Historic Forts

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by Roy Stevenson | Photo © National Park Service

Sprinkled throughout Washington and Oregon, several reconstructed historic forts allow families to experience exciting and authentic historical activities. In this selection of historic forts, you can walk through rustic log cabins, blacksmith shops, schools, jails, train depots, doctor’s offices and barracks, all as they were in the 1800s. Kids can feel the heat from the blacksmith’s forge, taste fresh-baked pioneer bread, hold 19th century tools, try on pioneer clothing and connect to an era without video games and texting.

Fort Vancouver, Vancouver, WA

Only a 5-minute drive from Interstate-5 in Vancouver, Washington, the large and authentically reconstructed Fort Vancouver is a re-creation of the original headquarters for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Originally opened in 1825, Fort Vancouver served thousands of newly arriving settlers and trappers. The fort rapidly became the commercial, manufacturing and political center of the Pacific Northwest.
Archeological excavations have uncovered a treasure trove of 2 million artifacts. Today, visitors can relive the pioneer experience at Fort Vancouver. You can walk through the two-story bake house, the fur warehouse, the blacksmith shop and a period residence featuring fine furniture and carpets.

Take in the interpretive cultural demonstrations at many places in the fort and to learn more about daily life in the Northwest frontier. A small museum displays artifacts. Brigade encampments and candlelight tours are held each year. Children can climb the ladder to the top of the bastion for a great view, and helpful docents answer questions about life back in the day. While you’re there, visit Officer’s Row at the mid-nineteenth-century section of the fort and have a leisurely lunch at The Grant House (thegranthouse.us), the pre-Civil War military home of Ulysses S. Grant.
nps.gov/fova, visitvancouverusa.com

San Juan Island National Historical Park, WA

The English became touchy after San Juan Island had been left out of the Oregon Treaty of 1846, which established the 49th parallel as the border between the two nations’ territories, leaving the San Juan archipelago in no-man’s land. With the islands in dispute, the British established an encampment at Garrison Bay. Thirteen miles south, an American camp at Cattle Point appeared, with troops protecting two dozen or so American settlers.

American settler Lyman Cutlar had no inkling he would nearly start a war when in 1859 he gunned down a British pig that was invading his potato patch. The British reacted strongly over the murdered pig. A standoff ensued between British warships and nearly 500 American troops armed with 14 cannons.

It took Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm I to arbitrate this tempest in a teacup from which the Americans emerged victorious; the San Juan Islands became American territory. The British military retreated across Haro Strait to Victoria. No blood was ever shed (apart from the pig’s) from this affair known as the “Pig War.”

Today you can visit both camps at the scenic San Juan Island National Historic Park and ponder this amusing piece of history. Several original buildings remain at each site, with an interpretive center located at American Camp. nps.gov/sajh, visitsanjuans.com

Fort Walla Walla, WA

In 1858, Fort Walla Walla was established east of the city, serving as a cavalry outpost until 1910. Today, you can visit a replica of the fort, a reconstructed pioneer village, a historic military cemetery and an agricultural museum.

At Pioneer Village you can visit 17 authentically reconstituted buildings, including a harness shop, a blacksmith shop, a barbershop, the 1867 Walla Walla County Schoolhouse #26, a general store, the original Prescott Jail, the 1880 Babcock Railway Station, a doctor’s office and more.

Next to the Pioneer Village you can see an enormous collection of artifacts on display. Horse-era agricultural equipment and everything from military weapons to family heirlooms are found in five 4,000-square-foot exhibit halls.

The atmospheric cemetery is well worth a visit. You can read about some of the skirmishes with the Nez Perce on the headstones.

From April through October you can take in the fort’s living history performances. fortwallawallamuseum.org, wallawalla.org

Fort Dalles Museum, The Dalles, Oregon

Opened in 1906, this is the oldest history museum in Oregon, preserving the legacy of the former military base, Camp Drum, established in 1850 and renamed Fort Dalles in 1853. By 1868 the fort was no longer needed. The sole surviving building is the wooden Gothic revival Surgeon’s Quarters, a National Historic Landmark.

Now a museum, it houses many interesting artifacts, including historic photographs and Native American artifacts. There’s also a plethora of 19th century pioneer and military memorabilia. The enthusiastic and knowledgeable docents will be happy to guide you around.

In two separate buildings, you can view superb collections of antique automobiles, including a rare 1904 Studebaker Electric car and an assortment of horse-drawn wagons.

Nearby is the Anderson House, also a National Historic Landmark, a
hand-hewn log homestead built by Swedish immigrants to Wasco County in 1895 and relocated to The Dalles in the 1970s. fortdallesmuseum.org/index.htm, visitthedalles.com

Clatsop & Fort Stevens, Warrenton, Oregon

In December 1805, the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery arrived at the Pacific Ocean five miles southwest of present-day Astoria after their historic 4,000-mile odyssey.
Within three weeks, the Corps built a small log stockade in which to winter for the next three months. During their time in the rainy Northwest they fished, hunted, repaired weapons, made buckskin clothes, traded with the Clatsop tribe and made salt on the beach. The expedition departed on March 23, 1806.

Today you can explore a rustic and rough-hewn replica of the Corps’ stockade and cramped quarters, based on Clark’s journal descriptions. In the summer, you can relive their wintering experiences while buckskin-clad park rangers demonstrate the expedition’s activities at Fort Clatsop National Memorial.

The nearby visitor center is an excellent place to start before exploring the fort. A trail leads down to the river’s edge, and you can walk on a boardwalk across the wetlands and read interpretive signs.

While you’re in the area, visit Fort Stevens, a military installation that guarded the mouth of the Columbia River. Built at the end of the Civil War, the fort was an active military reservation from 1863-1947, taking up 3,700 acres. Today you can enjoy a military history museum, camping, hiking, beach access and swimming. nps.gov/lewi/planyourvisit/fortclatsop.htm, oregonstateparks.org, oldoregon.com