Series: The Cultural Landscape of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site
The Cultural Landscape of Fort Vancouver: U.S. Army and Civilian Conservation Corps, 1919-1941
Excerpted from Vancouver National Historic Reserve Cultural Landscape Report. For more information on this report, email us.
Administrative and Political Context
In the years following World War I and before the start of World War II, military activity was low at Vancouver Barracks. Similar to other military posts throughout the United States, Vancouver experienced a post-war slump, and as a result, many units were transferred in and out of the military reserve. In the 1920s Vancouver Barracks became the designated location for a new military training camp for civilians. Held for two weeks each year, the
camps provided civilians both academic and practical training in various branches of service, including cavalry, field artillery, and engineering.
Two significant political events impacted the military reserve during this period. The first was the founding of the U.S. Army Air Service, followed shortly by the establishment of an army airfield on site. The second major event was U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in March 1933 in response to the Great Depression. The CCC was an interdepartmental work and relief program to employ out-of-work young men to work on conservation projects throughout the country.
By the mid-1930s Vancouver Barracks assumed a leading role in the development of the CCC program as the City of Vancouver became the headquarters and dispensing agency for the enrollee program in the Pacific Northwest.
The U.S. Army Air Service began operation at Vancouver Barrack in the early 1920s. Yet as early as 1905 Lincoln Beachey landed a dirigible craft on the Barracks site in the first aerial crossing of the Columbia River. In 1911 civilian airplane enthusiasts used the Barracks’ former polo field site as one of the first practice airfields and helped establish this locale as the region’s first airfield. In 1921 a forest flight patrol was established to locate and extinguish forest fires in the Vancouver-Portland region; this activity constituted the first organized use of the site as an airfield. Later the field was also used as a pre-flight stop for flying exhibitions.
In 1924 plans were underway to disassemble the Spruce Mill and subsequently expand the landing field. In April 6, 1925, the Secretary of War issued an official decree to appoint the airfield with an official name. Pearson Field was chosen to commemorate a local hero, Lieutenant Alexander Pearson, Jr., who among other accomplishments, made the first flight across the Grand Canyon on a mission for the Department of the Interior. Writing on behalf of the Air Service, Major W. G. Kilner referred to Pearson as “one of the best known and finest pilots in the army air service.” Alexander Pearson was a Vancouver native who died during an exhibition flight in 1924 when his plane went into a spiral. When the airfield was dedicated to him on September 16, 1924, more than 20,000 people turned out to pay their respects to this local hero and attend the flying exhibition in his honor.
From 1923 to the early 1940s, Pearson Field was a key base of operations for the U.S. Army Air Service. Many notable events and pilots could be seen at the site during the “Golden Age of Flight,” including Charles Lindbergh, Jimmy Doolittle, Eddie Rickenbacker, and many barnstormer squadrons.
Less than a decade after the establishment of Pearson Field, the Civilian Conservation Corps arrived at Vancouver Barracks. President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented legislation that established a series of forest camps for the protection, improvement, and conservation of the nation’s natural resources. Divided into nine corps sections, the Pacific Northwest corps oversaw operations in Nevada, Montana, California, and Yellowstone National Park. In March 1933 Vancouver Barracks became the CCC district headquarters for Oregon and Washington. The CCC headquarters at Vancouver Barracks handled all the supplies, purchasing, shipping, and even building materials, recreational equipment, medical care, and religious services, for the Pacific Northwest CCC camps.
The officers associated with the CCC camp were mainly reserve officers, many of who resumed active duty when WWII broke out. In April 1937 Vancouver Barracks became the training camp for eight hundred forest workers in the Northwest and constructed additional housing barracks to accommodate the workforce. By 1942 the number of Washington and Oregon enrollees in the CCC program numbered in the thousands, most of whom were engaged in national forest work such as forest fire prevention, road building, and parks construction.
In July 1942 CCC activities were discontinued due to World War II, and Congressional funding and enrollees followed suit. Many workers enlisted in the army while others found employment in the civilian job market.
Similar to the previous historic period, the center of site activity shifted to the area south of E 5th Street. The former Spruce Mill facility and camps were razed to make room for Pearson Field and CCC activities. Development of Pearson Field subsumed the landscape fabric of open field and pasture south of E 5th Street during this period. The airfield encompassed the entire area north of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway tracks and east of the former skirmish firing range. Scattered pastures became airfield landing strips, and polo grounds were relocated to the southwest corner of the military reserve.
The CCC headquarters was constructed in the former location of the HBC Village. In addition to new CCC administrative and housing buildings, several new military buildings were added to the barracks area south of the Parade Ground, and along the west boundary adjacent to the City of Vancouver. Road development intensified at a finer scale in the interior of the military reserve, while retaining the basic road framework. Additional connector roads were constructed to the City of Vancouver as the young city developed.
Natural Systems and Vegetation
By this period, riparian vegetation mostly was removed along the river edge and replaced with city development west of the military post, and agricultural lands east of the post. Floodplain hydrology and native vegetation were still negatively impacted by the railroad berm. Farmland buttressed the site on the east boundary, which was otherwise surrounded by the City of Vancouver. The airfield, although similar to the open pastures or fields of previous historic periods, was mainly comprised of grass sod.
