Kennewick -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 3/02/2008
  • Essay 8499
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The site of Kennewick, on the west side of the Columbia River between the mouths of the Yakima and Snake rivers, has long been an ancient area of human habitation. The bones of the so-called Kennewick Man, dated at 9,200 years ago, were discovered in the city's riverbank. In more recent centuries, the site was an important gathering spot for various tribes, including the Umatilla, Wallowa, Wanapum, Nez Perce and Yakama tribes, who found abundant fish and often wintered in this relatively mild valley. Lewis and Clark came through in 1805 and 1806, followed by fur trader David Thompson in 1811 and by Alexander Ross in 1812. Non-Indian settlement came slowly because of the arid nature of the land (known as shrub-steppe), although stockmen drove cattle and horses through the area beginning in the 1860s. Kennewick first sprang into existence as a bustling railroad construction camp in 1884, when the Northern Pacific Railway started laying track on the west side of the Columbia River. Yet Kennewick did not truly become established until 1902, after irrigation made farming possible. Kennewick -- along with Pasco, just across the Columbia River -- slowly grew into a small railroad and agricultural center with a population of about 1,918 by 1940. World War II changed the city forever, as thousands of workers poured into Kennewick and neighboring Richland to work on the Hanford Engineer Works, a secret project at nearby Hanford to build an atomic bomb. By 1950, Kennewick had more than 10,000 residents. The Tri-Cities -- as the Pasco-Kennewick-Richland area came to be called -- prospered through the second half of the twentieth century; none more than Kennewick, which became a transportation, agricultural, and technology hub. By 1980, Kennewick had grown into the largest of the Tri-Cities with a population of 34,397.  As of 2007, Kennewick had an estimated population of about 62,250, making it the 12th largest city in the state.

The Grand Rendezvous

Kennewick Man is the oldest known inhabitant of the area -- and among the oldest known inhabitants of the continent. His skeleton has been dated at 9,200 years old, making it the oldest nearly complete skeleton ever found in North America. Two young hydroplane racing fans found his bones in 1996 embedded in the bank of the Columbia River at Kennewick’s Columbia Park. The find sparked years of scientific and tribal controversy, yet one fact is beyond dispute: Kennewick Man proves that humans have been roaming the area for a very, very long time.

The spot where the Snake enters the Columbia was long a famous tribal rendezvous spot (sometimes called the Grand Rendezvous). The Indian village called Chemna, where, slightly to the east, the Yakima enters the Columbia, was also an established gathering spot. Tribes commonly camped, fished, and wintered all along the eight-mile stretch between those two river mouths.

The Kennewick Courier in 1903 quoted an “old Indian” as saying that the Kennewick Valley "was a favorite camping place for the Indians all over the state of Washington and portions of Idaho" because of its mild climate and low elevation (about 341 feet above sea level near the river).

"When the inclement weather of the higher altitudes set in, they would descend in the low and mild valley ... and take up their abode for the winter," the paper quoted the unnamed Indian as saying (Lyman).

Explorers and Fur Traders

Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) certainly found it to be a well-used area when they arrived in 1805 and 1806. They reported that Indians “gathered in great numbers to view us” at the Snake-Columbia confluence, the site of today’s Sacajawea State Park. When Clark rowed upstream to the mouth of the Yakima, paddling directly past today’s Kennewick, he reported a number of mat-covered Indian lodges. He also reported “incrediable” numbers of spawned-out salmon.

When fur trader Alexander Ross (1783-1856) came through in 1811, he observed that the scenery at the mouth of the Yakima “surpassed in picturesque beauty anything we had yet seen," which was an unusually generous description of this treeless, sagebrush country. More typical was the remark of Hudson’s Bay Company governor George Simpson (1792-1860), who in 1825 called it "the most sterile tract country perhaps in North America" (Van Arsdol).

