For over 11,000 years, the land at the confluence of the Yakima and Columbia Rivers has been the source of many incredible finds in recent years showing what life was once like for the area. For the majority of those centuries, the village of Chemna, now Columbia Point, stood at the mouth of the Yakima River, along with the Wanapum, Walla Walla, and Yakima Tribes who prefer to hunt and fish there. This northwest corner was a natural spot for human habitation, given its unique position, which is probably why explorers from the Lewis and Clark Expedition eventually landed in the region. Many more followed suit as early colonizers learned of the treasure that is now the beloved city of Richland.
First Explorers to Richland
Captain William Clark first canoed up the Columbia to the mouth of the Yakima in 1805 during the infamous Lewis and Clark Expedition. The first transcribed description of what would become Richland was written in his journal at the time, on October 17. In that entry, he reported that the rivers were filled with “incredible” numbers of spawned-out salmon, and he remarked on the land, how it was filled with plants with no wood in sight, just an open valley.
Fur trader and explorer David Thompson was the next to adventure into this brave new land in 1811, taking notes as he went similar to Clark. In his writings, he noted that the tribes nearby survived on plenty of deer and abundant salmon caught by seine nets. He also had the privilege of speaking with several tribe members who described their winters in the territory as mild, giving Thompson plenty of information to take back to future setters.
Settling the Land of Richland
It was around the 1860s when the first cattle ranchers arrived in the region, making their way to Grant’s Meadows, in the area that was once Chemna Village and is now Columbia Point. They prevailed as long as they could until the fierce winter of 1880-1881, which killed off most of the area cattle and the entire ranching industry.
Settlers returned with hopeful solutions to tame the land, turning to irrigation from the Yakima River to make the dry land suitable for hay, grain, vegetables, and fruit trees. One of the first to test this method was settler Ben Rosencrance. Initially, he had ranched on the south side of the Yakima since 1880, but in 1888 he took his chances and moved across the river to the present site of Richland. Here, he successfully filed a homestead claim of 1,700 acres, and soon, other farmers followed.
One of these farmers was Nelson Rich, who teamed up with Rosencrance to make the land prosperous upon his arrival. In 1890, Rich built a pump and ditch, while Rosencrance erected a wooden water wheel. As a result of these creations, irrigation canals crisscrossed the area, and farmers were snapping up land by the turn of the twentieth century in this new town that would soon become known as Richland.
The Name of Richland
Things began to move quickly for the young town, especially after W.R. Amon and his son Howard S. Amon bought up both the Rosencrance and Rich farms in 1904, totaling 2,300 acres. Afterward, these savvy businessmen, with other investors, incorporated the Benton Water Company to bring irrigation and electricity to the area and proposed a town site on the present site of Richland.
During all the excitement, a contest was held to name the fledgling city with the name Benton winning, as the town would be in the newly created Benton County. The U.S. Post Office, however, had other plans in mind and stepped in, vetoing the name as it sounded too much like Bentsen, Washington, which already existed. Then, the Amons stepped forward, proposing that the town be named Richland in honor of Nelson Rich because, after all, the region on which the new town was built had once been his land. Not to mention, the land was rich and fertile farmland, making it a perfect fit. Everyone agreed with the proposal, and in 1905, Richland became the official name.
A Growing City of Richland
By 1906, the town was registered at the Benton County Courthouse and was fully incorporated on April 18, 1910. In those early years, farm plots far outnumbered city-style blocks, and growth was slow due to no railroad access. Bridges were built across the Yakima River to help the townspeople reach their neighboring cities of Kennewick and Pasco, but they were repeatedly washed out until a concrete and steel bridge was built in 1907. A cable ferry established in 1894 across the Columbia at Grant’s Meadow was a vital link for transportation to Pasco until 1931, when it was rendered obsolete by auto bridges.
Still, the growth of Richland was steady, and emerging modes of transportation began to make it easier for these early townsfolk. The city and surrounding areas briefly experienced a natural-gas boom at the beginning of 1914 when gas deposits were discovered in the Rattlesnake Hills. This boom would last until 1940 when the wells were all tapped out.
The city was also hit hard by the Great Depression and the resulting decline in farm prices, but promising changes were on the horizon. With the arrival of World War II, Richland would go from a sleepy farm village with a population of 247 to “The Atom-Bustin’ Village of the West” with the creation of the Hanford Site, which is now a historical landmark. Seemingly overnight, the town would transform into the bustling Richland with a population of over 60,000 that we now know today.