The Administrative History of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site
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Chapter Seven:

Historically, the waterfront was an important part of the Hudson's Bay Company complex. Boatsheds, a salmon house, and a wharf for docking company vessels helped supply Fort Vancouver with fresh food and other items of trade. In 1857, the Army removed the company's wharf and salmon house to make room for its own activities. Only in the early 1940s did the U.S. Coast Guard acquire several acres for a riverfront station. An additional 14 or 15 acres of adjacent waterfront property between the Coast Guard station on the west and the Buffalo Electro-Chemical plant on the east remained part of the Army's Vancouver Barracks.

With the post-World War II restructuring of Vancouver Barracks, the parcel of land adjacent to the Coast Guard station became surplus. In the fall of 1954, Fort Vancouver Superintendent Frank Hjort told the General Service Administration that the Park Service decided it would not be feasible to accept the waterfront property as part of Fort Vancouver National Monument. [1] The City of Vancouver, however, expressed interest in the land to develop a public park and the City Council approved a proposal to try to acquire the land. Just as the Park Service had assisted the city in preparing an application for surplus property north of Evergreen Boulevard, in September 1955, Park Service landscape architect James N. Gibson prepared a justification for the transfer of 14 acres of waterfront property to the City of Vancouver. The city's initial plans consisted of clearing the property, then planting grass and constructing drinking fountains and other picnic facilities. [2]

However, a year later, the city had not completed the transaction though the Fort Vancouver Restoration and Historical Society urged it to acquire the waterfront land. The Park Service also wanted the city to acquire the property to prevent commercial development between the fort site and the Columbia River. But the city turned down the opportunity to buy the property. Perhaps money was tight. At the same time, the city was under pressure to develop the George C. Marshall Park property north of Evergreen Boulevard. Instead, Frank Hjort "recommended that the National Park Service acquire and administer the [14 acres of waterfront property] to protect the future of the monument." [3] In November 1956, the City of Vancouver officially withdrew its application for the waterfront property in favor of letting the Park Service receive it. The city could then lease the property from the National Park Service, "using the property as a moorage." [4]

In 1958, the strip of waterfront property between the Coast Guard station on the west and a boat moorage by the Buffalo Electro-Chemical plant on the eastern boundary was transferred to the National Park Service under the provisions of Fort Vancouver's 1948 enabling legislation. Though the city still hoped to obtain the 15 acres of waterfront property, it could not guarantee to keep the property out of private hands. Instead, the Park Service gave the city permission to use the property as a park. Frank Hjort announced in February 1958, "that the land would be offered to the city for lease as a public park. Just what conditions might be involved is not yet clear, and maybe there are factors which might make a park inadvisable now, but the important point is that the Monument's action keeps the door open." [5]

In 1959, the City of Vancouver requested permission to construct a small boat launching ramp, which was permitted under a special use permit. [6] Yet, the next spring the city "presented a rather ambitious plan for a municipally-owned marina" to the National Park Service. [7] The plan included a 468-boat marina, which called for dredging of portions of the waterfront. But financial problems, perhaps an unsuccessful bond sale, caused the city to shelve the plan within three years. [8]

The Park Service continued to issue special use permits to the City of Vancouver "for the purpose of providing a public small boat launching ramp, maintaining the public access, and landscaping the area between the launching area and the Coast Guard station for parking and observation purposes, and to adequately police and maintain the area." But its efforts were not always successful. By 1964, debris, broken concrete, curbing, and other paving waste remained on the site, inviting "the public to use the area for disposal of general rubbish including tin cans." Superintendent Hal Edwards lamented that the "area does not present a park-like appearance which in turn may bring discredit to the city and to the National Park Service." [9]

The riverfront was also affected by natural disaster. On Christmas Day 1964, the Columbia River flooded, completely covering the Park Service's waterfront property being used by the city. It was the third worst flood on record, cresting at 27.6 feet.

