Fort Vancouver
Historic Structures Report
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Volume I


A bell was an indispensable article at most Hudson's Bay Company posts. Its sound regulated the prescribed daily work routine in a period when most workmen did not carry watches. A large post like Fort Vancouver could scarcely have operated without one. [1]

When Lieutenant Charles Wilkes of the United States Exploring Expedition reached the fort during 1841 he and several of his officers were put up as guests. Always one to put first things first, Dr. McLoughlin quickly advised the visitors that meals were signaled by the bell. Later Wilkes observed that the bell was also rung "at early dawn" to call the men to work. It sounded again at eight for breakfast, at one for dinner, and at six when labor ceased for the day. On Saturdays the peal which marked the end of work came at five in the afternoon to allow the servants time to collect their weekly rations. [2] Sundays the bell called the fort's inhabitants to worship. [3] If conditions typical at other posts also prevailed at Fort Vancouver, the bell likewise tolled for deaths weddings, fires, and various types of emergencies. [4]

In 1837 the Reverend Mr. Herbert Beaver, who served briefly as Fort Vancouver's chaplain, complained bitterly about "a large Bell, distant twenty-five yards from my quarters," which was rung to call people to the reading of Roman Catholic prayers. He found the noise of this bell, "jingled most indecorously by a parcel of Boys," to be an "intolerable nuisance." [5]

These words do not help much in determining the location of the belfry at that time, since it is not certain where Mr. Beaver was living in 1837. By 1841, however, the Emmons ground plan shows that the "bell stand or belfry" was situated a short distance west of the "Chaplain's or Governor's temporary residence." [6]

The next useful information about the bell comes from the journal of Thomas Lowe. On December 31, 1844, he wrote as follows: "The people engaged erecting a new Belfry, the Bell being placed at the top of a spar 45 feet above the ground the butt end of which was placed in a large cask of salt in order to preserve it from decay. It is placed behind the small Granary, near the North pickets." [7]

Exactly what Lowe meant by the "small Granary" is not clear. It is difficult to ascertain whether the granary shown on the Emmons plan of 1841 is the same structure as that shown on the Vavasour map of 1845. [8] If they were different, the smaller and older granary of the 1841 map had disappeared by the time the Line of Fire Map of September, 1844, was drawn. Therefore it seems probable that the "small" granary was the only granary known to have been within the pickets on the last day of 1844, the granary of the Vavasour map.

A much more useful hint as to the location of the belfry is found in Lowe's diary entry for August 8, 1845: "Commenced building a new Office, in front of the bellfry [sic]." [9] The location of the New Office, as the structure was named, is known with precision from Vavasour's map and from archeological evidence. A belfry located behind the office would scarcely be described as being "behind" the granary of 1845, but this apparent discrepancy must remain one of the several unexplained minor mysteries of the fort's layout until further excavations produce the remains of the barrel of salt.

A location behind the New Office seems confirmed by the Coode water color sketch which can quite confidently be dated between June 18, 1846, and May 3, 1847. This picture shows what appears to be a bell mounted on the top of a high pole situated north of the office and westerly of the Priest's House. The bell evidently was rung by a rope attached to a projection on the bell mount. What appear to be spikes or foot supports seem to be shown projecting at regular intervals up the length of the pole. [10]

Despite the precautions taken to prevent rotting of the base, the 1844 belfry seems to have been a short-lived structure. The picture, "Fort Vancouver, Washington Ty. in 1855," drawn and engraved by R. Covington shows what perhaps is a belfry composed of three mutually supporting timbers, arranged tepee style, located in the fort yard. [11] This belfry probably is the same one as that shown in the two 1860 photographs of the interior courtyard. [12]


The proper belfry for a restoration of Fort Vancouver to its appearance in 1845 is that erected on December 31, 1844. The single spar comprising this structure should rise 45 feet above ground level. The size, shape, and mount of the bell can be ascertained from the Coode drawing (Plates XI and XII).

Archeological excavations can probably reveal the exact location of the belfry. A search should be made in the area north of the New Office for the remains of a large cask sunk in the earth. Since the butt of the spar undoubtedly did not depend upon the salt for support, it is quite likely that remains of a bracing system for the pole will also be found.

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2003