Go local on Labor Day: Tour the history of work in Clark County

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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Clark County has always been hard at work. The reason this community exists at all is because natural resources and commerce beckoned to people hungry for riches — or just to make a simple living.

Looking for something truly meaningful to do over the long Labor Day weekend? Try this tour of historic (and ongoing) local labor sites — places where hard work has made all the difference. Up for that job?

First base

Nearly two centuries ago, drawn by East Coast investors and the booming fur trade, hundreds of laborers for the Hudson’s Bay Company, based at and around Fort Vancouver, made up the European population center of the Pacific Northwest. “Company employees, their wives, and children supported the fort’s extensive operations including several hundred square miles of agricultural land, a shipyard, distillery, tannery, sawmill, gristmill, and dairies,” the fort’s website says.

But natural resources do get depleted — surprise! — and as fur trapping went dry, settlers shifted over even more to farming and small business. Native Hawaiians, significant to the fur trade, became an even larger part of the busy working village outside the fort, which was called “Kanaka,” the Hawaiian word for person. The ethnically diverse village was also home to French Canadians, Scots, English, Métis, and members of many different Native nations.

Decades later, during the Great Depression, the former Kanaka Village area was the regional training facility and headquarters for the hardworking Civilian Conservation Corps, which stimulated the economy and created a lasting public-works legacy in beloved local landmarks like Oregon’s Timberline Lodge and Silver Falls State Park.

The reconstructed fort ($5 admission fee) and nearby visitor center (free) are always closed Sundays and Mondays, but the expansive national historic reserve area, including a couple of reconstructed Kanaka homes, is always open for strolling.

Papermaker pride

We enjoy pointing out that newspapers have everything to do with the creation of Camas. When Oregonian Publisher Henry Pittock went hunting for sufficient land, water and raw materials to build a massive paper mill, he found it all here. Pittock bought 2,600 acres that boasted harvest-ready timber and dammable streams; the dam and 7,000-foot aqueduct that still sends water from Lacamas Park to what’s now the Georgia-Pacific paper mill was mostly dug by dozens of Chinese laborers.

(More than 100 Chinese also dug a drainage ditch that ran alongside what’s now Northeast 172nd Avenue; it became known as China Ditch.)

Georgia-Pacific recently created a history-oriented visitor center that ties together the products, the people and the pride of Camas. Timelines, photographs and yesteryear’s factory equipment, paper products, worker mementos and other artifacts are on hand.

The visitor center is only open from 5-8 p.m. one day per month — every first Friday, during Camas’ First Friday Festival — at 401 N.E. Adams St. Admission is free.

Rights, fights and the river

The budding labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was marked by bitter and sometimes violent conflicts between workers, companies and civil authorities. When a weeklong strike was called at the Camas mill, management hired nonunion workers to replace them; when numerous strikes led to the permanent closure of the Standifer Shipbuilding Corp., Clark County’s largest employer in 1921, thousands lost their jobs.

Just a few years ago, a contract dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and various regional grain exporters resulted in claims of worksite sabotage, a worker lockout, picketing strikers and a temporary shutdown of United Grain Corp. operations at the Port of Vancouver. Local police, state and federal agriculture officials, and the governor were all involved; a contract agreement was finally reached after two years of ugliness.

More than 6 million tons of cargo — wheat, minerals, automobiles, wind turbines — annually pass through the port, which is also home to 50-plus industrial tenants that make everything from wood paneling to beer malt.

Regularly scheduled public bus tours are almost all booked for the rest of this year, but the Port of Vancouver works with interested groups to set up special outings that explore who’s doing what work along the waterfront. Visit www.portvanusa.com/community/know-your-port or call 360-693-3611 to find out more.

Towering history

If the fort was the foundation for what became Vancouver, then the Kaiser Shipyards of World War II was the major remodel and expansion. Vancouver again played a key role in American history as it housed and put to work many thousands of laborers who migrated here from all over the nation to win a better standard of living while winning the war against fascism.

Simple, sturdy “war housing” in Fruit Valley and McLoughlin Heights included schools, community centers and health facilities; one of the many remarkable things about Vancouver’s rapid inflation at that time was its color blindness and racial integration.

The massive Kaiser Shipyards are gone now — replaced by new industry along the waterfront — but if you head out to Marine Park at 4500 S.E. Columbia Way, and climb the Henry J. Kaiser Shipyard Memorial Tower, you’ll be treated to a bird’s eye view of the river and the waterfront stretch where as many as 38,000 workers once built warships and other vessels.

Many of those workers were women; walk the Waterfront Renaissance Trail east past McMenamins and Beaches to visit a modernist sculpture of “Wendy the Welder” — Rosie the Riveter’s tougher local cousin — created by a recent group of “Women Who Weld.”

Warm and fuzzy

Englishman and weaver Thomas Kay started his business in Salem, Ore., in the 1860s, but in 1909 his descendants moved it out to northeastern Oregon — sheep country — where they revived the operations and name of a defunct local maker of Native American blankets: Pendleton Woolen Mills. In 1912 the company opened a weaving mill for other clothing in Washougal. Today, the company — still run by the family and still reportedly employing happy descendants of original employees — owns dozens of stores and facilities as well as a popular catalog business.

Washougal’s Pendleton Woolen Mill, one of the last of its kind in America, offers free tours at 9, 10 and 11 a.m. on weekday mornings plus one more at 1:30 p.m. Reservations are not required and the mill, at 2 Pendleton Way, occasionally adds extra tours when demand is high. But if you do want to reserve a spot or make special group arrangements, call 360-835-1118.