Salamander 2024 Fiction Contest

SUBMIT: May 1 through June 2, 2024 | READING FEE: $15


Where the River Makes a Noise

TaraShea Nesbit
| Essay


War Power: 1943-1944


The U.S. government demands 200,000 acres in eastern Washington by a court order as part of the War Powers Act. Secretaries at the U.S. Department of Defense address and lick the envelopes of registered letters sent to 1,200 landowners:


Dear Sir or Madam:

You are advised that on February 23, 1943 the United States of America instituted the above preceding to acquire certain real properties by condemnation, including lands apparently owned or occupied by you…I enclose a copy of such order, which will serve to advise you that the United States was on such date given the right immediately to take possession of such property.10


When Frank Wheeler moved here in 1907 he said he wasn’t a romantic. Irrigation was a new, exciting, California thing, turning desert into alfalfa, but he had his doubts. He was married with three children and lived in a Sears catalog house in the smoggy, paper-mill town of Tacoma, laying bricks there because the city had more work than any of the others. His body struggled to keep up with the labor in Tacoma, he saved his money, he eventually had enough. Advertising brochures arrived announcing inexpensive, fertile land in Eastern Washington. His wife, Jeanie, a gardener, was elated. She grew up on a homestead in the Washington rain forest. They moved to Eastern Washington, bought a tractor, and built an irrigation system. They found a steamboat, a train station, a newspaper, other families with the same dream, and the only bank in Washington that had not been robbed. They did not find Native Americans, who were pushed out onto the Yakima Reservation mostly, their acres taken by the government, sold to land investors, who then sold them to white people like the Wheelers. Many tribal members fought this taking, but many tribal members did not fight. The Wheelers dug, watered, scattered seeds; watched their children and the trees grow tall. The Wheelers now watch their growing fruit: each peach, apple and grape they are forbidden from harvesting. Parents are urged not to mention the “relocation” to their sons serving in the military for fear it will demoralize them to discover they no longer have a home. They will be part of one of the largest forced foreclosures in American history. They will not be part of the largest relocations in American history. Landowners are forbidden from talking about the seizure to anyone. Several town meetings are held. Lawyers are called. It is clear the landowners have no right to their land because of the War Powers Act; this foreclosure is of paramount national interest. The appraisers come. One points to the Wheeler’s newly constructed home and says, “What’s that old barn over there?” Another says, “You should be glad to get out of this godforsaken place.” The Wheeler home, of forty acres, three houses, barns, wells, and twenty acres of producing orchards, pastures, vineyards, as well as an irrigation system, is appraised at $1,500. That’s one month’s salary for General Groves, the leader of this project.

On March 25th George Cress closes his butcher shop after discounting his fresh and cured meats until all is sold, to avoid the hassle of the war rationing of meat.

On April 15th the White Bluffs Grange holds its last meeting and surrenders its charter. One hundred and fifty people eat turkey dinner. The Hanford-White Bluffs high school graduates fifteen students one month early. The White Bluffs Cemetery Association meets to determine where to relocate the graves of those who still have family that want to visit. Richland School passes out diplomas without a celebration.

In May, 177 caskets are moved from the White Bluffs cemetery to Prosser. The government pays the moving expenses for the families that can afford to buy the new plot. The caskets of those with families who could not afford the new plot are not moved.

On April 1, the government shuts down the irrigation system to farms. The grapes wither. The leaves droop. A bulldozer comes and knocks down the Wheeler’s fence while they are in their house putting dishes in boxes. Jeanie comes out at the sound and yells to the driver, “You’re letting our cows out! What do you think you are doing?”

The last thing some men do before they leave is chop their blooming fruit trees down in protest. What were once orchards become cemeteries of tree stumps. There is no record that indicates Frank Wheeler chopped or did not chop.

One truckload per family. The Wheeler’s truck arrives with a young driver and his new wife; there is only room enough in the truck for Jeanie. Frank must find another way out.

Frank Wheeler takes his last ride out of his farm with his horse and cow and a quilt covering his aging body. He rides back West across the mountains, to his child’s home.

The Army Corps bulldozes, burns and dismantles the town’s banks, stores, and homes. Bonfires last for weeks. One train station is rebuilt to carry nuclear waste from one newly built concrete building to another. The schoolhouse roof collapses and the windows are blown out by the force of practice bombs. The steamboat is docked.

But the Army Corps of Engineers does not chop down the remaining fruit trees before harvest. Instead, they build Columbia Camp, and relocate inmates from the McNeil Island Prison to harvest the fruit that former residents were forbidden from harvesting. Federal Prison Industries, Inc., a government-owned corporation, which will later be renamed UNESCO, and is still in operation as a government-owned corporation, oversees the project. An audit reports indicates that by June 30, 1944, the McNeil Island orcharding industry at Columbia Camp has a profit of $69,505.00.


The brilliant blue glow of ionized radiation. Windows low to the ground so the police can release tear gas in them when the white men get rowdy. Someone drinks while riding horseback in the desert. Someone is homesick. Someone dies trying to cross the river. Who were the schoolgirls? Where did they travel? How much did the Chicago University football team get paid to stock the pile? Elements are heavy and used for pottery glaze. Xenon is light and gobbles up energy. Gunmetal. Boxing gloves.There are holes in the fences. The women are required to live behind them. The dust is dispersed, called termination winds. Thousands caravan in from Arkansas. Wild goats in front of the movie theater. Fruit flies are and will continue to be radioactive. The buildings will be wrapped up and rise from the desert like giant white Legos.







1 Emily Yellin, Our Mother’s War. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005).

2 Leona Marshall Libby, The Uranium People. (New York: Crane, Russak, 1979).

3 “Primary Resources: Letter from Albert Einstein to FDR, 8/2/39,” American Experience PBS, /features/primary-resources/truman-ein39/?flavour=mobile.

4 Richard Rhodes, Making of the Atomic Bomb. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987).

5 David Cassidy, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century. (New York, New York: Pi Press, 2004).

6 Laura Ferm,. Atoms in the Family. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

7 Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987).

8 Laura Fermi, Atoms in the Family. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

9 “Atomic Heritage Foundation,” atomic-history-mainmenu-38/the-manhattan-project-begins-81942-121942-mainmenu-209/chicago-pile-1-mainmenu-211.html.

10 Nancy Mendenhall, Orchards of Eden. (Seattle, WA: Far Eastern Press, 2006).

TaraShea Nesbit is the author of The Wives of Los Alamos, which is a Spring 2014 Indies Choice Debut Novel Pick and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection. Her writing has been featured in The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, The Collagist, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and is forthcoming on NPR and in Necessary Fiction. She teaches at the University of Denver and is the nonfiction editor of Better: Culture & Lit.

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