Cathlapotle Plankhouse deemed success story

Ridgefield site the only one from Washington, Oregon, Idaho or Montana on federal heritage-advocacy group's list

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter



Did you know?

After disease swept through the native villages along the river in the 1800s, Cathlapotle was abandoned. James Carty arrived in the 1840s and his family farmed and grazed livestock on the land for more than a century. The Carty family sold the land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Ridge National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1965.

“Chinookan” refers to the language and culture group whose members lived in autonomous villages on both sides of the Columbia River from its mouth all the way to Celilo Falls, said archaeologist Virginia Park. They included the Cathlapotle, the Kathlamet, the Clatsop, the Clackamas, the Multnomah and the Chinook proper, to name a few.

If you go

Events: 2 p.m., Sept. 14: “American Indians in Cinema”; Oct. 4-5: Birdfest & Bluegrass.

Where: Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Carty Unit, 28908 N. Main Ave.

Cost: $3 per vehicle.

Information: 360-887-4106,

RIDGEFIELD — The Cathlapotle Plankhouse has been recognized as a leading example of historic preservation.

Built in the centuries-old style of the Chinook people, it is among 30 success stories listed by a federal heritage-advocacy agency. It's the only site from Washington, Oregon, Idaho or Montana on the list.

Although the plankhouse opened in 2005, don't think of it as a reproduction, says Sam Robinson, whose ancestors lived at the original Cathlapotle village along the Columbia River.

"It is not a replica plankhouse," Robinson, acting chairman of the Chinook Nation, noted. "This is the most modern plankhouse."

It will help carry tribal traditions into future decades. Members of the Chinook Nation bring it to life during fire-lit ceremonies, filling it with singing, drumming and dancing. They include Robinson's 9-year-old granddaughter Destany Reeves, who is just about the same age as the plankhouse.

The volunteers who built it were able to use some traditional techniques.

"They split planks with old technologies, using wedges," said Greg Robinson, who is Sam's cousin. The Chinook artist was the project manager, coordinating volunteers and gathering materials.

"It's difficult to get a traditional project through federal regulations," Greg Robinson said, especially when it includes open fire pits inside a wooden structure. "Tribal members are the only people who can have fires."

The Cathlapotle Plankhouse is in the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. That makes it eligible for the list compiled by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, which recognizes heritage stewardship on federally managed lands.

In a November 1805 journal entry, William Clark said he counted 14 houses at "Quathlapotle nation" as his group paddled west toward the Pacific Ocean. The community was home to an estimated 900 people.

The nine-year-old plankhouse was not built over the remains of the Cathlapotle village, for a couple of reasons. That location still has archaeological significance.

"We wanted to protect the site," said Virginia Parks, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife archaeologist.

Since the waters of the Columbia River have meandered in the last two centuries, the current plankhouse site is a better example of the old village's riverbank setting. It's also on higher ground than the traditional village site.

"We had to deal with a 100-year flood plain," Greg Robinson said.

The DNA of those long-gone houses is in the design of today's Cathlapotle. That is the result of years of research led by Portland State University professor Ken Ames, in partnership with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Chinook Nation.

"We know the measurements," Parks said. "We know how thick the planks were, how wide and how long, and where the post holes were, based on the results of the excavation. We had details like that."

Several plankhouse sites were identified during the archaeological excavation, ranging from 40 to 200 feet long. The Cathlapotle Plankhouse is 78 feet long, 37 feet wide and 20 feet high at the roof peak.

Meriwether Lewis described the plankhouse interiors in a March 1806 journal entry: "… they are also fond of sculpture, various figures are carved and painted on the pieces which support the center of the roof, and the doors …"

The Corps of Discovery commanders did more than document what they saw during their travels.

"The Lewis and Clark Bicentennial was the imminent event that gave us the impetus" to build the plankhouse, Parks said.

"We're proud of it," project manager Greg Robinson said. "This is one of the significant legacy projects of the Lewis and Clark commemoration."

The project illustrates the relationship between our nation's westward expansion and deep tribal roots: Carbon dating indicates that people built those structures at Cathlapotle for about 2,500 years. That's one of the things that makes Cathlapotle a historic preservation success.

"This is such a fabulous story," said Bruce Milhans, spokesman for the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. "It's a place where the European expansion story and native occupation of the Americas comes together and interprets both those things."

It also highlights an aspect of "history that has been under-represented in our traditional telling of our national story," Milhans said. "Cathlapotle was an amazing civilization along the Columbia River long before Europeans arrived."

The plankhouses illustrate that, Greg Robinson said: "This was one of the top 10 richest places in the world."

It wasn't just the abundant natural resources that made farming unnecessary; the community was at the hub of a network of waterways and trails that made it a regional trading center. It was a culture that could create structures much bigger than the plankhouse that hosted a recent Sunday event.

Measured against the buried evidence of old plankhouses in the archaeological site, he said, "This one is medium to small."

Relative size isn't a factor, however, when visitors duck through the smallish circular door and gaze at the interior and its furnishings. What matters is making "human connections with history that they can literally touch," Milhans said.

These tribally inspired structures are "the only way a contemporary American can gain any appreciation for what was there 400 years ago," Milhans said.