Fort Vancouver
Historic Structures Report
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Volume II



History and location

Shortly after the ringing of the 6:00 P.M. bell, which marked the close of business on workdays, the stockade gates at Fort Vancouver were drawn shut, and, except under unusual conditions, remained locked until 9:00 A.M., at which time the shops opened. [1] This measure was taken primarily to safeguard the furs and goods on deposit, but there were many reasons for restricting free access to the fort during the night hours. [2]

Further security for the depot--fire was also a dreaded danger--was provided by a watchman or "sentinel" who called out "All's well" every half hour through the night. At one period, evidently the late 1840s or early 1850s, the watchman was a Hawaiian who patroled the fort but had some difficulty pronouncing the words of his call. [3]

But while the gates remained shut from about 6:00 P.M. until about 9:00 A.M., there was a certain amount of traffic that had to enter and leave the fort enclosure during those hours. The flow must have been particularly heavy shortly before 6:00 A.M., when the laborers and tradesmen, along with the schoolchildren, entered to take up their daily occupations. Also, many of the servants and even some Indians were admitted in the evenings to attend church services and to receive religious instruction as well as to attend occasional social events.

Such ingress and egress ordinarily must have been accomplished by means of the postern or small door cut into one leaf of the large gates. W. H. Gray, when he visited Fort Vancouver for the first time in 1836, noted that there was a "guard stationed over the gate," which locked from the inside. [4] Evidently the guard screened the visitors who entered through the postern.

Gaining entrance to the fort at night was not always easy. About three o'clock on the morning of May 4, 1833, Dr. W. F. Tolmie and Dr. M. Gairdner, two physicians arriving from England to take up their duties in the Columbia District, reached Fort Vancouver by canoe and knocked on the gate. Only "after some delay" was the entrance opened by "a gardner," who turned out to be "a Celt." [5] Lieutenant George Foster Emmons of the United States Navy was not so fortunate. Arriving before the depot at night during 1841, he found it "too late to gain admittance" and was forced to sleep in his canoe. [6] One wonders if watchmen were on duty at those times.

It may be significant that the earliest indication encountered by this writer of a watchman's house at Fort Vancouver dates from 1849. Lloyd Brooke, an employee of the United States Army, later testified that in that year there was a "little hut at the gate, which had been a blacksmith shop." [7] This structure was identified by Dr. H. A. Tuzo as a "watchman's house." He said it was standing when he arrived at the post in 1853. [8]

Although not labeled, this "watchman's house" can be observed on the careful survey of the Fort Vancouver Military Reservation made under the direction of Colonel B. L. E. Bonneville in 1854 (Plate XIX vol. I). The structure is shown as a small oblong situated a few yards northeast of the southeast stockade gate. It lay directly west of the southwest corner of the Indian Trade Shop. As far as is known, the Bonneville survey is the first map to delineate this "porter's lodge," as the building was also called.

It should be noted that not one of the very detailed plans of Fort Vancouver drawn prior to 1849--those by Emmons (1841), Vavasour (1845), and Covington (1846), and the "Line of Fire" map of 1844--shows any structure near a gate that could possibly be identified as a gatekeeper's or watchman's house. One is left to speculate, therefore, on the possibility that there may not have been such a structure inside the fort prior to about 1847-49.

Regardless of when the porter's lodge was constructed near, or moved near, the southeast gate, there is ample evidence of its continued existence during the period from 1854 to mid-1860. The view of Fort Vancouver drawn by Gustavus Sohon in 1854 shows a small, low, gable-roofed building between that gate and the Indian shop that could be nothing else than the gatehouse (Plate XXI, vol. I). The view drawn by Richard Covington and dated 1855 shows what is obviously the same structure, except that it seems to be situated west of the gate and quite close to the flagpole. Seemingly Covington was in error in this particular.

The building continued to be shown on maps of the fort area, especially on the survey made under the direction of Capt. George Thom in 1859 (Plate XXIV, vol. I). That plan clearly shows a small structure east of the gate and very close to it. The identity of the building is clinched by the diagram made by the board of army officers that appraised the structures within the fort on June 15, 1860. That map depicts a small, almost square building nearly adjoining the gate on the northeast and names it the "Porter's lodge" (Plate XXX, vol. I).

This appraisal contains the last known mention of the Watchman's House. Apparently it disappeared shortly thereafter with the rest of the fort buildings.

No physical evidence of this building has yet been found during archeological explorations. Its site is not numbered or indicated on the site plan of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

Construction details

It appears impossible to make an accurate estimate of the dimensions of the Watchman's House. Not only are the maps on which it is shown of small scale, but the shape and size of the building vary from plan to plan. About all that seems certain is that the east-west dimension was longer than the north-south one. If the writer were to make a guess, however, based on comparisons with other structures of known dimensions, he would say that the porter's lodge measured about fifteen by twenty-two feet.

All that is known of the structure and appearance of the building comes from the Sohon view of 1854 (Plate XXI, vol. I). That drawing shows the Watchman's House as a small, low, one-story building with a gable roof, the ridge of which runs east and west. One window or door is visible in the west wall and there was another opening of some type on the north side.

If, as one witness stated, the gatehouse had once been a black smith's shop, it undoubtedly was built in the Canadian fashion, with rough floors and no lining on the inside.


a. Apparently the site of the Watchman's House has not yet been excavated, although recent and still unreported work along the south stockade line may have covered the area. If not, exploration on the site may produce additional information concerning the building's physical structure.

b. Because of its uncertain erection date and the dearth of structural data, it is recommended that the Watchman's House not be rebuilt unless administrative requirements, such as the need for an entrance station to collect fees, make the construction of a building in its location imperative.

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2003