For thousands of years, inhabitants of Earth have been gravitating to the land now known as the city of Kennewick within the Tri-Cities community. Ancient relics, artifacts, and remains have given us small glimpses of what life was like all those years ago, and rare finds like the remains of the Kennewick Man have shed further insight into the area’s extensive past.

Kennewick Man
A sculpture of what Kennewick Man might have looked like. Photo courtesy: James Chatters/Agence France-Presse

Tri-Cities First Peoples

We know that Native Americans populated the area around modern-day Kennewick for millennia before European descendants found their way onto the land and began to settle in. Studies of Kennewick Man’s bones show that his remains were over 9,000 years old when they washed ashore along the banks of the Columbia River. In more recent centuries, the land is an important gathering spot for various Native American tribes, such as the Umatilla, Wanapum, Nez Perce, and Yakima Tribes.

The reason for this is all about location. Kennewick’s low elevation helps moderate winter temperatures, and salmon and other river fish are easily accessible thanks to the area’s riverside location. By the 19th century, these inhabitants lived in and between two major camps in the area that were located near present-day Sacajawea State Park in Pasco and Columbia Point in Richland.

Europeans Come to the Tri-Cities

Kennewick History
Steamboats, like the railroad, were a key component in the city’s early history in getting new travelers to the young city. Photo courtesy: Port of Kennewick

Lewis and Clark eventually led their infamous expedition into the tribes’ territory in 1805 and 1806. The two men noted that many people were living in the area in their journals and even produced a map afterward that was marked by two significant villages in the region — Wollawollah and Selloatpallah. Estimated populations from the writings suggest a population of anywhere from 2,600 to 3,000 people calling the land home.

The settlement came slowly to the area because of the arid nature of the land — the shrub steppe. Eventually, in 1855 the Umatilla and Yakima Tribes ceded the land the city sits on to the Walla Walla Council. By the 1860s, stockmen drove cattle and horses through the area and by the 1880s, steamboats and railroads connected what would become known as Kennewick to other settlements along the Columbia River. During this time, the towns in the area we now call the Tri-Cities began to develop. By 1884, the newly emerging city had emerged as a bustling railroad construction camp when the Northern Pacific Railway started laying track on the west side of the Columbia River.

Early Kennewick

Kennewick History
Kennewick remained a relatively small town until the 1940s, as can be seen in this 1925 photo. Photo courtesy: East Benton County History Museum

However, it still wasn’t the city of Kennewick quite yet and wouldn’t be until it became established entirely in 1902 and underwent a series of revitalizations along the way. Early Kennewick did not survive long, with the railroad camp being completely dismantled in 1887. It was during this year that a temporary railroad bridge was constructed by the Northern Pacific Railroad to connect Kennewick with Pasco. However, the bridge could not endure the winter ice and was eventually swept away by the Columbia River. Though the newly emerging city started with a population boom, it would be brief once the damage was done by these unfortunate events. By the time the new, more permanent bridge was built in its place in 1888, most of the initial people who had come to the city just years prior had already packed and left just as soon as the bridge was completed.

Thus began the second stage of revitalization that the city began to experience in 1892 when an ambitious irrigation project started to bring water to the dry land around the area. This project, known as the Yakima Irrigation and Improvement Company, went off without a hitch, causing farmers to pour into the newly platted townsite. The population in the area had grown to about 400 when disaster struck again, and the irrigation company was ruined in the national financial panic of 1893. As a result, the irrigation project was abandoned, and by 1899 Kennewick was once again watching residents say goodbye.

But the third time is the charm, as they say, and in 1902 the town was revived for a third and final time when the Northern Pacific Railway took over the irrigation project and completed it. Then, the desert around the town began to bloom, and the railway began to bring settlers and businesses into the city limits. It was also during this final act in the city’s early history that the region officially became the city of Kennewick that we now know today.

Kennewick History
Kennewick Avenue in 1978 sure had undergone some changes over the years as its served community members. Photo courtesy: Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business

How Did Kennewick Get its Name

There are conflicting stories on where this name came from during those years before it was officially established as so by the state of Washington. From 1886 until 1891, the city was known as Tehe, with this name appearing in early letters sent to residents of the land with the city listed as so on the addresses. Sometime between 1891 and 1902, the city adopted the name it holds today.

Reports regarding the origins of this name vary, with one such account being from Daisy Beach Emigh in a memoir written about the young city in 1918 known as the “History of the Yakima Valley.” In the book, Emigh tells writers that townsfolk desired to name the city after Chenoweth, an early trapper in the region, which, when pronounced by the Native Americans, sounded like Kennewick and was thusly called according to her recounts of growing up in the emerging city. The other, more widely accepted explanation of the name’s origins comes from a historical account of Kennewick written by Mrs. W. T. Mann, published in the same book that retold Emigh’s history of the name’s origins. Mrs. Mann wrote that H. S. Huson, a Northern Pacific Railroad civil engineer working in the area during the town’s early development, said that the name comes from the native word for “grassy place,” which he and others pronounced as Kin-ne-wack and thus the name Kennewick stuck.

Kennewick History
The Green Bridge was built in 1922 connecting Pasco and Kennewick and was demolished in 1990. Part of the bridge sits in front of the Benton County History Museum now. Photo courtesy: East Benton County History Museum

The city functioned happily as a small railroad and agricultural center, with the population growing to about 1,918 by 1940. However, World War II would forever change the city, as well as the rest of the world, 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. Within ten short years, the city’s population had grown to more than 10,000 residents, joining the rest of the Tri-Cities to prosper throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

Today, the beloved city of Kennewick has grown to be the largest city within the Tri-Cities, as well as the 12th largest city in Washington. It has transformed into 25 square miles of happiness for both locals and visitors alike as they get to enjoy exploring the city’s recreational opportunities.

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