Series: The Cultural Landscape of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

The Cultural Landscape of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site: U.S. Army and World War I, 1917-1918

Photo of Vancouver Barracks Spruce Mill
The Vancouver Barracks Spruce Mill.

NPS Photo

Excerpted from Vancouver National Historic Reserve Cultural Landscape Report. For more information on this report, email us.

Administrative and Political Context


In November 1917, as World War I raged overseas, Vancouver Barrack’s involvement in the war took on a unique and often overlooked role. Vancouver Barracks incorporated a new Division for Spruce Production created by the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Headquartered in Portland, Oregon, this Division supplied high quality Spruce wood for the production of airplanes for Allied Forces in the war. Under the command of Captain Brice Disque, the evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest provided the army with the highest quality of wood and largest diameter of old growth Sitka spruce in the world.

Soon after the war in broke out in 1914, Allied Forces found their aviation reserves severely depleted. As America’s involvement in the war commenced, the U.S. Congress passed a series of bills appropriating $694 million dollars for airplane manufacturing and other aeronautical activity. As a result, lumber mills from both Oregon and Washington were called in to assist with the production of milled lumber in order to fulfill Allied provisions. Thus the Spruce Mill production was strengthened from an uncommon alliance formed between the military and the northwest lumber companies.

In the initial stages of operation, the amount of lumber produced by the Spruce Mill proved to be inadequate for what was needed, and appropriations were taken in order to meet demands. Under the recommendation of Captain Disque, the U.S. Army brought soldiers to the northwest to work at the Spruce Mill and associated manufacturing plants. Shortly thereafter, Vancouver Barracks became a training center for soldiers en route to Europe. Infantry regiments stationed at Vancouver Barracks were rotated out to make room for thousands of incoming “spruce” soldiers.

By 1918 the Spruce Mill expanded and appropriated other buildings within the military reserve for wood production. Vancouver Barracks was retrofitted and soon became the principal mill of the Division known as the “Cut-Up Plant.” The operation was built and operated almost entirely by spruce soldiers. With the aggressive recruitment of labor, the total number of soldiers employed at the Spruce Mill over the course of one year jumped from 1,000 to 28,000 soldiers. Disque was later quoted: “There was not a commercial mill on the coast that was equipped to saw straight grained spruce in the quantity demanded, and remain in business.”

The Spruce Mill was under construction, completed, and operating within forty-five working days of breaking ground. Its inauguration was performed with full attendance and ceremonial pageantry, and in February 1918, operation of the mill plant began. The size of the plant and its facilities was staggering as the main production plant reached more than 103,000 square feet, an expansive undertaking for such a short period. The plant produced approximately four to six hundred thousand board feet every twenty-four hours. The plant, however, was in operation less than a year and was disbanded when the armistice treaty was signed in November 1918.

After World War I ended, the army made the claim that although the mill had only been in operation for only ten months, it had produced and shipped out 143 million board feet from the Pacific Northwest. When operations ceased, most of the equipment, supplies and materials were put into inventory and later put on the auction block for sale. Disque remarked on the sale of inventory: “. . . the largest sale of Government property ever advertised [with] only the sale of equipment from the Panama Canal excelling in number of items and valuation.”

Over its brief life span, the Spruce Mill employed more than 28,000 workers in the Pacific Northwest. More than 18,000 mill workers were spruce soldiers and among those, several thousand soldiers resided at Vancouver Barracks during this period.

The army’s involvement in the lumber industry ultimately influenced the regional economy in several ways. It allowed many areas of the forest that were previously inaccessible to be opened up for development for the expansion of the City of Vancouver. New unions formed out of the army’s involvement with the lumber industry and drew in hundred of thousands of workers to the lumber industry. However, perhaps the most beneficial outcome of the army’s involvement in the Spruce Mill operation was the institution of an eight-hour workday in the private workforce.
Soldiers inside Spruce Mill
Soldiers inside the Vancouver Barracks Spruce Mill.

NPS Photo

Site Description


On January 7, 1918, one local newspaper at Vancouver Barracks reporting on the progress of the mill stated, “(the Spruce Mill is) growing so rapidly and in such large proportion, that the landscape is changed almost every twenty-four hours.”31 At the time of this statement, four of a total of six units of the Spruce Mill were already completed, the fifth unit was in construction, and the sixth unit was being excavated.

The Spruce Mill plant was sited in the area of the former HBC stockade and fields just south of Old Upper Mill Road. During earlier U.S. military periods, it had also been the location of the company gardens and polo grounds, all of which were sacrificed for the war effort. The army logically chose this site due to its close proximity to the railroad, the river, and existing infrastructure. Moreover, since this south portion of the site had few existing structures at the time, it offered a prime location for such a large-scale operation.