However, the site of Kennewick apparently boasted a lowland meadow of lush, green bunchgrass because traders from the Hudson's Bay outpost at Wallula used to cut hay there and bring it downriver about 20 miles on rafts to feed cattle and horses. However, most settlement in the region from the 1830s to the 1880s was centered on the comparatively lush Walla Walla River valley, far to the southeast.

Steam and Rail

Steamboat traffic began on the on this stretch of the Columbia in 1859, spurred on by tales of gold in British Columbia, but the boats steamed right past the future sites of Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland. The area remained sparsely populated through the 1860s and 1870s, inhabited only by a few hardy stockmen running cattle and horses into the bunchgrass meadows, and the bands of Indians who still fished and camped near the rivers.

Towns in the area we now call the Tri-Cities didn't spring up until the approach of the railroads in 1879. The area's original town was Ainsworth, on the north side of the Snake River's mouth, south of present day Pasco. It was a railroad camp for the construction of the Northern Pacific Railway, which was being built from Portland to Spokane.


One early pioneer woman vividly recalled what the future site of Kennewick looked like in 1882. In a memoir written in 1918 for the book History of the Yakima Valley, Daisy Beach Emigh remembered that her father would take her family across the Columbia River from Ainsworth, where he worked, to picnic at present-day Kennewick.

They rowed past islands, one of which still had a substantial Indian village, to one of the rare clumps of willow and cottonwoods on the riverbank, where they landed and found themselves in a green, bunchgrass meadow. Then they would walk on into the dry sage.

"While it was really only a desert, to us children it was one vast playground -- the windblown sand surpassing any sandbox, wonderful wild flowers in abundance that we might gather and arrange as we pleased, wild rabbits to chase, and above all, the delights of the river," she wrote (Emigh).

She said that the first man to build a little house on the Kennewick site was Doc Livingston, who worked at the Ainsworth mill, but "preferred to live apart," across the river. "Here he dispensed hospitality, or sold of his food supply to the cowboy or occasional passerby" (Emigh).

In 1884, her father learned that a new railroad line would be built on the Kennewick side of the river, up the Yakima Valley. So he bought some land on their old picnic grounds and moved the family across the Columbia.

"One May day in 1884, with our household goods, we made the trip from our home near the mill to the new home, the first in Kennewick," she wrote, apparently excepting Livingstson's lonely cabin. "We went on the ferry -- the Rattler by name and by nature. It was not a very dependable craft, for it sometimes, yea often, decided in the middle of the river to stop work and float a bit instead of following the simple path of duty. But it hauled our lumber for our modest home and then took us to it without accident."

Other residents and railroad workers soon followed, and by autumn of 1884, this booming little construction camp had acquired the name Kennewick.

"Considerable excitement in Kennewick -- lots going like hotcakes," said the Walla Walla Daily Journal of November 26, 1884, in the paper's first-ever reference to Kennewick (Van Arsdol).

Two separate stories are told about the name's origin, the first from Emigh.

"It was desired to name it after Chenoweth, an early trapper, but as pronounced by the Indians it sounded like Kennewick, and Kennewick the town was named," she wrote (Emigh).

The other, more widely accepted explanation comes from a historical account of Kennewick written by a Mrs. W. T. Mann, also published in History of Yakima Valley. She wrote that H. S. Huson, a Northern Pacific Railroad civil engineer working in the area, said that the Indian name of the area was something like Kin-ne-wack, meaning grassy place, and he eventually found himself writing the word as "Kennewick" and the name stuck.

Whatever the origin, Kennewick was a vast improvement over the town's informal, short-lived name of Te He, which supposedly came from the sound that the wife of a Northern Pacific engineer made when she first clapped eyes on the place, either in "delight or disgust" (Mann). Another brief name for the railroad camp was Cottonwood Landing, probably because of the clump of cottonwoods noted by Emigh.

Founding a Town

By any name, the first version of the town did not long survive. Early Kennewick went through three distinct stages before finally becoming permanently established. The first stage, the railroad camp, was almost entirely dismantled in 1887 after track construction was completed and a railroad bridge was completed over the Columbia. Pasco, on the other side of the river, became the railroad's division point.

