Our second research trip to Northwest forts took us to Fort Vancouver. It was founded in 1806 by the Hudson’s Bay Company as a fur trading outpost on the Pacific coast. The original fort was built 1826 on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River rather than on the plain just above the riverbank. The reasoning was that, in spring floods, the occupants could find themselves and their goods under water. After a short time, it was discovered that the plain did not flood and the fort was moved, lock, stock, stockade and barrel to its current site.
Fort Vancouver differs significantly from Fort Ross. Some of these differences occur due to the respective cultures of their builders. Others may be the result of the 14 year difference in their ages. The first notable difference is in the construction of the palisade wall. Unlike the squared timbers of Fort Ross, Fort Vancouver’s curtain wall was built of round logs, set alternately root side and foliage side down so that the tapers created tighter butt joins. However, unlike Fort Ross, they are not planed flat, giving a much more familiar ‘frontier fort’ feel to the walls. There is only a single bastion at Fort Vancouver however it is three stories tall. Interestingly, unlike the bastions at Fort Ross which were originally included in the construction of the fort, the bastion at Fort Vancouver was added only after large numbers of settlers from the new United States began to flood into the Oregon territory.
One might be excused for thinking that you were looking at a restored Colonial period home on the East Coast or in Canada. Unlike Fort Ross where the exterior walls of the buildings are made from squared timbers, the Factor’s house is clapboard built and many of the other buildings are built as framed and board sided construction. The Factor’s house was used as a social and administrative center as well as his home. Both floors are designed exclusively for human occupancy. Sheds, shops, and barns were built separately from the dwellings, unlike the Russian style of construction. Also, unlike the other buildings at Fort Ross, many of the ‘other residents’ dwellings are also quite finished inside.
The degree of reconstruction at Fort Vancouver is significantly less than at Fort Ross.
To begin with, its walls encompassed a larger area. Secondly, where Fort Ross became a state park in 1906, Fort Vancouver continued to function as a military installation until after the Second World War. In its long and complex history Fort Vancouver served not only as a trade fort under the British, and later joint British and American control, but also as a military outpost in the 1850s and 1860s, a training barracks during both World Wars, a National Guard base, and even as home to one of the oldest military airfields on the west coast. The first aircraft to land at Fort Vancouver was a dirigible which was on hand for the centennial of the Lewis & Clark Exposition in 1905. Now how appropriate is that for steampunk writers? An airship landed there. Perfect!
The preservation of so much history requires a wider focus than that applied to Fort Ross. More than that, any restoration and reconstruction had to occur around the day to day activities at Fort Vancouver. You see, it remained the oldest functioning military base west of the Mississippi River until it was finally closed in 2011. Several of the key buildings have been reconstructed and refurnished, including the Factor’s house, the trade store, and the dispensary. One of the lesser discussed but vital aspects of early fortress life is kitchen garden. After all, people do not live by meat alone. The demonstration gardens at Fort Vancouver include several heirloom varieties of vegetables, medicinal herbs, and other essential plants. They are not only an homage to the agricultural efforts of the fort’s occupants but a lovely, cool place to rest after touring the extensive grounds. The visitor’s center has a half hour long video presentation on the history of Fort Vancouver and the surrounding area. Additionally, there is a large, active and ongoing archeological excavation on the grounds. Visitors to the fort are encouraged to peek into the cataloguing house and see history being rediscovered.
Both Fort Ross and Fort Vancouver have historical reenactments at certain times of the year. If you are interested in the early history of our nation, we heartily encourage you to visit these and the other historical sites up and down the coast, or near where you live. We enjoyed our tours of the two forts and will be using the kernels of authenticity we found at them to reshape history as we create our steampunk adventure.
Be sure to look for our alternate history blog that will be coming soon. Immerse yourself in our steampunk world so that, when the novel appears, you will have all the inside story.
PLEASE NOTE: A link to a virtual tour of Fort Ross has been added to the first segment of that post. It is well worth the visit. Thank you.