Articles above and below scanned by Burt Pierard ('59)
The following was offered by Beth Young Gibson ('81)
The East Benton County Museum published them in their quarterly newsletter.
Columbia Camp, Prison Camp in our Midst, 1944-1947,
Jean Carol Davis, The Courier, East Benton County
Historical Society, Volume 15, Number 1, February 1993.
Columbia Camp, at the horn of the Yakima River, opened
February 1, 1944, by Federal Prison Industries for
"minimum-custody-type improvable male offenders," who
had no more than one year to serve. They were violators
of national defense, wartime and military laws.
Included were conscientious objectors, violators of
rationing and price support laws, those convicted of
espionage, sabotage and sedition and by military courts
martial. Aliens who failed to register were in this
category but none of them were sent to Columbia Camp
because of the Hanford project.
The 25-acre camp was located between Horn Road and the
Yakima River. (The row of trees which can be seen today
was on the westerly boundary.) The camp was built by
the Manhattan District, Corps of Engineers, or under
contract to them, using former Civilian Conservation
Corps buildings moved from Winifred, Montana. These
included five barracks, office building, hospital, mess
hall, storage and utility buildings and a recreation
hall. Three buildings of the same type were moved from
White Bluffs where they had been erected for use in the
Hanford construction staging area along the Milwaukee
Railroad. In addition, the camp had five double hutment
type barracks, 10 prefab houses and 12 single hutments
used for housing of prison executives, guards and their
families. "Hutments" was the term for the fabricated
temporary buildings which later were referred to as
Quonset huts because the first of that type in this
country had been built at Quonset, Rhode Island.
Under a wartime contract with Hanford, Federal Prison
Industries operated workable orchards and vineyards.
Fruit was shipped to the McNeil Island Federal
Penitentiary near Tacoma, where it was processed (most
of it canned) for sale to military services and other
government agencies. When the contract ended November
1, 1947, 5,669 tons of fruit had been processed which
sold for more than $500,000.
Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons show that
a total of 1,300 prisoners served at Columbia Camp with
290 being the maximum at any one time. A memorandum
from the Bureau of Prisons archives dated March 8,
1944, noted: "Selection of inmates for Columbia Camp is
of great importance because the Army Engineers have
there a secret military project which they are trying
to guard very zealously. We agreed with them to select
inmates carefully and give them criminal data on every
inmate selected." A further suggestion in the memo was
that criteria be set up for selection of inmates for
this camp and that there be a careful review of the
inmate's entire record including interview, medical,
and work records.
It was commonly believed that most of the inmates were
conscientious objectors but Bureau of Prisons
statistics show that they made up less than 30 percent
of the total who were there. Several comments suggest
that the conscientious objectors were discriminated
against to some degree. The depth of patriotism those
years lends credence to the likelihood that this was
true. Kay Weir Fishback remembers that her parents,
permitted to lease back their home in Richland,
recalled that when two men came to check the
irrigation, one of them stressed that he was not a
conscientious objector and that his son was serving in
About forty guards and other staff lived at the camp,
some with their families. Many had been transferred
from within the federal prison system. Some local
people were employed as support personnel. No one has
been located who actually lived or worked there when Columbia Camp was operated as a prison.
Siblings Elvera Stephens, Doris Barott, and John
Hackney lived in the only house within some distance of
Columbia Camp. Their father worked for the irrigation
company. Their home was across the river and downstream
about one-half mile from the camp near Horn Rapids dam.
Doris commented that it had been so quiet in the
country that they were conscious of sounds coming down
the river, such as a dog bark, voices, vehicles and the
like. Their only contact with Columbia Camp was with
school friends whose parents lived in the staff
housing. Occasionally friends would come by boat to
visit. Elvera told of the time some of them came to
raid the Hackney melon patch. Mr Hackney fired a gun
into the air. In their haste to get away, the leaky
boat capsized and the boys had to swim. John recalls
that one winter the river was frozen over and he walked
across the ice to visit. They would sometimes see
inmates walking around the camp or fishing in the
Prisoners were transported to the orchards to prune,
spray, cultivate, and irrigate and then to harvest the
fruit. Army vehicles carrying 25 to 30 passengers were
used. Others were borrowed from the Atomic Energy
Commission (AEC) motor pool because that agency had the
highest priority to obtain available vehicles. F I
McHale, then Director of Security for the Manhattan
District, Corps of Engineers, and later for the ARC,
told of Chevrolet cars being cut in two and extended to
become "stretch limousines" for transport. One guard
accompanied five to ten inmates.
Monsignor William J Sweeney recalled that he went to
Columbia Camp to say Mass each Monday morning, setting
up an altar on a table in a commons room. About ten men
attended Mass. Father Sweeney stayed for breakfast
after the service. He remembered that the food was very
good and that everyone was especially kind to him.
