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Washington's Fort Vancouver

Pioneer days—from exploration to aviation—are reborn by the banks of the Columbia River.

  • Blacksmith reenacting his work at Fort Vancouver, Wash., image
    Photo caption
    A blacksmith reenacts life in the 1840s at Fort Vancouver.
  • Fort Vancouver's bastion plus wooden fence, Vancouver, Wash., image
    Photo caption
    Fort Vancouver's bastion stands sentry over the grounds of this historic site in Vancouver, Wash.
  • Marshall House at Fort Vancouver historic site, near Vancouver, Wash., image
    Photo caption
    The Marshall House was the home of General George C. Marshall from 1936 to 1938.
  • Pearson Air Museum's T-28 Trojan, image
    Photo caption
    A T-28 Trojan gleams in a hangar at the Pearson Air Museum.

Confession: I’ve never been a big fan of living history interpreters. Having a beer-bellied Pilgrim or a vaguely Italian-looking Native American correct the first cultural inaccuracy I innocently blurt out—Rifle? I believe you mean musket?—ends up stifling my enthusiasm rather than stoking it.

Which is why I was thrilled to meet ranger Bill DeBerry, my guide for the morning at Fort Vancouver, just north of Portland in Vancouver, Wash. While his wispy white beard could suggest a pioneer aesthetic, the walkie-talkie holstered at his side was markedly more contemporary. He wore an earring.

“You can’t talk about Western expansion without talking about Fort Vancouver,” said DeBerry, leaning over an old map of North America. “See here?” With his finger he drew a triangle from Mexican California north to Russian Alaska and east to Montana. “This was all fur-trapping country,” he said. “Fur put this fort on the map.”

Back when beaver bonnets were the bling of high-society London, Fort Vancouver held the gaze of the Western world. From 1824 to 1860, the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company ran its vast fur-trading empire here. The broad prairie on the north bank of the Columbia River became a crossroads for explorers from England and Scotland, French Canadians, six American Indian tribes, and Hawaiians, who mingled in an eclectic population of trappers, missionaries, and lumbermen.

These days, the rebuilt fort lends its name to a 366-acre National Historic Site that includes an array of military facilities, active for 150 years before their closure in 2000, and one of the oldest continuously operating airfields in the country. Stands of old-growth Douglas fir frame walking paths that connect one pocket of history to the next, all beneath the watchful eye of snow-capped Mount Hood.

The modern experience of Fort Vancouver includes actors re-creating life in the 1840s, when the Hudson’s Bay Company employed some 600 workers at the outpost, making it one of the largest settlements west of the Rockies. In the blacksmith shop, soot-faced smithies mold hunks of iron into beaver traps. Next door, woodworkers craft everything from cradles to co≈ns. Hundreds of animal pelts hang like stalactites from the ceiling of the fur store, waiting to be sorted and pressed into 90-pound bales.

While this degree of historical reenactment typically bumps me out of an experience right away, the portrayals here, even in their abundance, felt surprisingly natural. As DeBerry described it: “No one is trying to win any acting awards.”

The fort’s bastion, or observation tower, offers a clear view of the adjacent U.S. Army post that opened in 1849. Within 10 years the military compound completely surrounded the Hudson’s Bay operation, and in 1860 the Brits withdrew to Canada, leaving the fort to become cropland.

The army post’s northern boundary is lined with the 22 houses of Officers Row, prominent among them buildings named for Ulysses S. Grant and George C. Marshall.

The Grant House is a classic French colonial–style dwelling, constructed from hand-hewn logs in 1849. Grant spent time in it while serving as quartermaster from 1852 to 1853, but he never lived there; the house was named for him after his two terms as 18th president of the United States. It is now a popular restaurant and whiskey bar.

Four doors down is the stately Marshall House, an 8,250-square-foot Queen Anne Victorian built in 1886, featuring stained glass and Philippine mahogany. Marshall lived here while commanding the garrison in the mid-1930s, before helming the Allied forces during World War II and, as secretary of state, authoring the Marshall Plan that revived postwar Europe. Today it can be rented out for events.

Following a trail that curls past the fort toward the river, I arrived at a tiny park with a single apple tree—the oldest in the state—which has blossomed every year since 1826. How cool would it have been to stand next to this same tree 106 years ago when Lincoln Beachey landed his motorized dirigible in the adjacent field to deliver a letter to the fort commander?

The Pearson Air Museum now sits at the foot of the field, marking a century of aviation with two hangars’ worth of vintage aircraft. Old flyboys get misty-eyed in the presence of a replica 1914 Voisin (one of only two in the world), while their grandkids clock stick time in the flight simulator lab.

In the older hangar—a sturdy wooden structure dating back to 1918—I met docent John Kalde, who worked on engines for B-17 bombers during World War II. He showed me a Wasp Major, the largest piston engine ever assembled. (At nearly 4,000 pounds, with 28 cylinders and 3,500 horsepower, it was the last of the true brutes before turbo changed everything.)

Kalde was born the year the hangar was erected—a genuine old-timer. This was fine by me. Fort Vancouver’s reenactors do a great job bringing history back to life, but nothing beats the real thing.

Photography by David H. Collier

This article was first published in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.