Oregon Coast Stories and Tips

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site Photo, Oregon Coast, Oregon

Fort Vancouver isn't in Oregon, and it isn't on the coast, but it is a worthwhile stop if you fly in or out of Portland because it is just across the Columbia River from the airport.

Back in the 1800s, the Pacific Northwest was (and still is) rich in natural resources. Especially notable among those resources were beavers. Trapping the animals was important back then because hats were in high style, and beaver fur was the best for making felt hats. Even today, felt hats have an "X rating," but there's nothing pornographic about them! The X (as in a 10X felt hat) refers to the ratio of beaver fur to rabbit fur in the felt. Each "X" is equal to 5% beaver fur, so a 10X hat was half and half. Since beavers were so prolific in the area, it made sense to have fur trading posts to collect the pelts from trappers. The posts were run by the Hudson's Bay Company, and the largest of these was Fort Vacouver.

Now a unit of the National Park System, Fort Vancouver is a reconstruction of an early 1800s fur trading post. In its day, it was THE cultural and economic center of the Pacific Northwest. Though the original buildings are gone, the reconstruction helps visitors get a feel for what life was like on this frontier. You can visit the blacksmith shop, the bakehouse, the fur warehouse and the home of John McLoughlin (often called the "Father of Oregon"), who served as Chief Factor (head honcho) for the Company for nearly 20 years. There are lots of other buildings as well, and during the summer months, lots of living history and costumed interpretation that really bring the fort to life.

Control of the area was argued over for many years by the British and the Americans. We were fortunate to have visited during the first weekend in October, when the annual candlelight tours take place. This is a very popular event, and was great fun, even though it drizzled quite a bit. The premise is that, once you enter the fort's palisade, you've left America and are transported back in time to a very British fort. You'll even get a passport that will allow you to return to America at the end of your evening.

The fort itself has a palisade around it, so the view of the nearby cities is blocked once you enter. This is great for recreating the ambience of the scene, but unfortunately, Portland's airport is directly across the river, so you never quite forget where you really are. Outside the palisade is where the village and farming areas used to be. The area was used as a military base at the turn of the 20th century, and the officers homes, beautiful Victorian buildings, have been adaptively reused as offices and restaurants. It makes for a beautiful neigborhood stroll.

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Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is located in Vancouver, Washington, just east of Interstate 5. For more information, visit their website at www.nps.gov/fova

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