Wednesday, October 20, 2021
Oct. 20, 2021

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Clark Asks: Why are there stairs to the river by Who Song & Larry’s?

Photographs, building materials help historians date staircase leading to river’s edge

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
7 Photos
Along the Columbia River waterfront in 1987. The building that would become Who Song & Larry’s is in the background, with the stairs visible off to the right.
Along the Columbia River waterfront in 1987. The building that would become Who Song & Larry’s is in the background, with the stairs visible off to the right. The Columbian files Photo Gallery

Our most recent Clark Asks voting round ended in a tie for the first time. One of our readers asked: “Why is there an old staircase that goes down to the Columbia River by Who Song and Larry’s? What used to be there?”

The answer: It’s from a time when the U.S. Coast Guard had a station along the river.

The station was established sometime around 1940, according to Doug Wilson, archaeologist with the National Park Service and adjunct associate professor of anthropology at Portland State University.

“It’s also the location of the original government docks for the Vancouver Barracks,” Wilson said. “Before that, it was the docks for the Hudson’s Bay Company.”

As for the stairs themselves, Wilson said that a former student’s research found that they were built around 1967. They determined the dating of the stairs by referencing photographs, although the material used to make the stairs provided a vital clue.

“We don’t get a lot of concrete manufacturing until the 20th century, really, in the Northwest,” he said of the stairs. “They’re relatively recent.”

Wilson suspected that the stairs would have been used for smaller boats to access the station; larger boats would have had to pull up to the dock.

Local historian Pat Jollota also helped shed light on the history of the station — specifically, how it came to an end.

“When the military surplussed the barracks and began to give it away to various governments […] they wanted to build housing for the Coast Guard,” Jollota said.

But a county commissioner “objected strenuously” to that idea in the early 1970s, Jollota said, so it never happened. The National Park Service acquired the station in 1975 and built a waterfront park on the grounds in the early 1980s.

But the stairs aren’t all that remains of the station.

The USCGC Bluebell (WLI 313) is a buoy tender that was commissioned to Vancouver in 1945; it’s the second-oldest cutter in the Coast Guard fleet and the oldest on this side of the Mississippi River. Even though Bluebell has been operating out of the Coast Guard station in Swan Island in Portland since 1973, a piece of it was left behind to mark the first station it served.

“If you go to the waterfront park and look at the flagpole, it’s the mast from that cutter,” Jollota said. “It memorializes the Coast Guard station that everyone’s forgotten.”

(We’re still working on answering the other question in the voting round tie, “Where exactly is our recycling going now?” Stay tuned.)

Columbian staff writer
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