Bridging Northwest history

Land Bridge links Vancouver to its rich and storied past

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter


photoThe Vancouver Land Bridge is one of seven sites in the Columbia River system that are part of the Confluence Project — and part of the International Discovery Walk, held yearly in Vancouver.

(/The Columbian)


For more information on life in Clark County, visit


• 1792: American Capt. Robert Gray discovered the mouth of the Columbia River. Later, British Capt. George Vancouver sent Lt. William Broughton up the river, and he went as far as the site of Washougal, naming Point Vancouver — 20 miles upstream from present-day Vancouver — in honor of his captain.

• 1805: Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lt. William Clark visited and camped along Lake River. After wintering at Fort Clatsop near Astoria, Ore., they returned and camped near today’s Washougal in 1806.

• 1825: Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Vancouver, the hub of its Northwest fur-trading empire, atop a bluff roughly where the Washington School for the Deaf stands today. Four years later, the company moved the fort to where the current replica stockade was built, closer to the river.

• 1846: A treaty between the United States and Britain established the 49th parallel as the southern boundary of Canada, presaging the transfer of Fort Vancouver to the U.S. Army in 1849.

• Jan. 27, 1857: The city of Vancouver incorporated.

• 1905: A flying field opened at Vancouver Barracks. Now known as Pearson Field, it has been continuously operating longer than any other airfield in the United States.

• Valentine’s Day, 1917: 40,000 celebrants opened the Interstate Bridge, the last link in the Pacific Highway from Canada to Mexico. In 1958, another span was built alongside the original to meet the travel demands of a growing population and economy.

• 1942: Riverfront property owned by Vancouver’s Hidden family was transformed into Kaiser’s Vancouver Shipyard. During World War II, about 120,000 men and women came to build ships for the fight against Germany, Italy and Japan. The first ship, the S.S. George Vancouver, was launched July 4, 1942. The last ship was outfitted in May 1946.

• Nov. 24, 1971: On Thanksgiving eve, a man giving the name Dan Cooper hijacked a Northwest Orient flight from Portland to Seattle. He collected parachutes and $200,000 in ransom money in Seattle and parachuted out somewhere over Ariel into a cold, rainy night. He’s never been found. But in 1978, an 8-year-old Vancouver boy uncovered $5,800 of Cooper’s loot on a Columbia River beach near Frenchman’s Bar.

• May 18, 1980: The largest landslide in recorded history uncorked a gas-charged reservoir of magma from Mount St. Helens. The eruption leveled 230 square miles of forest, killed 57 people and shot a plume of ash 15 miles high.

• 1982: The Glenn Jackson Bridge linked Interstate 205 between Portland and Cascade Park, setting the stage for rapid growth in what became east Vancouver.

• 2009: Vancouver’s population reached 164,500 and it maintained its position as the state’s fourth-largest city after Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane.

• 2011: Military activity ended at Vancouver Barracks, with the site destined to be transferred to the National Park Service.

To reflect on local history, you might walk to a particular viewpoint where you can look to the sky, the water and the land. And fittingly enough, the historical reflections can include the site of that viewpoint.

A recent chapter in the area’s historical saga is the Vancouver Land Bridge, dedicated in 2008 as a component of Maya Lin’s Confluence Project.

As one of seven sites designed along 450 miles of the Columbia River system, it has been described as part of the largest piece of land art ever created.

But the land bridge also links us with the histories of people who have lived in this area for thousands of years. Their lives are remembered in modern versions of petroglyph art, in masonry patterns and metal sculptures echoing traditional basket patterns, and in the words for “land,” “river” and “people” as they were spoken by several Northwest tribes.

More recent arrivals are portrayed by reproductions of paintings and drawings done in the early 1800s, when the Hudson’s Bay Company established its fort; they’re displayed along the bridge. So are photographs that represent the next wave, taken after the U.S. Army took control of the Fort Vancouver site.

And rooted in the earth near the south end of the bridge is a living survivor of the Hudson’s Bay era: Vancouver’s Old Apple Tree, which dates back to the 1820s. Even though it was damaged in 2009 and trimmed back, the apple tree remains a link to the era of settlement.

The bridge also offers a viewpoint of many of the land, water and air routes that have made the area an important commercial hub and a gathering place.

People walking along the sweeping curve of the land bridge can see the Columbia River, a major waterway and food source that linked Northwest natives with other tribesmen traveling along the Klickitat trail.

Two centuries ago, the river served as a gateway for the explorers whose names now are part of our community: George Vancouver, who never visited but whose exploration party came upriver from the Pacific Ocean, and Lewis and Clark, whose Corps of Discovery passed through heading toward the Pacific Ocean and returning east.

During World War II, the river spawned an industrial center — the Kaiser Shipyard — that drew workers and their families from all over the nation.

The land bridge also provides a look at several nearby sites where aviation history took place in the skies over Vancouver.

Dating back to 1905, Pearson Field is billed as the oldest operating airfield in the United States. The Pearson Air Museum’s historic hangar was built in 1918 as part of the U.S. Army’s effort to turn Sitka spruce into material for World War I airplanes. It was the largest facility of its kind in the world.

In 1937, three Soviet aviators completed the first nonstop flight from Moscow over the North Pole to the United States. The 75th anniversary celebration of that event is planned for this summer.

Inland treasures

And that’s just the view from the Vancouver Land Bridge. The area has an even richer history that is displayed in museums from Vancouver to Washougal to Amboy, and commemorated at parks and historic sites.

The Lewis and Clark expedition camped in only two places in the modern-day Portland-Vancouver area, and both campsites are in Clark County — at what is now Capt. William Clark Park at Cottonwood Beach in Washougal, and near the Indian village of Cathlapotle near Ridgefield.

They were followed by European-Americans who established a permanent settlement at Vancouver at least 20 years earlier than at Portland. Today’s Vancouver was born Jan. 23, 1857.

Back then, it was a town of 250, with muddy streets and a limit of two cows per household. Residents included a regiment of soldiers fresh from a fight with natives at the Cascades of the Columbia, a few adventurers, a settlement of American Indians, and the Sisters of Providence.

Archaeologists and historians continue to reveal more local history: It can be reflected in the stone artifacts, crafted by local tribes, that were uncovered by a recent freeway project near Battle Ground, and in the garbage tossed out a century ago by residents of downtown Vancouver.

Places to explore

In recent years, the area has begun to take pride in its Chinook and Cowlitz heritage, and in other historical highlights:

The Chinook Tribe led an effort to build a replica plankhouse like those its ancestors used at Ridgefield.

The influence of Northwest tribes inspired Lin’s participation in the design of the Vancouver Land Bridge.

The Clark County Historical Museum frequently offers new displays showing off its rare and extensive holdings, including more than 200 Indian baskets.

An 80-acre Capt. William Clark Park at Cottonwood Beach was established at Washougal.

The Pearson Air Museum offers displays and festivals celebrating the history of flight.

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site continues its archaeological exploration of the 1825 Hudson’s Bay Company outpost and offers “living history” presentations.

The Two Rivers Heritage Museum of Washougal and the North Clark Historical Museum at Amboy continually upgrade their displays and offer public programs.

A new Veterans Museum opened in 2011 on the Vancouver VA campus. It is housed in a modest brick structure built in 1940 as a radio transmitter building, near the Veterans Memorial Garden.

All this activity is fitting. This area, says Superintendent Tracy Fortmann of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, is just as history-rich as Jamestown on the East Coast.

Looking to the Past

• Camas-Washougal Historical Society and Two Rivers Heritage Museum, 1 Durgan St., Washougal. 360-835-8742.

• Clark County Historical Museum, 1511 Main St., Vancouver. Susan Tissot, 360-993-5679.

• Clark County Genealogical Society, 717 Grand Blvd., Vancouver, 360-750-5688.

• Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, on Evergreen Boulevard east of Interstate 5, 360-816-6200.

• North Clark Historical Museum, 21416 N.E. 399th St., Amboy, 360-247-5800.

• Pearson Air Museum, 1115 E. Fifth St., Vancouver, 360-694-7026.

• Veterans Museum, on the Vancouver VA campus, near the Veterans Memorial Garden. 360-737-1441.

• Fort Vancouver National Trust, O.O. Howard House: 750 Anderson St., Vancouver, 360-992-1800.

• Confluence Project, 1610 C St., Vancouver. Jane Jacobsen, 360-693-0123.