Most of the original forest was cleared on site and in surrounding environs, particularly after the Spruce Mill activities of the preceding WWI era. Mature trees persisted mainly in the northern half of the military reserve. The maple allee was retained, as well as the allee of trees lining the road to the former dock location on the Columbia River. The open Parade Ground punctuated by Douglas fir groupings was maintained. During this period numerous trees were planted in the barracks area and in the area south of the Parade Ground. This flurry of tree-planting activity was most likely the handiwork of the CCC.
Ornamental plantings were predominantly placed around the Officers’ Row residences, Barnes Hospital, the Red Cross building, and other focal buildings. Officers’ Row houses were landscaped with hedges, foundation planting, in the side and back yards, shade and flowering trees. The front lawn of the hospital was enclosed with a formal boxwood hedge, and ornamental specimens such as arborvitae, juniper, and other plants were installed along the walk and against the foundation. In comparison to the more prominent military buildings such as the officers’ residences or the hospital, the landscape around the army barracks and NCO brick duplexes was relatively sparse, consisting of mostly open lawn with intermittent conifer and deciduous trees.
Spatial organization in the form of roads, buildings, vegetation, and open space remained consistent but intensified to a finer scale of development during this period. Defining features that provided the post’s strong spatial organization, such as Officers’ Row, the Parade Ground, the Barracks buildings, the primary internal roads, and the proportion of open space to developed areas, remained intact. New building and road facilities were constructed that responded to patterns established in preceding time periods. The most significant change was the removal of the Spruce Mill plant, facilities, and temporary camps by 1925, which opened the site back up to an open area south of E 5th Street.
Part of the south reserve area was dedicated to the new airfield Pearson Field. Hangers were constructed near the east boundary south of E 5th Street, but the use of the site as a clear landing area maintained the open character of the landscape. Establishment of the CCC headquarters at Vancouver Barracks in 1933 resulted in new buildings constructed in the vicinity of the former HBC Village. Along the west edge of the airfield, the CCC erected buildings organized in a series of four clusters. Although the organization resembled that of a temporary camp, all the buildings were connected by series of boardwalks and pathways. Barracks were erected for housing and there were groupings of smaller utility buildings, such as motor garages, gas pumps and repair stations. While most of the railroad spurs associated with the Spruce Mill production were removed during this period, the main spur remained. Much of the new building development in the southeast portion of the army post was aligned parallel to the curved railroad spur.
Military activities remained the predominant land use that characterized the Vancouver Barracks. However this time period of social and economic depression between the two world wars sparked an increase of civilian activities and uses on the military reserve. This shift to a more civilian focus was exemplified by three events that occurred at Vancouver Barracks during this era: 1) a new program of civilian training exercises, 2) the establishment of the CCC headquarters for the Pacific Northwest, and 3) the establishment of a new airfield.
Land around the military reserve was virtually all converted from agriculture lands to city development by this time, with the exception of farmlands east of the military post. Sixty acres of land formerly belonging to the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway was leased to the Vancouver Chamber of Commerce to create a civilian airport, Vancouver Municipal Airport. In 1926 an airmail route was established as well as a passenger flight service. A flight school, in addition to a few small businesses, was also opened. From this time period to present day, flight travel became a regular part of the Vancouver Barracks’s daily activity.
This era officially ushered in the automobile as the primary transportation mode, and in keeping with the national trend, sparked numerous road-building projects in the immediate Vancouver area. Major arterial routes and sidewalks were paved, while secondary routes remained dirt surfaces.
The road network within the Vancouver Barracks, while intensified between 1919 and 1941, generally remained intact from the preceding time period. New minor circulation routes were established in association with the new CCC complex and Pearson Field. Sidewalks were constructed that led to the barracks residences, the new duplex, the commissary, hospital, and other buildings. Additionally, new concrete walkway connections between the various building clusters were created.
The two primary east-west roads through the site, E 5th Street (once Upper Mill Road) and Grant Avenue created strong connections between the east and west reserve boundaries and the City of Vancouver. E 5th Street connected to Evergreen Highway east of the Vancouver Barracks and into 5th Street at the west end, and effectively became a busy arterial road. Evergreen Highway became the principal route to Highway 99, which extended along the west edge of the reserve on a north-south axis and crossed the Columbia River via a new bridge.
A new highway, Alt 830 (currently State Route 14), was constructed just north of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway tracks, and traversed in an east-west direction along the south portion of Vancouver Barracks.
Buildings, Clusters and Small-scale Features
Most of the primary military post structures such as Officers’ Row residences, the Barracks buildings south of the Parade Ground, and other military post structures dating from earlier periods remained intact during this time. New building construction responded to the spatial patterns established in preceding historic periods.
The institution of the CCC headquarters and Pearson Field instigated most of the new building activity on the site. Most of the remaining old Spruce Mill buildings were demolished, relocated off-site, or renovated to serve the airfield or the CCC. New CCC buildings were constructed in the vicinity of the former HBC Village in the mid1930s. New barracks buildings were constructed, as well as brick duplexes. A motor shop and other maintenance buildings were constructed.
In March 1919 the Red Cross opened up its first convalescence hospital for soldiers on the west side of military reserve.