"Most of the people moved to other towns, some taking their buildings with them," wrote Emigh (Emigh).

The second stage began in 1892, when an ambitious irrigation project, called the Yakima Irrigation and Improvement Company, began to bring water to the dry land around Kennewick. A new townsite was platted, a little farther back from the river than the old townsite, and people and farmers began to pour in. A three-story hotel was built; a newspaper began to publish; and a new schoolhouse arose. The population reached around 400. The little town's hopes were almost immediately dashed when the irrigation company was ruined in the national financial panic of 1893, and the irrigation project was abandoned unfinished. By 1899, Kennewick was, once again, "all but deserted" (Emigh).

In 1902, the town was revived for a third time, when the Northern Pacific Railway took over the irrigation project and completed it. The desert around the town began to bloom; the railroad brought in settlers and business.

Center of Agriculture

By 1903, the town's new newspaper, the Kennewick Courier, reported that Kennewick had 30 businesses, including three hotels, a billiard hall, a jeweler, two doctors, and three attorneys. The population had climbed back up to 350.

In 1904, the citizens of the town voted 53 to 3 in favor of incorporation. This time, there would be no backsliding into oblivion. Kennewick and Richland, its neighbor just across the Yakima to the north, soon became known for its spring crops, especially strawberries and asparagus, which could be harvested earlier than in most locales because of the mild winters that the Indians had found so enticing.

By 1910, the town had mushroomed to 1,219 people. By 1918, Emigh could proudly note that instead of the "desert primeval" she had played in as a child, Kennewick was a modern town with a network of power lines, three railroads, numerous church spires, a lively main street, and "orchards and green fields almost continuous to the farthest hill" (Emigh). The population hit 1,684 in 1920.

Apple, cherry and peach orchards abounded. One Kennewick orchardist said that "there was common belief that if a person owned 10 acres of bearing orchard, it would make them a good living" (Van Arsdol). In the 1910s, grapes  -- mostly Concord grapes -- were a common crop and Kennewick staged an annual Grape Festival. Wine grapes would not become an important crop in the Yakima River valley for another 60 or 70 years.

City of Tranquility

Kennewick staged a short-lived attempt to wrest the Benton County seat away from Prosser, upstream on the Yakima River, and even obtained an injunction in 1916 forbidding Prosser to build a permanent courthouse. The tussle was finally decided in favor of Prosser in 1926.

Meanwhile, a new automobile bridge in 1922 connected Kennewick with Pasco, which was the larger of the two cities at the time. The Tri-Cities concept did not exist yet -- Richland was barely more than a hamlet -- but Pasco and Kennewick were sometimes referred to as the Twin Cities. With the opening of canals downstream on the Columbia, both towns had become inland seaports. Boats could now make it all the way from the Pacific, yet river traffic did not grow as much as the town boosters hoped. The population of Kennewick actually decreased during the 1920s, to 1,519 by 1930.

Kennewick, like many agricultural regions, was hit hard by the Great Depression in the 1930s, although the promise of vast federal hydroelectric and irrigation projects in the Columbia Basin gave a boost to the region. The completion of the Bonneville Dam project opened the way for bigger barges to make it all the way upstream to Kennewick. By 1940, Kennewick's population had recovered to 1,918, yet still less than half that of big brother Pasco.

In 1938, the town's biggest boast was its tranquility.

""From this lovely oasis in the arid valley of the Columbia comes the proudly heralded report that not one arrest sullies its record for the month of July," reported a correspondent to the Spokesman-Review in Spokane on July 29, 1938. "There have been no murders, thefts, automobile accidents or arrests for drunkenness, traffic violations or even vagrancy since July 1" ("City of Tranquility").

