Tuesday, January 31, 2023
Jan. 31, 2023

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Vancouver native rediscovers hometown documenting 11-mile walk on Mill Plain

By , Columbian staff writer
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8 Photos
Tom Lineham double checks a map in his book, "Mill Plain Boulevard, Vancouver, USA: A Walking History," while strolling along the street on a recent morning.
Tom Lineham double checks a map in his book, "Mill Plain Boulevard, Vancouver, USA: A Walking History," while strolling along the street on a recent morning. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Picture Vancouver’s primary crosstown boulevard — busy with traffic, tightly lined by businesses and homes — as a primitive wagon road linking the original Fort Vancouver to a sprawling farming community miles to the northeast.

“Suddenly the road leads out from the thick woods into the broad Mill Plain, where the green fields of fall and spring grain… even and beautiful, are suggestive of full granaries, fat cattle and horses, and peace and plenty in the farmer’s home,” a local traveler wrote in the Vancouver Independent newspaper in April 1878. “The spin down Mill Plain Avenue is the most delightful ride in the county.”

Vancouver native Tom Lineham decided to reproduce that delightful ride — on his own two feet — in journeys of discovery along all 11 miles of today’s Mill Plain Boulevard. The second edition of his wayfaring travelogue, “Mill Plain Boulevard, Vancouver, USA: A Walking History,” is now for sale at the Clark County Historical Museum.

All book sales benefit the museum. That’s appropriate, Lineham said, since museum Executive Director Brad Richardson helped to inspire the project.

Lineham grew up in Vancouver and graduated from Fort Vancouver High School. He went on to college and adult life in Ellensburg, where he majored in history and served on the city council, and then Olympia, where he worked for state government and taught social studies at Puget Sound Community College.

When Lineham moved back to Vancouver, he was surprised at what he found.

“I realized my hometown had totally changed,” he said. “I needed to reacquaint myself with my town.”

Lineham started going on the historical walking tours sponsored by the museum and hosted by Richardson, whose chatty, personal approach inspired him to think up his own walking project: exploring the whole length of Mill Plain and educating himself about both history and the current scene as he went.

Always a personal journal keeper, Lineham also wanted to try writing for others. “I wanted to share what I discovered,” he said.

Lineham accomplished his first crosstown walk in 2011. He strolled the boulevard in segments, starting on the west near the Port of Vancouver and eventually finishing at 192nd Avenue, near Shahala Middle School and Fisher Basin Park.

“Each section offered me insights about the community, its people, businesses, transportation systems, values, cultures, worship centers, and sometimes intriguing secrets, too,” he writes.

One decade later, Lineham repeated the journey for a second edition — noting landmarks and changes, meeting random people and pumping them for stories and observations about their neighborhoods. Earlier this month, he revisited the downtown segment with a longtime Columbian reporter — who happened to recall a former Mill Plain attraction not in Lineham’s book: the colorfully decorated and dolled-up Rainbow House, which was demolished in 1999 to make way for the Mill Plain Extension road project.

“Fascinating story,” Lineham emailed later. “Need to get this in for the next edition!”

Red brick

Lineham’s book sprinkles personal history into the city’s history. His father, an electrician on the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway, worked at Vancouver’s westside rail yard.

“From my childhood home on 28th Street, some two miles away, I often heard the early morning melancholic moan of a train’s horn,” he writes.

As a city councilman in Ellensburg and as a budget analyst in Olympia, Lineham said, his main interest was infrastructure development. In his book, he appreciates how the recent Mill Plain Extension project both modernized and beautified the vital roadway to the Port of Vancouver.

But he also notes that tile-art alcoves intended to buffer the Hough neighborhood from increased truck traffic were quickly overrun by “vandals and litterbugs.” Those alcoves are still trashy, and people are living in tents nearby, he found during his recent walk with The Columbian.

Homelessness “is the hardest problem for municipalities to solve,” he said.

In his first edition, Lineham spies “the remains of some of the old brick enterprises” along Mill Plain, and notes the demise of downtown’s foundational Hidden Brick Company. In the 2022 update, he praises the development of many tidy apartment buildings along the downtown corridor, which seems “much improved aesthetically with its red brick motif and the promising tree canopy.”

But Lineham was reminded whose turf the road has really become, he writes, when he stepped into a crosswalk and a truck blared its horn.

Lineham’s first-edition walk brought him to the former Burgerville USA drive-in at the corner of C Street — “a cinderblock eyesore,” he writes, as well as a beloved and historic site for many.

But not for him. “I was a Fort Vancouver Trapper,” Lineham writes, “thus I mostly hung out at its rival, Dairy Queen, on 28th and Main Street.”

Ten years later, that emblematic Burgerville has been replaced by “a stately brick apartment complex, Prestige Plaza,” Lineham writes.

During his first-edition walk, Lineham observed a line of cars backed up at the Mill Plain onramp, waiting out an Interstate 5 Bridge lift.

“I wondered how many combined precious human hours and how much precious fuel was wasted each day as hundreds of vehicles waited,” he wrote in the 2012 edition.

“Ten years later,” says his 2022 edition, “debate still rages over the fate of the rusting interstate bridge.”

Major arterial

How many Vancouver residents remember the Memory Pool that once occupied the corner of Fort Vancouver Way?

“I can still remember the dingy, steamy locker rooms,” Lineham writes of the Central Park neighborhood landmark, which eventually burned and the remnants demolished.

The Central Park stretch of Mill Plain — featuring the greenery of Marshall Park, Propstra Field and Old City Cemetery — was the mellowest of Lineham’s walks, he writes.

“In this quiet, unassuming cemetery,” he writes of Old City Cemetery, “… lie soldiers of the Civil War, county commissioners, members of the territorial legislature, intrepid mothers and wives, workers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, veterans of various European wars, and famous local businesspeople and farmers.”

Esther Short, donor of land that became Vancouver’s storied downtown park, has a surprisingly modest headstone there, he writes.

Continuing east, Lineham chats with local poet Jim Martin about childhood memories of Harney Hill; visits his own ancestors in Park Hill Cemetery; and revisits the transformation of McLoughlin Heights from rural farmland to an “instant” wartime housing development for thousands of workers.

“The once sleepy Mill Plain Lane would never be the same as it evolved into a major arterial,” he writes.

Lineham traces the rise and fall of country schoolhouses along the once-rural road. And he visits a resident named James, who has lived across the street from PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center for six decades, witnessing the hospital’s growth — and gradual takeover of his neighborhood.

Bit of everything

While Mill Plain east of Interstate 205 seems young today, Lineham stresses that this is where the original Hudson’s Bay Company “established and operated its vast 1,000-acre Mill Plain farm in the early 1840s.”

The farm stretched from today’s 104th Avenue to 164th, but nothing remains of it. The same goes for Evergreen Field, a privately owned airport on the north side of the street, which closed in 2006.

“Nothing from the past can be seen on this part of the long, urbanized thoroughfare these days,” Lineham writes. “Today the primary theme for the area where agriculture once flourished is urban sprawl and big box stores.”

But Lineham can’t bring himself to criticize. “I’m a sucker for new streets, sidewalks, curbs and gutters … so I quickly put aside my existential grief over the loss of a once-beautiful area in the county,” he writes. “That is progress, I suppose.”

Mill Plain Boulevard “is not known for its beauty or aesthetics,” Lineham said. “It doesn’t have a lot of charm. But it sure has a whole lot of stories. There is a very rich culture here. We’ve got a little bit of everything.”