Re-enactors shed light on life at the fort

By Ashley Swanson, Columbian features news coordinator


photoMembers of the 1st Oregon Volunteer Infantry Regiment Company A, 1865, meet with visitors during the Campfires and Candlelight tour at the Vancouver National Historic Reserve.
photoEmily Coder of Battle Ground washes dishes during Fort Vancouver National Historic Site’s Campfires and Candlelight.

If you go

What: 30th annual Campfires and Candlelight event, featuring 150 re-enactors presenting life at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site during different time periods and inside the fort’s stockade walls.

When: 4 to 10 p.m. Sept. 14.

Where:Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, 1001 E. Fifth St.

Cost: Free.

Information: 360-816-6230.

As the sun sets to the west of Fort Vancouver, the glow of campfires will light a path through camps of pioneers, Army men, Russian pilots and Hudson’s Bay employees. Think of it as a stroll through time, illuminated by candlelight instead of cool sci-fi effects.

Such is the annual Campfires and Candlelight event, which has offered evening programs of living history at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site since 1983.

"Every year what I look forward to most is that period of twilight, when the sun is down and the candles are lit, around 7:30 or 8 o’clock,” said Greg Shine, chief ranger and historian for the site.

"The candlelight and candle lanterns take over; it’s a magical moment for me."

Six main time periods will be represented on the "Timeline of History" walking path, taking people back to the era of the fort: the Chkalov flight, World War I, the Civil War, the Oregon Trail pioneers, the Indian Wars and the Hudson’s Bay Company Village.

"I arrived in 2002," Shine said. The timeline "had begun just a year or so before," and it helps give historical context to the entire site.

"Having those many layers of history in one place makes a job like mine as a historian never-ending," Shine said in good humor.

One of the highlights of this year’s event will be a wash line with 19th century Army washer women, where visitors can try their hands at laundry done the old-fashioned way: with the water heated over an open flame.

A Russian re-enactor will play Soviet pilot Valery Chkalov in a press conference atmosphere, and there will be a demonstration of the Army’s Civil War-era weapons.

Inside the fort, volunteers will re-enact the night of Sept. 13, 1846, when the Hudson’s Bay Company came to the aid of the wrecked American naval vessel, the USS Shark.

"The story gave us a reason for the fort being open at night," Shine said, alluding to part of the evolution of the Campfires and Candlelight over the past three decades. "We’ve continued that by making the event more dialed in historically."

The story of the Shark also connects the British era of the Hudson’s Bay Company to the rise of the American era.

"It was a harbinger of the site’s future," Shine said, a reference to the U.S. Army establishing its outpost in 1849.

For fort volunteer Amber Smith, doing it all by candlelight "adds an aura to the whole thing," she said. "It gives it a more realistic feel, makes it a little more mysterious."

Smith has been a volunteer for the park service since 2008, and this will be her first year helping to coordinate behind the scenes while also appearing in the event.

"I will be playing Amelia Douglas," Smith said.

Amelia was wife to Hudson’s Bay officer James Douglas and the daughter of Chief Factor William Connolly of the North West Company"

"The ladies of the fort, they were not allowed to interact with the other women outside the fort or those working,” Smith said. "They spent a lot of time indoors."

Most of their activities were limited to sewing, knitting, keeping alive native lore (many were half-Native American) and raising their children.

"It wasn’t really a great time for females, knowing what was going on in the world. It was a simpler time, where everyone had their roles and were secure in their place," Smith said.

Visitors can learn about early 19th-century medicine from one of the park’s oldest volunteers. Fred Bridges, 83, will be in the dispensary until 7 p.m.

"He is just a fountain of knowledge," Smith said.

There’s a wide diversity of ages among the re-enactors.

"Our youth volunteers, from the Young Engagé and the Dame School, begin in January of each year, dedicating their weekends to studying about the past and developing in a character," Shine said.

About 150 re-enactors will portray various characters for the public.

Re-enactors along the timeline will be presenting history "in third person," Smith said. They can answer any questions and interact with visitors.

Those inside the Hudson’s Bay Company’s stockade, however, will be in "first person," becoming their characters as of 1846, from historic speech patterns to knowing history only up to their time.

Visitors might have to work a bit more to ferret out what they mean.

Many visitors are surprised to learn about the multiculturalism of the village next door, where the fort’s hundreds of lower-ranked employees, fur trappers and visiting workers stayed. There were 30 native tribes in the village, as well as people with ties to Germany, Portugal, Hawaii, Ireland, Scotland, Russia, Canada — and even the survivors of a Japanese shipwreck, Smith said.

"Everyone got along for the sake of business," she said, because no one was concerned about laying claims to the land.

In some ways, that made the imposing walls of the fort virtually useless, since there was such a good relationship between the fort and village dwellers at that time, with men passing back and forth.

When the stockade was built, members of the Hudson’s Bay Company weren’t sure what the situation was going to be with the locals, Smith said, but it wasn’t until the dispute of boundary lines between the British Empire and the young America, along with the western expansion of American settlers claiming land, that tensions rose, Smith said.

Campfires and Candlelight "allows the visitors to get a glimpse into history," Smith said. "It’s not just a dry reading. When people can get totally immersed in history (that way), it can be a revelation."