After you’ve climbed the easy 55 steps, train your eyes on the sweeping view of the historic Vancouver waterfront and the Columbia River, not so much on the Henry J. Kaiser Shipyard Memorial itself.
The panorama is beautiful and educational. The triangular tower is, too, but it needs a thorough graffiti-cleanup job. (Go figure: Some illegal scribblers bother to leave their full names.)
The tower’s steps are relatively shallow and reach just three stories — about 30 feet — into the sky over Vancouver’s Marine Park Boat Launch, where parking costs $5. From up there, you can watch traffic in the river and in the sky. Upriver are nearby beachcombers and Mount Hood in the distance. Downriver are Vancouver’s waterfront industries and the Interstate 5 Bridge.
The Henry J. Kaiser Shipyard Memorial tower recalls a time when our own Vancouver was at the center of the World War II effort, a massive military-industrial project that also transformed this city forever.
The Columbian hereby puffs up its normally modest, journalistically neutral chest to report that the tower was our idea.
It came up in a 1990 Columbian column by Brian Cantwell, said Vancouver marketing manager Melody Burton. That was when the shipyards were approaching their 50th anniversary.
We contacted Cantwell, who’s now retired and living the San Juan Islands. In 1990, he pursued a monthslong reporting project to visit other urban waterfronts and see what Vancouver might do with its own historic waterfront, then in a “state of neglect and lack of public access,” Cantwell said by email.
Henry J. Kaiser was an ambitious construction magnate from the East Coast who built dams in the West, and then got into shipbuilding in California in 1940 with war on the horizon.
“Kaiser’s shipyards rewrote the book on this town,” Cantwell wrote in a December 1990 Columbian column. “It was 49 years ago this week that America was in a panic, mobilizing for war. A week earlier, much of the U.S. Pacific fleet was bombed to the bottom of Pearl Harbor.
“Within weeks, just halfway into January 1942, miracle-maker (Henry) Kaiser had bought 100 acres of Fred and Bertha Boss’ family farm and leased another 100 acres along the Columbia River from Vancouver’s Hidden family.
Most of those original structures are gone now, but the Kaiser Permanente health care company remains.
The immediate need for labor drew diverse workers from across a growing nation. Inspired by songs, posters and magazine covers of Rosie the Riveter, women took jobs at the shipyard working alongside men.
Many Black people left the South to find more opportunity and freedom from discrimination in the Pacific Northwest. They may have found it, but it didn’t last. The Black population of Vancouver plummeted from 9,000 in 1940 to just 440 in 1960, according to the Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium at the University of Washington, and has never really recovered. In 2020, the decennial U.S. Census counted 6,228 Black people in Vancouver, about 3 percent of a total population of nearly 191,000.
Business and labor
In the early 1990s, the city formed a committee to pursue the same goal as Cantwell’s journalism: reimagining how Vancouver could reconnect with the river.
“Quite a few important projects came out of that multiyear initiative, including the Columbia River Renaissance Trail,” Burton said. “The committee incorporated the idea of a Kaiser Shipyard memorial into their overall planning along the riverfront, and in June 1992 they announced plans to construct the Kaiser Shipyards Observation Tower.”
Cantwell’s editors decided it would be OK for him to step over the usual journalistic line of mandatory neutrality to serve on the committee.
“We had a number of meetings, usually over coffee at The Holland restaurant, a longtime downtown landmark,” Cantwell recalled. “I ended up taking a lead role in writing copy for interpretive plaques that were placed at the tower.”
A $75,000 grant from Kaiser Permanente was a major catalyst in getting the job done. Other local nonprofits and foundations made smaller donations, and unions donated approximately $80,000 in construction work. The Henry J. Kaiser Shipyard Memorial tower was dedicated on Sept. 30, 1992, with great-granddaughter Ashley Kaiser of Portland smashing a bottle of Champagne against it in a reenactment of so many local warship christenings. A crowd of former shipyard workers and sailors was in attendance.
“It was one of the early manifestations of reopening the Columbia riverfront to the public,” Cantwell said. “Riverfront trails, residential development, the Maya Lin Land Bridge, and commercial projects west of the bridge have all followed.”
Cantwell’s stories won a national journalism award from the American Planning Association.
“I credit (then-editor) Tom Koenninger for taking an advocacy role in a community he loved,” he said.
Ironically, there’s little left to see of the bustling shipyards that used to be right here. But climbing the tower can still give you a taste of Vancouver history.