Fort Vancouver
Historic Structures Report
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Volume I


History and location

Wash houses are among those minor structures about which little is known, at Fort Vancouver or at any other Columbia Department post. It is not even certain whether these buildings were used for washing clothes, persons, or both. No hint has been found as to their internal arrangements.

The first definite knowledge of a wash house at Fort Vancouver is obtained from the Emmons ground plan of 1841 (see plate III). This map shows a "Wash House &c." abutting the east stockade wall directly northeast of the Bachelors' Quarters and south of the bakery (the later harness shop). What is clearly this same building appears on the "Line of Fire" map of about September, 1844, though by that time the east stockade wall had been moved farther to the east (see plate V).

The most detailed version of the Vavasour ground plan of late 1845 shows this same structure as the "Wash House" (see plate VII), although another version of the map shows no building at that location (see plate VI). The appearance of the "Wash House" on the original Vavasour plan in the British Foreign Office records eliminates the doubts about this structure which had formerly existed due to the building being labelled "warehouse" on a copy of the map published by the Oregon Historical Society in 1909 (see plate VIII). Therefore it is now possible to state positively that there was a wash house directly northeast of the Bachelors' Quarters during the period which will be depicted by the proposed reconstruction project.

The later history of the wash house, however, is not so clear. This structure does not appear on the Covington map of 1846, although as has been seen this fact is no proof that the building did not exist at that time (see plate XIII). More serious is the failure of a wash house to be listed in the inventory of Company structures made in late 1846 or very early 1847. [1] Since the firm was building a case for compensation very few standing buildings were omitted from that list.

Nevertheless, it probably was this wash house of the Emmons and Vavasour plans that was destroyed by fire very early on the morning of November 23, 1852. Chief Factor John Ballenden, then in charge of the post, was having difficulty sleeping, and about three o'clock he got up and took a short turn on the gallery of the Big House. He noticed nothing unusual during his stroll and after about ten minutes went back to bed. He was scarcely settled when he was roused by a cry of alarm from the watchman.

"I sprang immediately to the window," he wrote to the Company's secretary that same day, "and saw an old house, a portion of which has for many years been used as a wash house by the females in the fort, and the remainder lately as a cookhouse, enveloped in flames." [2]

The post fire engine was in "excellent order," and through the use of it by Company employees, the assistance of soldiers from the nearby barracks, and "the intervention of a new building, the wood of which was yet green," the conflagration was kept from spreading to the Big House. [3] In fact, except for minor damage to other structures, the loss was confined to the "old wash-house," which Ballenden had in any case been planning to tear down for firewood. [4] The destroyed building, he said, was not more than 15 yards from the Big House. According to Vavasour's map the distance from the manager's residence to the wash house of 1845 was about 20 yards. The difference in estimates is not so great as to rule out the probability that the wash house of 1852 was also that of 1845.

The existence of a wash house at Fort Vancouver is not mentioned again in the available records until January 23, 1854, when a board of Army officers reported on the number, condition, and value of the improvements on the local military reservation. Among the buildings within the pickets of the fur-trading post was listed a "washing house," with an estimated value of $500. [5] No location for this structure was indicated.

It may be significant that beginning with this same year some plans of the military reservation began to show what seems to be a new structure in the northeast corner of the stockade enclosure between the harness shop and the bakery (see plate XIX). This building was situated north of and slightly to the east of the site of the wash house shown on the Emmons plan, the "Line of Fire" map, and the Vavasour diagram. It possibly was the "washing house."

What probably was this same building appears on the map of the Fort Vancouver military reservation surveyed under the direction of Captain George Thom in 1859 (see plate XXIV). But it seems to have disappeared by June, 1860, when another board of army officers made the final inventory of the Company's improvements and drew the last known ground plan of the old fur-trading post (see plate XXX). [6]

Archeological excavations have thrown little light upon the history or structure of the wash house. The northeast section of the stockade was later the site of rather extensive military construction, and the physical evidences of Hudson's Bay Company activities were partially destroyed, disturbed, and obscured. Evidently the excavations of 1947 to 1952 turned up no traces whatsoever of the wash house. [7]

The archeologists who excavated in this area during the spring of 1971 had somewhat better luck. The section near the north palisade, between the harness shop and the bakery, where the 1854 and 1859 maps showed a structure which might have been a wash house, produced no traces of such a building. Parts of the site had been extensively disturbed, and other parts seem not to have been tested.

But the site of the wash house as shown on the 1841, 1844, and 1845 maps was discovered to have escaped "massive disturbance." This area was completely excavated, and two pieces of wood were found which might have been footings for the west wall of the building. Mr. J. J. Hoffman, the Project Archeologist, found it difficult to interpret these remains and summarized the results of the explorations as "inconclusive." Nevertheless, he believed that "artifact frequency distributions indicate that the area was a focus of fort activity" and that "artifactual evidence and historic documentation strongly suggest that a wash house did exist in the area." [8]

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2003