In May 1966, George Lyons, representing the local Sea Scouts, asked the National Park Service about mooring a barge along the waterfront. They wanted to moor a 40-foot by 90-foot barge near the east boundary with a walkway to the road, to be used as a meeting place and storage for equipment. "This plan calls for modification of the Park river front consisting of a 50' wide fill for 600', four moorages and a 150' rock jetty on the east side," wrote Superintendent Eliot Davis, "Approximately twenty to forty small craft will eventually be involved." Davis, however, had reservations about the plan. Because of the permanence of the barge it would "give the Scouts possessory right that will be hard to recover, and will open the door to other groups who might wish to use the water front." [10] The Park Service finally did give permission for a barge to be moored off the shore at the eastern end of the waterfront property near the Buffalo Electro-Chemical plant.

In the mid-1960s, the Park Service's hesitance caused some friction with the City. "They understand natural beauty and our desire for an unobstructed view of the river," Eliot Davis told the regional director, "but to merely retain historical integrity is something they will not try to understand when the area could be of use to the city or the Boy Scouts." During a June 30, 1966, meeting between the superintendent and the Vancouver Parks and Recreation Committee, Jim Fowler, chairman of the Recreation Committee, pushed the Park Service to agree to a permanent breakwater for the Sea Scout barge, but finally asserted that "if we can't have the fill let the Scouts go ahead and moor the barge, then we shall have our foot in the door." Superintendent Eliot Davis cautioned the regional office that

Their 'foot in the door' attitude speaks for itself. As for the Boy Scouts, their spokesmen made it quite plain that they are embarking on a permanent development when they place their barge or barges on the NPS waterfront, and we can look for further concession requests from them in the future. Their first request will probably be for permission to pipe city water and power to the barge. [11]

The increased value of the riverfront property played an important role in the city's renewed interest in it. The city also revived plans for a boat marina. The city attorney wrote a letter to the General Services Administration requesting the property for the public benefit, including the construction of nearly 200 feet of dock for temporary boat moorage, rest room facilities, and water and power lines to service boats. The city attorney added that the marina would provide other benefits such as "facilities for obtaining gasoline, oil, and like small boating supplies." [12]

Fort Vancouver countered with complaints that the city had long abused its privileges under the existing special use permit. Both Superintendents Hal Edwards and Eliot Davis noted unsightly trash and brambles along the stretch of river bank. Davis hoped the new city manager, hired in 1966, would improve conditions. [13]

Perhaps the city's attitude and the condition of the waterfront did improve, or at least remained status quo, since little documentation about the site can be found between 1966 and 1972. But, when Donald Gillespie became superintendent in 1972, the condition of the waterfront once more came to the forefront. Gillespie developed plans for possible ways of improving the waterfront property. Ideally, his beautification program would include acquiring the Coast Guard property and restoring the historic Kanaka Village boat landing. But the expense precluded total historic restoration. Instead, Gillespie envisioned

a waterfront facility designed around the historical theme with the accommodation of the water borne visitor as a primary goal. One possibility would be a visitor use docking facility (with a time limit) and a life size replica of a boat or ship of the period with a small marine museum of the 1845 period and a portion of the museum which could be used as a classroom or workshop area for environmental education or study area classes. [14]

The new mayor of Vancouver, Lloyd Stromgren, seemed very supportive of the idea. Anything would be an improvement over the "pock-marked gravel parking area, a boat ramp, and a small picnic area" the city called William Broughton Park. [15] Besides, the special use permit between the Park Service and the city, which included the boat ramp and Sea Scout barge moorage was to expire in August 1973.

The Park Service plan for waterfront improvements required the use of the Coast Guard property. According to the local media, the plans included "dredging out a small bay and removing three of five buildings at the base. A fourth existing structure would be converted into a museum, while the remaining structure would become a maintenance facility. The rest of the site would be landscaped." [16] And in early spring 1975, the National Park Service resubmitted its request for transfer of the Coast Guard property from the General Services Administration to be part of the waterfront beautification plan. They also submitted a five-year program for restoration of the historic scene at the waterfront. Acquisition of the Coast Guard Station and removal of the dock would be the first steps in this restoration. [17] On July 1, 1975, 2.1 acres of Coast Guard property was transferred to Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

In 1975, the Army and city collaborated with the Park Service on a "Bicentennial project" to clean up and landscape the waterfront area. The plan called for "slightly raised plant material islands interconnected with a barricade of pier pilings which are, in turn, connected by 3 inch anchor line." Though the Park Service feared straying from its long-term goal of restoring the historic waterfront complex, a "recent fatality of one of the reserve officers assigned to the project prompted a request for the installation of a bronze plaque. It's an emotional subject and brings mixed feelings." [18] Though they agreed on the plaque, they declined the Army's suggestion for a park name: Timberwolf Annex.

The Army's 104th and 308th Reserve Battalions donated their labor and a city landscape engineer from the Parks and Recreation Department provided his design skills for the beautification project. By the spring of 1975, they promised to "remove [the] launch ramp and redistribute shoreline rip-rap" with general landscaping as their primary objective. [19] But the National Park Service regional office objected to the plan. "Picnicking should be discouraged," wrote Regional Director John Rutter, "and tables should not be furnished. We believe it would be inadvisable considering the isolated character of the land parcel and the nearby urban setting." [20]

But Superintendent Gillespie continued to push for the installation of picnic tables. He emphasized the minimal impact the improvement project would have on the area, with simple landscaping with native plants and an irrigation system. Indeed, Regional Archaeologist Fred Bohannon determined that the improvement project would not affect the historic underlayer, since any penetration of ground would occur in "post-1854 bank fill." He concluded that the "situation does not require mitigation by professional archaeologists. Rather, the persons setting the posts should collect exposed trash, if any, and turn the items over to Fort Vancouver NHS for study." [21]

The results of collaboration between the Army, City of Vancouver, and the Park Service at the waterfront included a 1975 parking area with landscaped pier pilings. (Donald Gillespie, National Park Service)

The Park Service and the city continued to improve the waterfront property, including "removing concrete spills and an old unused boat ramp at the waterfront and providing general landscaping treatment." [22] Though the park improvement had been planned, instigated, and supervised by the Park Service, there was still a sense that it was a city project. The park's name, "Columbia Landing," was reminiscent of the old Hudson's Bay Company fort, but by June 1977, the nearby commercial development and the park's isolation from the stockade at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site led to a distinctly separate character about the waterfront.

In 1977, another cooperative shoreline beautification project began. First, the Corps of Engineers removed blackberry bushes and small cottonwoods, cleaned up debris, and repaired the roadway dike with fill material. The City of Vancouver and local service organizations assisted with landscaping, installing park benches, and creating a parking area. [23] By the end of the year, the Park Service contracted for the demolition of the old Coast Guard buildings and the wharf structure on the Columbia River at a cost of $31,000. [24]

The 1978 Master Plan for Fort Vancouver National Historic Site included plans to integrate the waterfront with the fort and "strive for a physical access connection with the main fort unit." For the first time, the reconstruction of the Salmon House and historic wharf were not part of the written long-term policy, only the removal of buildings and improvements to the landscape were identified as goals. [25] The City of Vancouver also reexamined its use of the riverfront park in the Central Park Plan prepared by consultants Management and Planning Services in February 1979. The study proposed expansion of the waterfront area. The city anticipated that the National Park Service would develop a "landscaped greenbelt along the riverfront and the historic salmon house, wharf and boathouses that were an integral part of Fort Vancouver's original operations." [26]

That same fall, Fort Vancouver Superintendent James M. Thomson renewed Park Service efforts to landscape and improve the waterfront with help from the Youth Conservation Corps. But the various beautification plans did not gel until early 1981, when Patricia Stryker, the Vancouver Central Park Coordinator, consolidated the pieces. The city donated services of its landscape architect, Kelly Punteney. The project, which covered both the old Coast Guard property and "Columbia Landing," would provide connecting walkways between two new restaurants to the west of the Coast Guard property and the Columbia Landing Park. They would also install benches at "view overlook sites" and plant more "deciduous trees, conifers, and shrubs." Patricia Stryker proposed to raise all funds for the project locally and make the money available as soon as possible. [27]

