One of the things we like best about visiting national parks is the unexpected. In this, Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, the first stop on our Oregon road trip did not disappoint. We’re a bit embarrassed to say the fort felt more like a “check-off-the-list” site. We only had about 2 hours to visit before moving on to Crater Lake National Park.
We quickly learned Fort Vancouver had a great deal to offer. A mix of federal land management agencies, a mix of Washington and Oregon, and a mix of two eras in American history.
Here is a recap of our visit on September 15, 2018:
Divided In History
Most national historic sites we’ve visited are dedicated to one specific geographic area and one specific period in time. Lewis and Clark National Historical Park protects the most important sites where the famous expedition landed on the Pacific Coast. Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site protects one of the elementary school buildings at the center of the 1950’s landmark court decision.
Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is unique in that it protects a specific geographic area that was relevant in two different points of American history.
The unit divides into two separate distinct areas with nearly a century of time between them.
It’s not often we get a close look at World War I military history and then step back into the days of fur trading voyageurs. But that’s exactly what we did on our visit.
Part of the unit is a replica fort, built to commemorate the 1820’s site of the Hudson Bay Company’s trading post. It includes a blacksmith shop, main house, and a trading post where the goods and housewares of the time are on display.
The other part of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site features the Pearson Air Museum and the Vancouver Barracks. Constructed in 1849 when the Hudson Bay Company abandoned the site, the US Army erected the first army base in the Pacific Northwest at the Fort Vancouver site. It was here that the army used the area’s infamous Sitka Spruce trees to build some of the world’s first military aircraft. At its peak, the army base produced over a million board feet of lumber every day for the war effort.
Divided by State
Washington and Oregon
Not only is Fort Vancouver National Historic Site divided in history, but the site is also divided by state lines. The largest area of the Fort Vancouver lies on the banks of the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington about 15 minutes from downtown Portland. This is the area we visited and spent the most time. However, there is also a unit of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site located 45 minutes south in Oregon City, Oregon.
Here visitors can step into the home of Dr. John McLoughlin, a pioneer physician who was essential in greeting many of the newcomers from the Oregon Trail. He is known by many as “The Father of Oregon” for his work with the Hudson Bay Company and with the earliest residents of the territory.
National Park and National Forest
It’s also not too often that we visit national park sites that are shared with other government land management agencies. The visitor’s center at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site shares both National Park Service offices and USDA offices for the National Forest Service. Since 2016 the Forest Service has operated the headquarters of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest out of the Vancouver Barracks. Both agencies staff the visitor’s center.
We spent some time talking with the Forest Service ranger about hiking and camping in the area. With only one night in the Portland area, we know we’ll be traveling back someday.
Our Fort Vancouver National Historic Site Highlights:
- The Pearson Air Museum has artifacts and mementos of the first trans-polar flight in 1937. The Soviet Union launched the plane from Moscow to San Fransisco. Three days later it landed at the Pearson Airfield with engine troubles. It was fun to think about tiny Vancouver, Washington playing such a big role in what must have been a major feat at the time.
- The Friends of Fort Vancouver maintain a gorgeous historical garden outside the fort. By our September visit, much of the summer’s crops were harvested. But it was clear the volunteer group spends time carefully selecting heirloom varieties and using historical garden plans.
- If you plan a visit to Fort Vancouver, be sure to check when the site has living history opportunities. On most weekends, the site has historical reenactments of life at the fort. We always think it’s better to experience the weapons, clothes, and stories of a historic site in action! There were also signs posted (and recommendations from our friends on Instagram!) for lantern-led ranger tours in the evenings. It didn’t happen for us this trip, but we think it would be top-notch to see the site in the dark!
Some more images from our visit: