Wandering Through Washington, Part V

After exploring the Olympic Peninsula for 10 days, we finally pointed our RV south and made our way to our new hub town, Castle Rock. From this point, we would get to visit Fort Vancouver National Historic Site and Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. This blog post will cover the Fort Vancouver site which is located on the north shore of the Columbia River.

FOVA_ NHSEntrance
Fort Vancouver National Historic Site entrance.

In 1818, the U.S. and Canada agreed to jointly occupy the Oregon Country consisting of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho until the border between them could be finalized. Both countries wanted this land because of the rich reserves of fur-bearing beavers and big trees. In 1825, the Canadian company, Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), built the first Fort Vancouver to establish a Canadian toehold in the Oregon area. It was a major supply point for the fur-trappers and the administrative hub for the Pacific Northwest.

In the 1840’s, the Westward Expansion picked up due to the belief in “Manifest Destiny” and American settlers started streaming into the area. The HBC oversaw this influx of people, extended credit and helped them to establish themselves. But by 1846, the decision was made to put the U.S. border at the 49th parallel. This, of course, put Washington and Oregon firmly within American land boundaries. The HBC kept the fort going until 1860 at which time, it left it to the Americans. In 1866, it burned to the ground from a large fire.

Meanwhile, the American Army built their own fort just north of the Canadian one. This was the first regional post in the area and was eventually called the Vancouver Barracks. It, too, played the roles of supplier of goods and equipment, protecting Oregon Trail settlers, and also negotiated with and displaced Native Americans. It was instrumental in training officers and several well-known officers got their start here. Ulysses S. Grant was one. He, of course went on to become the 18th President of the United States.

The barracks was instrumental during both the first and second World Wars. In 1905, before the start of WWI, it opened the first Army airfield, called Pearson Field. Once the U.S. entered WWI, it immediately started building a huge spruce lumber mill in order to get the needed spruce wood to build the planes for the war. The construction was completed in 1918 and by the end of the year was processing and shipping one million board feet of spruce wood daily. This mill required 13 railroads to carry the logs and finished products and 30,000 Army troops to help the private lumber mills and lumber camps. Another legacy was the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen which acted like a government union. It set standards for workers that still remain to this day. For example: 8 hour days, clean (sanitary) camps and kitchens, and hot showers. For WWII, the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) built the first aluminum smelter west of the Mississippi, which came in handy when they needed to build 3,000 airplanes a month. The Army then built the Kaiser Shipyard which by war’s end launched 10 Liberty ships, 30 landing crafts, 50 aircraft escort carriers, 31 attack transports, 12 C-4 troopships, 8 C-4 cargo vessels and two 14,000 ton drydocks. These were all production records.

Of these places, the Spruce Mill and Kaiser Shipyard are no longer visible. It is interesting to think of all the activity and buildings that were required for these huge enterprises, and that there is nothing left of them but foundations and a few railroad ties. But they did leave lasting impacts in the surrounding city of Vancouver. The city itself went from around 12,000 residents to about 95,000 by the end of WWII. The standards set by the Army and the schools, hospitals, and transportation systems are all still being used. The Pearson Field is still a functioning municipal airfield and there is a museum and education center.

The Barracks continued on as an Army outpost until 2000. By 2011, the Army turned the property over to the National Park Service which is now going through a major renovation/restoration project. We didn’t walk through this part since it was being worked on and many areas were cordoned off.

The Fort Vancouver NHS, which is a reconstructed version of the 1840’s HBC fort, is a very active park. There are volunteers that do interactive enactments. We were able to watch and talk to a carpenter in the Carpentry Shop. They also have enactments at the Blacksmith, Kitchen and Bakehouse. There are events and classes going on all the time. The week after we were there, they were holding a class on 19th Century Sabre Training. Also on the calendar were classes on cord making, felt making and after-hours tours with lanterns and campfires. They also have a wonderful garden that showcases the types of plants they would have planted in the 1840’s. All in all, it was a fun, educational visit.


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