Last weekend the National Park Service celebrated National Junior Ranger Day and we wanted to participate, especially considering this was year we celebrate the 100th birthday of our National Park System. The closest National Park to Portland is just across the Columbia River in Vancouver. Strangely enough, despite the 20-minute drive from our house, we had never gone exploring at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site before! We thought, two birds one stone, and decided to head up to enjoy the Junior Ranger Day and have a quick explore! It definitely exceeded all of our expectations!
Getting here is easy. We took I-5 north, crossed the river and took exit 1C. The signs will lead you from there, but it is really easy to find.
Fort Vancouver was originally the headquarters for the Hudson Bay Trading Company’s Columbia Department. This department served the “Oregon Country”, which at the time included Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia. This was 1818 and the 49th Parallel agreement hadn’t been settled just yet. Great Britain still hoped to eventually have all of this land for itself despite the temporary agreement with the US Government to share access to the Oregon Country. The Hudson Bay Company moved their dealings 100 miles inland from the mouth of the Columbia River on the Coast in hopes this would anchor Britain’s claim to the region. This proved to be a bold, but profitable move for the company as it became the Fur Trade Capital of the Pacific Coast for the next 2 decades. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s more American settlers were moving into the area, particularly into the very fertile Willamette Valley, which eventually lead to a new agreement being made and the division at the 49th Parallel occurring which separated the “Oregon Territory” from what is now British Columbia. This decision was made in 1843 at one of our popular Oregon State Parks, Champoeg located just south of Portland. The vote was so close it came down to two men making controversial decisions and breaking the tie of whether to be American or British.
After the settlers votes had been cast the the division executed Fort Vancouver found itself sitting on American soil. Many men started leaving the The Hudson Bay Company to take up farming, yet the company continued their work. Trade started to diminish and by 1860 the Hudson Bay Company left completely. The Fort was completely destroyed by fires and decay by 1866, however archaeologists have unearthed some amazing things from the height of the Hudson Bay Company’s empire. The Fort you see today is a replica that was built as it was back in the the early 1800’s. The buildings that are represented are in the same places they stood in the company’s heyday. The Fort housed various warehouses, a Blacksmith shop, a Bake-house, Indian Trade Shop (pictured left) and Dispensary, a Wash House, Counting House, The Jail, Carpenter shop, and a Bastion.
Today you can explore each of these buildings. There are still several buildings missing from the original plan, but you really get a feel for what life in the Fort would have been like. In fact, they often have people dressed in period wear walking the ground, doing presentations, or working. The carpenter and blacksmith shops are real working shops with masters of the trade creating pieces and explaining how things would work. There is a lovely little garden outside the 15′ Douglas Fir Palisade, and in early years they would have had a beautiful view of the Columbia River (this has been ruined with SR-14 and the railroad). There are also historic weapons demonstrations done at the fort.
In addition to the Fort and the Barracks, this Park is also home to Pearson Air Field & Museum. It is a small air museum, called Pearson Air Field showcasing air craft from the early 1900’s. There is an active air field right next door for smaller craft, so you will see people practicing “touch and goes” or stopping in for a look at the Park. In the early 1900s this was the former polo field for the Vancouver Barracks and civilian pilots would wow the crowds with their amazing aerial acrobatics and feats! When WWI came along this site served a very important purpose. According to the Pearson Field and Pearson Air Museum Website: “When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the polo field became the site of the Spruce Production Division’s Spruce Cut-Up Mill, where spruce logged from the forests of the Pacific Northwest was manufactured into aviation-grade lumber. The lumber produced by the Spruce Mill was used to construct Curtiss JN-4 aircraft for pilots in training, and De Havilland DH-4 aircraft for combat overseas.” The museum pays tribute to the long history and many achievements of the Base and Field over the years. In the hangar attached to the office, are some really beautiful old planes on display, showcasing how aircraft has changed over the last century and how the wooden planes were built. Make sure you have a look inside the office as there are some really fun activity centers for kids!
For National Junior Ranger Day we spent a good deal of time in the largest hangar. There was a big parachute on one wall and we admired the art work from a couple of the local schools that was on display. The space was perfect for hosting the day. We missed it, but they also did some awesome demonstrations outside using pop (soda) bottles.
I wished I had known about all of their picnic areas also. I ate my lunch in the car on the way out but they have some lovely picnic tables in grassy fields where you can enjoy the birds and scenery.
Our time at the Fort was really great and we are looking forward to bringing visitors here to have a look around!