Only twelve inmates escaped from the facility in the
nearly four years it was in operation. That there were
not more is surprising because there was no fence along
the Yakima River and the inmates' work in the orchards
was difficult to supervise.
Guard Joe Rice and his wife lived next door to Homer
Moulthrop in the old Amanda Breithaupt house on the
corner of George Washington Way and Falley Street,
which still stands. Homer said that they visited and
played chess together but did not ever discuss their
jobs. One night loud knocking on the Rice s door roused
Homer. He later learned that prisoners had escaped and
off-duty personnel were being called to help with the
Harley and Joyce Sweany of Benton City discovered
footprints on their land along the river at Kiona after
learning that some prisoners had escaped. They were
caught before reaching Prosser. These may or may not
have been the same incident.
John Hackney remembers that one fall enroute to school
on the bus that the students saw some inmates that had
climbed high into the fruit trees and were temporarily
missed by their guard.
Columbia Camp closed October 10, 1947, when no longer
needed. Continued construction on the Hanford project
and in Richland had reduced the orchard lands as well
as the irrigation canals serving the district.
Remaining orchards were contracted to two private
concerns to continue work for a percentage of the gross
in return for the fruit.
The camp facilities were next used by Atkinson-Jones to
house workers while North Richland was constructed.
From early 1948 through July 1949 Morrison-Knudsen
occupied the camp while constructing and maintaining
the Hanford project railroad. Several former Morrison-Knudsen employees live in the area and recall the
comfortable, self-contained facility.
Columbia Camp was taken over by the US Corps of
Engineers under agreement with the Atomic Energy
Commission on August 1,1949, to house personnel working
on levees along the Columbia River in the Kennewick and
Richland area, as part of the McNary Dam project. In
February 1950 AEC announced that Columbia Camp would be
abandoned that spring.
General Electric was to handle disposition of the
facilities. The ten prefab houses would be moved to
Richland for residential use. One living quarter
hutment (a Quonset three-bedroom home) went to Richland
school district for use by Columbia High School on its
farming project near North Richland. The eleven similar
hutments were to be held for the army when troops were
moved to the Hanford project. Four barracks buildings
would be donated to Pacific Northwest states for school
needs. Excess personal property, three boilers, a water
tank and above ground steam lines would also be
distributed among schools.
Twenty miscellaneous buildings were to be sold by
General Electric. We have learned about two of them.
Bob Baron recalls that his family's house moving firm
moved some of the buildings. A large building, probably
the recreation hall, was taken apart and reassembled in
West Richland for the Community Building on Van Giesen
Avenue west of the market, now Mel's Thrift. This
building was later razed.
The Benton City Methodist Church at 906 9th Street was
constructed in part with materials from the large
maintenance building located near the road on the north
side of Columbia Camp. It appears to have been built on
site rather than from prebuilt panels. Church members
dismantled the building and moved the material. Church
historian Joyce Sweany found that they had obtained
30,000 board feet of lumber but no other details were
Bill McKenna, now of Benton City, participated in a Boy
Scout Camporee at Columbia Camp in 1951. A large pile
of debris, left from clearing of the camp after the
structures were removed, burst into flame. All Scouts
were confined to their tents until those responsible
had confessed. Bill said someone must have done so,
otherwise they would still be in those tents.
In 1966, the Columbia Camp site, with other land, was
transferred to Benton County by the Bureau of Land
Management and is now a part of Horn Rapids Park.
References In addition to those cited in the text, two
newspaper articles provided the details of source and
disposition of buildings and occupancy of the camp.
Tri-Ciyy Herald, August 7, 1949, p 1
Pasco News, February 24, 1950, p 13
Columbia Camp Revisited, Jean Carol Davis, The Courier,
East Benton County Historical Society, Volume 15,
Number 3, October 1993.
This article updates aprevious article on Columbia Camp
(Courier, February 1993), the wartime prison camp along
the Yakima River, whose inmates harvested the fruit
from the orchards after the government acquired all of
the farm land for the Hanford Project. An intrepid
staff writer for the Tri-City Herald reprinted an
abridged version of that article in the August 22 issue
of that newspaper, along with an article about an
Italian prisoner of war camp. The Herald article
prompted calls to the author from two Tri-Citians who
had lived and worked at Columbia Camp.
Judy Hess Richards of Pasco was born there in 1945, the
only child born to a family living at Columbia Camp.
She connected the author to her mother, Ama G Peck, now
of Yachats, Oregon. Gene Polk of Richland was employed
at Columbia Camp from 1946 until it closed in October
Their stories follow. Others with additional
information about Columbia Camp are advised to contact
the Historical Society or the author at 582-2242.