The Park Service sent landscape architects Pat Berg and Geoffrey Swan from the regional office to meet with the city to clarify long-term goals for the waterfront park. Though the Park Service's own goals for Fort Vancouver included reconstruction of the historic waterfront, it was not likely to happen any time soon. Landscape architects Berg and Swan broached the possibility of turning the waterfront site over to the city. "An easement could insure NPS control of the view, while city maintenance and patrol is more compatible with its expected use," Pat Berg concluded in their trip report of March 10, 1981, "it would be appropriate to turn this property over to the City of Vancouver." [28]

Fort Vancouver Superintendent Jim Thomson agreed with this assessment since "it would lighten the maintenance load that is always with us and also save on energy that is required to go to and from the property." The city also complained that the Park Service's review process was slow whenever it proposed improvements or extensive maintenance of the property. Indeed, a few months earlier Patricia Stryker had been faced with Acting Associate Regional Director for Planning and Resource Preservation Daniel Babbitt's demand for more detailed plans for the development of the park, such as the kinds of planting materials they planned to use, how the site was to be prepared, and where and what the measurements for the pathways would be. [29]

Though the Fort Vancouver superintendent and the City of Vancouver thought that city ownership would speed up development and maintenance at the waterfront park, the Park Service still wanted to maintain control over the ultimate disposition of the property. By September 1981, the city and the Park Service regional office agreed on plans for the cleanup and improvement of the waterfront park site. The city would sign a 25-year lease, with renewable 5-year increments, "to enable the City to undertake development of the site within the context of Vancouver Central Park and consistent with [Fort Vancouver] Master Plan objectives." [30]

However, not everyone agreed over the lease. The National Park Service Washington Office thought the lease basically "illegal" and wished to restrict the time frame to 10 years. On the other hand, Ted Brown, the director of Vancouver Parks and Recreation, feared that a 10-year lease would restrict funding options for the city. [31]

So, instead of a lease, the National Park Service and the City of Vancouver signed a memorandum of understanding in March 1982. The Park Service granted the city "the right and privilege of using" the waterfront strip "together with the right to construct, operate, and maintain a public park for a period of 25 years." In return, the city agreed to let the Park Service approve any plans for development and they would not cut trees or disturb archaeological remains or other natural resources without first consulting the Park Service. The Park Service wanted to "protect and preserve said land for the use and enjoyment of the public and for the interpretation of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site" but once again had to compromise, since it did not have the funds to restore any historic features of the waterfront. [32]

But the agreement with the city did not resolve all of their problems. Often, the city would begin maintenance work on the property without informing the Park Service. As recently as July 1990, Chief Ranger Robert Appling notified the superintendent that he "found that the City had graded and leveled the waterfront area from just west of the boat launch ramp east to a point where the embankment meets the shoreline. At least one large tree was removed and all vegetation was removed from the leveled area." [33] After investigating Appling's report, Superintendent Dave Herrera informed the regional director that he found the waterfront "almost completely denuded of vegetation and the beach completely altered by the actions of the City. Further, several City signs were placed on the property without approval." He recommended terminating the memorandum of understanding between the Park Service and city for violation of the terms, which stated that the Park Service had to approve of any modification or improvements on the property. [34] Indeed, Charles Odegaard sent Mayor Bruce Hagensen a letter to that effect in August 1990. Mr. Odegaard warned that "if the City continues to perform work within the Historic Site boundaries without first obtaining approval, the National Park Service will be forced to review the efficacy of the Memorandum of Agreement." [35]

The memorandum of understanding between the Park Service and the city for use of the waterfront park expires in 2007. Currently, Fort Vancouver is studying the use of the park in light of its own goals and development plans, which may affect whether the memorandum of understanding is renewed. The cultural landscape study of Fort Vancouver being prepared by the regional office has recommended a variety of changes to that portion of the site. Under the plan, a stronger connection would be made between the waterfront and the rest of the Fort Vancouver site, including a pedestrian overpass and wayside exhibits to describe parts of Kanaka Village and the waterfront. However, there is insufficient evidence to support the reconstruction of the historic wharf and salmon house. The landscape study will have to be taken into consideration when the Park Service decides on the future of the waterfront park.

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Last Updated: 02-Feb-2000