The Cultural Landscape of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site: U.S. Army and World War II, 1941-1947

Aerial photograph of the Vancouver Kaiser Shipyards on the Columbia River. Six Navy ships are docked. Mount Hood is visible in the background.
The Kaiser Shipyards at Vancouver, Washington.

NPS Photo

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

Administrative and Political Context

The country’s entry into World War II prompted a greater intensity of military activity at Vancouver Barracks, which served as a departure point for troops serving abroad. Vancouver Barracks came under the control of the Ninth Service Command, with headquarters at Fort Douglas, Utah, after December 1941. Vancouver Barracks served as a staging area for the Portland Subport of Embarkation and as the U.S. Army’s first training center for quartermaster units.

Vancouver Barracks as a location suited to diverse functions was demonstrated once again in 1942 when a 400-acre shipyard opened at Vancouver. The industry was a joint venture between the United States government and a private company, Kaiser Shipyards; the Army administered the facility, and Kaiser Shipyards ran the production. The entry of the United States in World War II required rapid development of the country’s naval battalion. Vancouver, Portland, and the Northwest in general were prime locations for new shipyards due to the availability of abundant resources and the proximity of the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean.

Entrepreneur and Kaiser Shipyards founder Henry J. Kaiser was an industrialist whose operations in the early 20th century grew steadily from road construction and cement to steel and aluminum production, and finally to ship building. He was successful at winning government contracts and known for getting the job done in an efficient and timely manner. Through production methods developed by Kaiser, the industrial giant was able to perform more efficiently than other ship building plants. He could build ships faster and at lower cost than other companies because he ignored traditional production methods and used an assembly-line approach. Ships were built in separate and smaller sections and as a result, they could be welded together in a few days’ time.

Located along the Columbia River, the Kaiser site was bordered to the north by the SP & S Railway, and to the east and west by the City of Vancouver. Built on a former dairy farm, Kaiser Shipyard construction began in January 1942 and cost $17 million dollars to complete. The first ship was rapidly assembled and launched in 165 days.

The establishment of the shipyards brought thousands of workers to the City of Vancouver and had a significant impact on the city’s development. From 1940 to 1948 Vancouver’s population jumped to fifty thousand people, almost double what it had been three years previously. Kaiser Shipyards attracted people from all over the country, and of the total number of incoming people, approximately 38,000 were involved in working in the shipyards. Kaiser was also known for taking care of its employees. Women and men were given equal pay for equal work, and medical needs were met by prepaid health plans for workers and their families.

The impact of the shipyards had a cascade effect upon the city; its influence reached all municipal sectors, including the fire department, police, schools, and residential development. Due to the population boom, new services were required, and the City of Vancouver faced a major housing shortage. Thus a massive wave of new development swept across Vancouver as hundreds of houses, roads, and utilities were constructed. McLoughlin Heights Housing was a huge housing complex built just northeast of Kaiser Shipyards. The hasty development and expansion of the City of Vancouver during this period had a permanent impact on the city’s form.
Ship launching at the Vancouver Kaiser Shipyards
Ship launching at the Kaiser Shipyards.

NPS Photo

Site Description

Vancouver Barracks developed to its fullest extent during this period as the military post engaged in World War II. Development within the military reserve intensified with the construction of new buildings, roads, and pathways.

Military structures and activities were predominantly concentrated in the area between Officers’ Row and Evergreen Highway. Recreational facilities were constructed north of Officers’ Row. The essential landscape characteristics persisted from the prior historic periods, including Officers’ Row, the Barracks, the Parade Ground, Pearson Field, roads, and vegetation.

With the onset of World War II, the Vancouver/Portland region became center stage for the shipbuilding industry in the Pacific Northwest, and Kaiser Shipyards was established on a former dairy farm about three-fourths of a mile east of Vancouver Barracks. Kaiser Shipyards was bounded by the railroad to the north and extended over one mile in an east-west direction along the river. The area north of the railroad on the east boundary of Vancouver Barracks was annexed by the City of Vancouver and developed into residential housing.
Image of landscape change from a1942 to 1947
Map showing the site as it appeared during and after World War II, 1942 to 1947.

NPS Photo

Landscape Characteristics

Natural Systems and Vegetation

Extensive development of the site and adjacent environs had obliterated most of the native vegetation and natural systems by this time. The focus on industry and production greatly altered the landscape.