George E. and Ama 0. Hess, with five-month old daughter
Sandy, were among the first five families to move into
Quonset hut homes at Columbia Camp in January 1944.
They had come from Roseburg, Oregon where George had
farmed in partnership with his father and was a partner
in a cannery with a friend, Fred Hurd, then of Olympia.
In Washington, D.C. on business, Fred learned of Bureau
of Prisons plans to manage orchard lands taken over by
the Corps of Engineers and called George to tell him
about it. Fred Hurd accompanied four officials to the
Richland area to select the camp site. He told of
seeing rattlesnakes on a ridge and of Indians fishing
at Horn Rapids and drying split salmon on racks. The
men purchased a salmon from the Indians, the best that
they had ever eaten. George sold the cannery in
Roseburg and prepared to move to what was to become
George was Field Supervisor with responsibility for all
aspects of orchard and farm management for the entire
time the facility was in operation. Under his
supervision were fifteen foremen and nine truck drivers
and farm helpers as well as all of the inmates assigned
to field operations. There was a smaller staff fewer
inmates, mostly trustees, the first season while
Columbia Camp was being established.
Ama Peck recalls the sand and dust and rattlesnakes.
Security was tight. Any guests, even dinner guests, had
to have clearance. George had Q clearance and one day
took Ama to the construction area. She observed workers
pouring lead and recalled an article about splitting
the atom in Popular Mechanics magazine in the 1930s
which she had then shared with her scientific minded
7th grade students. When she went to play bridge with
other Camp wives, she remarked that she knew what they
were doing that they were preparing to split the atom.
When she arrived home that afternoon, three FBI agents
were waiting for her and questioned her for an hour-and-a-half. She believes that the Lieutenant's wife had
called her husband thinking it was funny that Ama would
make such a silly suggestion.
One inmate was especially remembered. He was a handyman
around the camp, doing repairs, helping with the
gardens and the like. Many mornings, baby Sandy would
be put in the back yard and he would come to play with
her. Ama enjoyed visiting with him. He was there for
nearly two years and had no visitors all that time. Ama
believes that he was "taking the rap" for someone else
who had violated a wartime law. When time came for his
discharge, a leather suitcase was delivered with a fine
quality tailored suit for him to wear. A limousine
picked him up and he was driven to Yakima where a
chartered plane was waiting.
Inmates at Columbia Camp were screened and the majority
served their time without incident as this was
considered a more desirable place than other prisons.
Bureau of Prisons statistics show that only twelve men
escaped from Columbia Camp. Ama clearly remembers two
incidents of prisoners escaping.
Once, an inmate was digging an irrigation line in
Richland and stole some women's clothing from a
clothesline, took a bus to Yakima and signed on as a
cook at a hop yard. A supervisor suspecting that the
cook was male informed "her" that "she" would have a
new roommate, the supervisor s daughter. This so
unnerved the escapee that he promptly gave himself up!
Later, in 1946, the Hess family moved to the house on
the old Snively place on Grosscup flats which had
been vacant for about two years after being taken over
by the government. During one prison break, all
employees were put on round-the-clock duty until the
escapees were located. With her husband on such duty,
guards periodically checked on Ama and the little
girls. Ama was instructed to carry her gun at all times
and to shoot if she saw an escapee. She had learned to
handle a gun as a youth and had, while at Columbia
Camp, taken firearms training, which was optional for
family members. She hid her gun in a clothes basket
which she carried with her constantly for the two or
three days until the men were captured. They were found
hiding in a harvest machine in a field, discovered by
their footprints after they had stolen milk at the
When Columbia Camp closed, the Hess family moved to
Richland and then to Kennewick in 1948. George died in
1955 and a few years later Ama remarried. Many
Kennewick residents may remember Ama G Hess Peck as she
taught arts and crafts at Fruitland and Eastgate grade
schools and also at the Junior High school, before
retiring in 1973.
Gene Polk arrived at Camp Hanford on July 4, 1944,
serving there until discharged from the Army at Fort
Lewis in 1946. He returned to Richland and applied for
work at Columbia Camp. His first job was as one of three drivers hauling fruit to McNeil Island. The semi-trucks were each loaded with 520 boxes of fruit. To keep the fruit as cool as possible, they left at night to drive over Snoqualmie Pass, waited at Steilacoom for the first morning ferry to McNeil Island, where the trucks were backed up to the cannery. While the fruit was being unloaded, the drivers slept.
After the 1946 harvest season, Gene was put in charge
of the vehicle maintenance shop and several inmate
helpers. He said that they were all good workers and
did nothing to cause their being returned to McNeil
Island. He was expected to review their files to be
sure that there was no discrepancy between their record
and their casual conversations at work.