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute

World War II changed Kennewick and the Tri-Cities in ways unimaginable at the time. A remote desert spot called Hanford, north of Kennewick and Richland on the Columbia River, was chosen in 1943 as the site of a new, super-secret engineering project called the Hanford Engineering Works. Tiny Richland, with 247 residents, was condemned by the federal government, and all of its residents evacuated to make way for a brand new Richland built by the government for thousands of new workers and scientists.

Kennewick was spared condemnation, but it suddenly had to deal with a huge influx of residents. Many former Richland residents moved to Kennewick, but the real flood came when the Hanford workers came by the thousands, from all over the country. Richland, even with hastily constructed government housing, couldn't handle them all. Kennewick became a booming bedroom community for Hanford workers. Even after the war ended, when the secret came out that Hanford was part of the atomic bomb project, Hanford continued to be a key nuclear research and construction site.

The Spokesman-Review in Spokane reported in 1947 that Kennewick, perhaps more than any other place in the nation, was experiencing "no return to pre-war conditions" (Clark). Hanford, the paper reported, was "taxing the facilities of Kennewick to and beyond their limits" (Clark).

Meanwhile, the city was still known for its asparagus, cherry, grape, and peach crops.

Boom and Bust

By 1950, Kennewick had quintupled in size in a decade, to 10,106 -- although Richland was now more than twice as big as either Kennewick or Pasco. In the next two decades, Kennewick and the other Tri-Cities, as they were now being called, also benefited from the completion of the massive new Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, which provided cheap hydropower and also opened up vast new tracts of the shrub-steppe land for farming. The construction of three Washington Public Power Supply System (WWPPSS) nuclear plants at Hanford in the 1970s gave a boost to all of the Tri-Cities, making the combined metro area one of fastest growing in the nation.

Kennewick, which now had chemical plants and frozen food warehouses, grew faster than any of the other Tri-Cities and by 1980 had a population of 34,397, the largest of the three, a status it retains to the present.

Then, in the 1980s the WPPSS projects collapsed, and the entire area suffered an economic bust. It spawned a drive to merge the three cities and make the Tri-Cities concept a formal reality. The drive stalled, largely because the three towns retained their separate identities and indeed, fierce rivalries.

"Pasco is yukky and Kennewick is ignorant," one Richland resident was quoted as saying in the Spokesman-Review (Sands).

Another plan was revived in 1988 for a Bi-Cities merger -- Pasco, the city lowest on the socio-economic scale, was left out. Richland voters were overwhelmingly in favor of the merger; Kennewick voters were overwhelmingly against it, partly because they did not want to take on Richland's municipal debt.

Kennewick is now the retail center of the Tri-Cities and the site of the Columbia Center Mall, the largest shopping mall in the region. The population has continued to grow every year since 2000 and has an estimated population of 62,250 as of 2007, compared to 50,120 for Pasco and 45,070 for Richland.

Sources: Ted Van Arsdol, Tri-Cities: The Mid Columbia Hub (Chatsworth, California: Windsor Publications, 1990); Daisy Beach Emigh quoted in History of the Yakima Valley by W. D. Lyman ([Chicago]: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1919), 912-916; Mrs. W. T. Mann quoted in History of the Yakima Valley by W. D. Lyman, ([Chicago]: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1919), 846-851; Alexander Ross, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Columbia River, 1810-1813 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986); Hal Clark, "Town is Wracked With Growing Pains," Spokane Spokesman-Review, November 27, 1947; Don C. Halladay, "Kennewick Sets Itself High Goal," Spokane Daily Chronicle, February 14, 1947; "A City of Tranquility," Spokane Spokesman-Review, July 29, 1938; Ken Sands, "Then There Was One?" Spokane Spokesman-Review, February 26, 1984; "Civic Boosters Pushing Plan for Merger," Spokane Spokesman-Review, March 14, 1984; Nicholas K. Geranios (Associated Press), "Tri-Cities May Become Bi-Cities; Pasco Would Get the Boot," Spokane Spokesman-Review, May 23, 1988.

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