Manipulation of the Columbia River and its shoreline began in earnest during this period, as the river was dammed, dredged, and channelized. The Columbia River became a primary source for inexpensive hydroelectric power. And by 1942 nearly all electricity from newly constructed Bonneville Dam was committed to industrial loads for war production. The Columbia River served as the gateway to the Pacific Ocean large tankers that were the trademark of the Kaiser shipyards, and dredging commenced to accommodate the large ships. Finally the shoreline in the immediate vicinity was modified to create dry docks and holding areas for Kaiser ships.

Agricultural activities had ceased both on site as well as on adjacent lands by this era. Pastures and fields were replaced by industry or city development. Vegetation within the military reserve consisted primarily of ornamental landscape plants and mature trees.

Spatial Organization

Spatial organization developed to a finer grain of scale yet remained intact during this period. New roads, pathways, buildings, and athletic fields were constructed to serve the site’s wartime military functions. The layout of these new facilities responded to the existing spatial organization, adhering to the same geometry, forms, and spatial arrangements of existing development.

The primary components comprising Vancouver Barracks’ spatial configuration were carried over from the preceding historic periods: including the major roads and railroad, Officers’ Row, the Barracks, the Parade Ground, the maple allee, mature tree canopy, and Pearson Field. The southeast portion of the military reserve remained in open space during this time; housing footprints were delineated but never built.

Land Use

The use of the site as a military post continued to be the principal land use activity. The country’s entry into World War II heightened the importance and functionality of Vancouver Barracks. Interestingly, however, by this time the military post was completely surrounded by other land uses and activities that interfaced with the post’s military functions. War industry in the form of Kaiser Shipyards was the reserve’s immediate neighbor to the east. City development completely surrounded the military post on the west, north, and east sides.


Nearly all forms of circulation were highly active within the Vancouver Barracks during the war period, including vehicular, flight, train, and boat travel. The infrastructure to support these activities included numerous paved roads, the SP & S Railway, Pearson Field, Kaiser Shipyards, and the Coast Guard pier.

The primary circulation framework developed in earlier periods remained intact during this time. The major roads crossing Vancouver Barracks, including Grant Boulevard, Evergreen Highway, West Reserve Street, Alternate Route 830, and several internal barracks streets, were all operational. East-west street connections to the City of Vancouver remained intact.

The Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway, which crossed through the lower Vancouver Barracks, was instrumental in transporting goods and passengers during the war era. The SP & S came into its own during this period with a growing fleet of Alco Diesels and powerful steam engines. As the only water-level route from the west Rockies to the Pacific Coast, SP & S billed itself as “the Northwest’s Own Railway.”

Buildings, Clusters and Small-scale Features

U.S. military activity increased even before the country entered World War II in 1942, leading to a wave of new construction at Vancouver Barracks. Barnes Hospital, a 750-bed hospital, was constructed in 1941 on the northwest side of the Barracks to serve military personnel throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The garrison size at Vancouver Barracks increased during wartime, and additional barracks were needed to house new troops. Temporary barracks called Camp Hathaway were built on the north end of the military reserve.

Infill along the west boundary and within the core barracks area occurred as several new buildings were constructed to accommodate the increased military activities. The placement of these structures responded to existing spatial configurations in the landscape, e.g., the railroad spur, interior roads, etc.

Clusters were clearly identified by groups of buildings arrayed according to function. Officers’ Row formed one major cluster. The barracks buildings lining the south edge of the Parade Ground created another cluster, while the east barracks buildings formed another grouping. Other clusters included the Pearson Field hanger and administrative buildings, and the numerous storage facilities organized along the railroad spur.

The immediate vicinity around the Vancouver Barracks witnessed a major surge in new building construction. Kaiser Shipyards was the biggest neighbor just east of the military reserve. The influx of thousands of workers coming into the area prompted the passage of the Lanham Act, which authorized public housing construction to be managed by the Federal Housing Authority. During the war, Vancouver Housing Authority built 12,000 housing units.

One of the largest housing units built was a planned development called McLoughlin Heights built on one thousand acres of land east of the city. With the population increase in Vancouver, Kaiser helped to build additional support facilities for the workers and their families. Shopping malls, schools, gymnasiums, and libraries were all built during this time to help support the families moving to the city.

Last updated: April 6, 2018