One of the last three employees at Columbia Camp as it
was being closed, Gene applied for a job with General
Electric, was accepted, and began there following his
last day at Columbia Camp, never missing a day of work.
He and his wife lived in a B house in Richland as there
was no vacant housing at the camp.
Gene Polk still has vivid memories of the Paul
Bruggeman ranch at Vernita and will never forget the
beautiful rock home and the well maintamed farm. The
farm was immediately to the east of the present entry
to Vernita Bridge, extending to the river.
"My Job at Columbia Camp" By George E Hess
Taken from a job description written up by the late
George E Hess (see preceding article.)
Columbia Camp is a Prison Camp assigned to the task of
maintaining the orchards, vineyards and farm land on
the Hanford Atomic project for the Army. Also to
perfrom other maintenance, repair and minor
construction operation for the Army.
Inmates of the camp, under the direction of civilian
foremen, are used to perform this work. The use of
inmates in the operation is to provide for the
vocational training and rehabilitation through actual
on the job performance.
As Field Supervisor my duties and responsibilities are:
1. Planning, coordinating and directing farming and
other activities in conjunction with the camp Superintendent,
the Industrial Business Manager and the Area Agronomist.
This requires knowledge of and actual experience in,
all phases of orcharding and field farming, including
pruning, grape culture, fertilization, cultivation,
irrigation, harvesting, pest control, etc. It requires
the making of decisions and exercising judgment,
particularly with respect to timing of various
operations. One must also keep abreast of the times and
informed on modern devices, methods and developments.
2. Planning and directing the work and activities of
the field force.
3. Coordinating custody and discipline with field
4. Coordinating with the Superintendent of the camp
and his staff in the makeup and assignment of crews in
5. Assignment, direction, and supervision of foremen
of inmate crews performing farming and other work
6. Coordinating with Superintendent activities of
Columbia Camp with those of Army Engineers.
1. Custody of inmates assigned to field operations.
2. Safety of inmates and personnel engaged in field
3. Estimates of requirements for equipment
4. Custody and maintenance of equipment
and supplies used in field operations.
5. Custody of materials used in operations, i.e.
seed, gasoline, oil, insecticides, etc.
6. Estimate production.
7. Custody of crops harvested from the areas together
with proper acccounting for same.
8. Operations in the absence of Co-worker.
9. Supervision of the following employees: Four
Senior Foremen, Eleven Foremen, Two Truck Drivers, Two
My duties and responsibilities of an average day as
Farm and Field Supervisor:
I. Meet Foremen and Workers at gate at 7:30 so as to:
A. Check absence of Foremen and Workmen.
B. Check materials and equipment with men
in charge of same.
C. Make any change in plans made necessary
by inclement conditions, etc (for example strong winds
interfere with spraying operations.)
D. Discuss problems with Foremen when such
arise and give necessary instruction, direction and
II. See that there is no unnecessary delay among the
A. Checking out their crews.
B. Organizing materials and equipment.
C. Leaving for the job assignments.
III. Assign, instruct and supervise truck drivers and
farm helpers who are hired to carry on operation s,i.e.
trucking and transfer of materials, equipment and farm
produce, tractor driving for cultivation, fertilization
etc, when and where inmate labor cannot be used.
IV. Morning conference with Superintendent, Senior
Field Foremen and Officer of the Day to:
A. Coordinate all plans of field and camp
B. To anticipate and plan for change due
to weather, illness, vacations, etc.
C. Plan equipment and material needs, procurement, use, care, and repair, storage, etc.
D. Discuss any field custodial problems and plan job performance to provide for rehabilitation and vocational training of inmates.
V. Daily inspection tour of field operations to:
A. Check job progress of field crews and
civilian irrigators, truck drivers and farm helpers.
B. Investigate material and equipment needs
of each crew and civilian worker. Make necessary
arrangement to supply same. Also arrange for safe and
proper use, care, and storage of such material and
C. Make production estimates.
D. Study operations to prevent delay,
eliminate, combine, rearrange and simply details ofjob.
E. Observe each foreman s inmate handling
and supervision with regard to discipline, safety, job
F. Instruct, assist, and encourage foremen
and civilian workers, when necessary.
VI. Daily inspection of farm lands, orchards or
A. Determine needed irrigation,
cultivation, fertilization, pruning, pest control, etc.
B. Test ripeness of vegetable, fruit, grain, etc. to
decide what day to start harvest or give any other
C. Make crop estimates.
D. Plan custody of c~ops and other produce, equipment, etc.
VII. Daily inspection of work operations being done
for Army Engineers. Also occasional inspection tours of
operations with representative of Army and/or other
VIII. Coordinate field operations, when necessary,
with safety council and/or fire department, i.e.
burning weeds or orchard brush, etc.)
IX. Meet Foremen at gate after work and notify them of
any changes in plans for following day.