to Save War Target," Ellensburg Daily Record, December 6, 2003, p. A-2.

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