Walking Washington's History: Airplanes And Fort Life In Vancouver

Sep 20, 2016

Editor's note: This story was written by a Northwest Public Radio listener as part of our "Walking Washington's History" series. We asked listeners to take one of ten historical walks in a book of the same name by Judy Bentley. Stories are have been edited minimally to preserve the writer's experiences, and all photos were provided by the participants.

Fred Bateman, standing in a garden containing examples of crops that were grown to feed Fort Vancouver residents.
Credit Fred Bateman

  The Walker: Fred W. Bateman 

I arrived in Vancouver in 1981 from Spokane.  I came to Vancouver to help start C-TRAN, the county’s public transit system.  My earliest ancestor (Nicholas Bateman) arrived in Vancouver  in 1849 with the first US Army unit to arrive after the border was settled with Great Britain ( Canada). This led to the creation of the Oregon Territory, which included all of the Northwest. 

When Nicholas’ enlistment was up, he elected to remain in Vancouver, rather than return to New York. He then received a warrant for 160 acres in what would become Vancouver. Therefore in walking through Vancouver, I walked where several generations of ancestors lived and walked. 

I was accompanied on this walk by Janet Shelton,  who also took pictures in order to share what we saw.

The Walk: Vancouver 

Background: Although Vancouver grew up along the river, in time further growth was north as the city turned its back to the river. Development such as the railroad berm and bridges meant that the river could be at best ignored and at worst be used as a dumping ground. Ship building during the World Wars brought activity which was replaced by industrial development which further separated the residents from the river. Changes to industry and the need to clean up the land along the river in the 1970s and 1980s led to the rediscovery of the river and resulted in new tails, residences, restaurants and offices which served to draw people back to the river and the historical area north of the river. 

The land bridge stretching from the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver.
Credit Fred Bateman

The walk - or as the book sometimes refers to it, a ramble:  As the walk is a circle it can be begun and ended anywhere along the route. However, it is very fitting to begin at the river. Crossing under the railroad berm we visited the old apple tree which dates from 1830. The land bridge provides a crossing over the freeway,  however with native plantings, artwork and observation areas it is much more than a bridge and helps buffer the walk from rail and highway noise. After crossing on the land bridge we visited a replica of the typical house of the Fort Vancouver resident, the vast majority of whom did not live within the fort walls. It was interesting that various groups such as Canadians, French and Hawaiians lived on separate streets. The Hawaiian culture continues: Vancouver has an annual Hawaiian Festival.

Next stop was the stockade. It contains reproductions of several buildings which existed in the original fort. Volunteers and Park Service employees in period costumes, explain the activities which took place there.

All structures at Fort Vancouver are recreations of original buildings. This house is an example of the housing outside of the stockade.
Credit Fred Bateman

  When the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) left for Canada after the border settlement and the US Army arrived the land was repurposed  for their needs. The Army base went through several changes of function, with new buildings added and old ones removed. Fortunately the HBC kept records and blueprints so the experience could be recreated. A nice attraction by the stockade is a garden, which is appropriate as large gardens were needed to feed the residents.

The Pearson Air Museum has many exhibits related to the Army including examples of planes that were flown during the Army’s active use at the Fort.
Credit Fred Bateman

  After leaving the HBC grounds we became immersed in the army experience. Next stop was the Pearson Air Museum.  Without going into great detail, it should be noted that there are four entities who control or influence the use of properties on what is called the fort. The parties generally work together to provide a unified experience, but a dispute on use of the Air Museum led to the removal of most of the aviation artifacts to the Pearson Field Education Center. The Park Service redirected the focus of the Museum to the history of the local Army activities. A fascinating exhibit is a large scale model of the world’s largest spruce lumber mill which operated at the fort during WW1 to produce lumber for airplanes. Outside of the museum is the Chkalov Monument. Chkalov was the pilot of a plane which set out to make the first transpolar flight. The route was to be from Moscow to San Francisco (non-stop). An oil leak forced the plane down at Pearson Field after more than three days, and left us with a street name most people can not pronounce correctly.  

Original Army housing units have been restored for present use. The Marshall House is a good example of the officers' housing. General George C. Marshall resided in this house as a Colonel in charge of the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930’s.
Credit Fred Bateman

  Next stop was the newly remodeled visitor center, which has educational materials for sale. Upon leaving we walked along Officer’s Row. Some of the houses are named after famous former residents such as Grant and Marshall. With the reduction of army activity these houses were transferred to the city in the 1980s. They are now rented as apartments and offices. At the west end of the property are a number of large barracks buildings and other structures which also transferred to the city recently and are undergoing renovation for other uses.

The Academy was built in 1873 to serve as the headquarters of the House of Providence. House of Providence today operates numerous hospitals throughout the West.
Credit Fred Bateman

  We then crossed over I-5 and entered the downtown area.  Beside the freeway is the Academy which was built in 1873 by Mother Joseph and band of nuns from Montreal. Earlier they built a hospital in 1858, the first in what is now Washington and led to dozens of hospitals throughout the west.  The Academy was recently acquired by the agency that manages the city -owned Fort properties, so a new element is being added to historic Vancouver.

And now for something new. Across the street from the Academy is the Vancouver Library.  In addition to providing state-of-the-art facilities for one of the busiest libraries in the state, it provides some other features such as a child development activity and on the fifth floor, an observation deck with a great view. Walking through downtown we passed several craft breweries typical of the Northwest. Arriving back at the river we found a marker for the witness tree, which served as the point of measure for local property lines. Being close to the river, one day it fell into the river and was washed downstream.  A fitting end for a ramble through Vancouver’s history.