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Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Feb. 27, 2024

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Parkersville: The Clark County town that time (almost) forgot

‘Little park with huge significance’ recalls festivities of the 1870s

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
8 Photos
Early scenes from historic Parkersville, now known as Parker's Landing Historical Park, on the shoreline of Washougal.
Early scenes from historic Parkersville, now known as Parker's Landing Historical Park, on the shoreline of Washougal. Photo Gallery

WASHOUGAL — A large kerosene burner with a red lens, posted on the river to guide traffic in the dark, illuminated a baby’s birth on the dock of what was called Parkersville in 1883.

In 1902, maritime charts and the newspaper noted the red light’s replacement with a white kerosene beacon atop a 10-foot pole. The beacon kept shining across the decades, even as electricity replaced kerosene.

By the time the light finally disappeared from the shoreline in the 1960s, the pioneer settlement of Parkersville was also gone. But today’s twin towns of Camas and Washougal grew from its spark.

That’s all according to the Parkersville Heritage Foundation, which invites everyone to come celebrate that light — and all that followed it — during the second annual Parkersville Day. The event is set for noon to 3 p.m. Saturday at Parker’s Landing Historical Park, alongside the Port of Camas-Washoual at 24 A St.

“This location fed the beginning of Washougal and Camas,” event coordinator Susan Tripp said. “If you live here, Parkersville is part of your roots.”

The free event will feature a Chinook blessing and presentation of music, dance and history; historical games like croquet, wheelbarrow races, quoits (ring toss) and corn hole with vintage candy prizes (like saltwater taffy and Tootsie Rolls); storytellers, museum displays, a Washougal schools art contest and two different brass bands: Whiskey Flats, an authentic, living-history-of-the-mid-1800s band, and the Washougal High School band debuting a brand new Parkersville theme song.

That song’s composer is David K. Parker, a retired teacher and pro musician who moved to town in 2010 and became a Parkersville heritage volunteer. Today’s David K. Parker is no relation to original settler David C. Parker, but that’s just the kind of delicious coincidence that seems to affirm the magic of the place, Tripp said.

“It’s kind of eerie, for such a small town, how many people I meet who have some connection to Washougal,” Tripp said.

She retired to this area in 2017 after discovering she had local roots. Since then, her plunge into the history of Washougal and Parkersville has proved unexpectedly engrossing, she said. The Parkerville Heritage Foundation protects the archaeological site, but Tripp also serves on an advisory committee to the Port of Camas-Washougal. The port owns the 3.88-acre Parkersville property, a modest picnic site that’s been redeveloped to highlight its rich history.

“There are so many stories you can tell about this one little postage stamp of land,” Tripp said.

Come one, come all

Parkersville was a busy place long before it acquired that name. Chinookan tribes attracted by salmon runs and camas fields came and went from the site for centuries, according to Washington history encyclopedia Historylink.org.

David Parker arrived here on a wagon train in fall 1844. (Vancouver resident Pepper Toelle Kim, a descendant of Parker’s wagon train companions, will tell stories of their journey at Parkersville Day.) Eventually Parker built a cabin and a dock and made a substantial land claim just upriver from an earlier British settler, Richard Ough, and his Chinookan wife, “Betsy” White Wing.

IF YOU GO

What: Second annual Parkersville Day

When: Noon-3 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Parker’s Landing Historical Park, 24 A St., Washougal.

Admission: Free.

On the web:

sites.google.com/view/parkersville/home

www.facebook.com/ParkersLandingHistoricalPark

So David Parker, while not quite the first white settler in the area, is remembered as the first American founder of an American town north of the Columbia River.

Downriver at Fort Vancouver, Chief Factor John McLoughlin of the British Hudson’s Bay Company was steering American arrivals away from this area (and toward the Willamette Valley) in order to keep it British. Parker’s decision to settle just upriver from McLoughlin was a defiant move and, apparently, a popular one.

“Parker’s alternative landing site about 20 miles upriver from Fort Vancouver drew a steady stream of settlers who wanted to avoid the fort entirely and to move inland without facing Dr. McLoughlin’s discouragement,” according to HistoryLink.

“All of a sudden, Fort Vancouver wasn’t the only game in town,” Tripp said.

Parker also built a hotel and bar in his growing town, whose grid spread into a village of many blocks. He died in 1858, missing the heights of tourism and recreation that his namesake town would reach a couple of decades later. It was all centered around an idyllic tree grove.

“Grand Excursion & Picnic to Catalpha Grove, Situated at Parker’s Landing, on Sunday, May 11, on board the beautiful Steamer City of Quincy, Capt. W.S. Buchanan,” says an advertisement in The Morning Oregonian for May 10, 1879. “Fat Men’s Race, Wheelbarrow Race, Sack Race and Greased Pig Race, will be held on the grounds during the day,” the ad continues. Awards were a keg of beer, bottles of wine or, for the ladies, a fancy pair of shoes (to be collected at a Portland department store).

Tickets were $1 round-trip. Children under 12 were free.

All that sounds like a wholesome, family-friendly outing, but the parties were wild, Tripp said.

“More than 1,000 people were present at Catalpha Grove at the celebration on Monday, and the festivities did not close until a very late hour,” reported The Vancouver Independent on July 8, 1880.

Growth pains — in the form of title and boundary disputes, as well as prohibitively low water at the dock — eventually stunted Parkersville’s progress, Tripp said. Some businesses started packing up and moving inland. One entire hotel was dismantled and rebuilt in the newer town of Washougal.

Washougal and Camas picked up steam while Parkersville slowed to a stop. It became dairy pasture and then part of the Port of Camas-Washougal property.

“It lost its traction,” Tripp said. “People felt that Washougal was the future and Parkersville was the past.”

Little park, big meaning

Local historians and history boosters started highlighting Parkersville history in the 1970s when the site was nominated and accepted into both the state and national historic registers. Since then, the site has been redeveloped with planters, a rose arbor and signs commemorating the homestead of Lewis Van Vleet Sr. (who hosted those big local celebrations). A plaza honors the Chinook people who preceded white settlement here.

So much will be going on Saturday at Parker’s Landing Historical Park — even without a “Fat Men’s Race” — that Tripp believes the event will resemble those boisterous celebrations of 1879 and 1880 Parkersville.

“That’s the theme of our event: Parkersville at its height,” she said. “It’s a little park with huge significance. This is an opportunity get everyone engaged and talking about the place where they live.”

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