Extensive tent camps housing tens of thousands of employed spruce soldiers bordered the periphery of the central area of the mill and the drying kilns. South of the mill, the former shooting range was predominantly left intact as open area for storing milled lumber. Numerous rail spurs radiating off the mainline of Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway were constructed to service the Spruce Mill.
Image of landscape change 1917-1918
Map showing the site as it appeared during World War I, 1917-1918.

NPS Photo

Landscape Characteristics

Natural Systems and Vegetation


In this period, the activities of the Spruce Mill and the war, the growth of the city, and the railroad all contributed to the diminishment of several natural and vegetative systems. The vicinity south of Upper Mill Road was the area most altered by the establishment of the Spruce Mill plant. Construction of the railroad and its numerous spurs created a physical barrier on the lower floodplain, and effectively severed human and hydrologic connection to the river’s edge. The railroad and Spruce Mill also dramatically reduced the pastures and fields and replaced them with an industrial park suited for the war effort.

By 1918 the City of Vancouver had expanded along the east and north sides of the reserve and encompassed the military reserve on all three sides. As the site converted from farm fields and grasslands to urban development, agriculture was no longer the dominant land use.

The most significant impact to the natural vegetation was the demise of the old growth forests north of the site. The war in Europe impacted the Northwest and its natural resources, with direct repercussions on Sitka spruce forests. Industrial developments up and down the Columbia River negatively impacted the waterway. As a result of the combined impacts of the Spruce Mill, the railroad, and the growth of the city, natural systems and native vegetation were greatly diminished during this historic period.

In the south part of Vancouver Barracks, several mature trees were removed south of the barracks buildings to accommodate the Spruce Mill plant and spruce soldiers’ living quarters.

Spatial Organization


The spatial organization of the military reserve shifted significantly during this time, albeit for a brief period to accommodate the Spruce Mill production. Temporary tent camps encircled the Spruce Mill and housed the tens of thousands of spruce soldiers. Centrally located, the mill became the focus for Vancouver Barracks as a major contributor to the war effort. Activity radiated in and out from the Spruce Mill and the adjoining railroad. As the most current mode of mass transit in this era, the railroad had the capacity to bring large groups of people in and large amounts of product out.

The City of Vancouver was completely configured around the U.S. military reserve by this time, as the city abutted Vancouver Barrack’s boundaries. Much of the circulation and roadways through the post directly aligned and connected to the major roadways of the city.

Land Use


Land use transitioned from agricultural to industrial in this period. No longer a center of agriculture production or just a military reserve, the Spruce Mill Division focused site activity on the production of milled lumber for airplane and other war-related activities. While the frontier closed in the preceding time period, the arrival of spruce mill and the railroad ushered Vancouver Barracks into the industrial age. Furthermore, the urban density of the City of Vancouver encompassed areas that were formerly the pastures, fields, and forests on the outskirts of the military reserve.

The lumber industry, in alliance with the military, accessed forests north of the military reserve, as well as other local forests, and used these natural resources for manufacturing and production. The once dense and heavily populated coniferous old growth forests were irrevocably cleared from the face of the landscape.

Circulation


Circulation throughout the Spruce Mill centered on the railroad. The industrial age brought forth mass transportation for the shipment of goods and services and passengers to the Northwest. With the construction of the Spruce Mill, an additional spur of the railroad was added on at the west end of the mill and branched off at various streets and buildings on the site. One of the main spurs ran parallel with Upper Mill Road.

As the City of Vancouver grew and surrounded the military reserve, the circulation of Vancouver Barracks became synchronized with the City of Vancouver. Major routes on the site such as McLoughlin Road, E 5th Street and Evergreen Boulevard were tied into the network of roadways leading to and from the city.

Buildings, Clusters and Small-scale Features


Comprised of six primary units the Spruce Mill covered an area of 50 acres south of E 5th Street. The building footprint of the mill was enormous and covered an area of 105,000 square feet. Each section contained the following: two circular saws rigs, two-table edger, two re-saws and eight trim saws. In addition to the mill, there was several industrial large buildings erected to house ancillary services such as the cut-up plant, drying kilns, drying sheds, storage buildings, and large mills for spruce wood production. The kilns were approximately 35,000 square feet and the drying shed was an enormous 105,000 square feet.

As soldiers were brought in to help operate the mill, temporary camp housing was established. Around the mill thousands of tent camps and support facilities were constructed. North of Officers’ Row, catamount housing was constructed for regimens of the Spruce Division.