Gun-Marie Olsson popped her head out of the women’s restroom and called for her husband to hurry over. She wanted him to check out the ceiling.
Olsson and Ulf Rosdahl, from Kristianstad, Sweden, were enjoying an unexpected application of local history at the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center. The ceilings in both restrooms are painted in patterns that duplicate 180-year-old English dinnerware. The Spode china was used by Hudson’s Bay Company employees at Fort Vancouver, eventually discarded, and then excavated by archaeologists.
The two original china plates that inspired the ceilings are on display in a Visitor Center gallery. The restroom ceiling setting seems appropriate, since a lot of the artifacts in the Fort Vancouver collection were discovered in 19th-century toilet facilities.
“There was no organized system for how people rid themselves of trash,” said Elaine Dorset, a National Park Service archaeologist. “Privies were a place where they could get rid of trash.”
Now that trash is among the artifacts, places and structures that are part of Clark County history.
Some are overlooked nuggets reflecting prominent people, such as the monument to Ulysses S. Grant’s potato patch and the hidden heart of Mother Joseph.
Some have been signature elements of the local landscape for more than a century. A landmark church in downtown Vancouver — the first brick cathedral in Washington — resulted, in part, from an Indian massacre.
Enjoy at your leisure
They’re among the quirkier aspects of local history, something I learned to enjoy during my time as a reporter for The Columbian. Those 44 years included a lot of different beats, but writing about history has a particular appeal because of its staying power. A lot of our newspaper content is driven by immediacy: Somebody will always be looking for last night’s sports scores, tonight’s TV listings or tomorrow’s weather forecast.
History has a longer shelf life. It’s also something that can be enjoyed at your leisure. In addition to at least six museums, there are plenty of other places in Clark County that reflect specific aspects of history.
They’re not that hard to find, since most of them are in public places — including the office of the Clark County treasurer. A safe in the corner is labeled “Treasurer Clarke Co.” According to a 1925 Columbian story, the name of explorer William Clark was incorrectly spelled when the Washington Territory was formed. The “Clarke County” version held for 50 years until the governor signed a bill to correct the spelling on Dec. 23, 1925.
At Hough Elementary School, there is a nod to pioneering Vancouver educator Patrick “Paddy” Hough, who lent his name to the school as well as the neighborhood. Hough’s name is on the lifetime teaching credential that is on display in the front office of the school, 1900 Daniels St. The credential was issued to Hough in 1885 — back when this was Washington Territory. The desk Hough used during his long career in Vancouver also is in Hough Elementary.
Saved from the bay
At another namesake structure, the Harley H. Hall Building in Hazel Dell, a gallery in the front lobby honors the Vancouver pilot who was shot down on Jan. 27, 1973 — the final day of fighting in the Vietnam War. While there hasn’t been any news about the missing Navy pilot for decades, a new piece for the exhibit was installed recently, thanks to East Coast lobsterman Tim Handrigan. He was a kid when he met Hall after the Navy’s Blue Angels flew at an air show. In 1971, Hall had to eject from his Phantom jet over Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. Years later, a friend of Handrigan’s pulled up the aircraft’s canopy from the bottom of the bay. After the canopy was repaired and repainted, Handrigan eventually shipped it to Vancouver, where it is on display at 10000 N.E. Seventh Ave.
U.S. Grant earned acclaim for leading the Union to victory in the Civil War, and was twice elected U.S. president. Vancouver has a tribute to a less successful side gig: potato farming. The plaque is on a 5-foot-tall stone near Pearson Air Museum, along Davis Avenue. It’s just a few yards east of the intersection of Fifth and East Reserve streets.
Developed by conflict
Other Army officers who served here in the 19th century took part in Indian Wars: three decades of conflicts with Northwest tribes. An early part of the hostilities became known as the Whitman Massacre. In 1847, Cayuse Indians killed a Presbyterian missionary and a dozen other whites near Walla Walla. The Catholic Church transferred Bishop Augustin Blanchet to Vancouver to lead a new Nesqually Diocese. The former diocese in Walla Walla was, in Vatican terminology, suppressed. The Army eventually ousted the Catholic mission from its property next to the old Hudson’s Bay Company fort, and the diocese built what now is the Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater, 218 W. 12th St.
Mother Joseph was another religious leader who left her mark in masonry. In the 1870s, she designed and built Providence Academy, 400 E. Evergreen Blvd. Resources inside Providence Academy — displays, guided tours and augmented-reality technology — help tell the story.
There also is a tribute to Mother Joseph that thousands of people pass by every day along Evergreen Boulevard. But they probably don’t realize that the circular carriageway leading to the front entrance isn’t exactly circular.
“It’s heart-shaped,” said Richard Burrows, director of community outreach and programs at The Historic Trust. It’s a nod to the pioneering nun’s formal religious name — Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart.