Campfires & Candlelight

Campfires & Candlelight

Campfires & Candlelight is our largest living history event of the year. It has been a community tradition for over 30 years. At this event, visitors have the unique opportunity to visit Fort Vancouver after dark, and to experience history by the glow of candlelight.

This event features a "Timeline of History" leading from East Fifth Street up to the fort gates. Along the Timeline, camps with costumed reenactors portray different time periods from the site's history, including World War II, World War I, the Indian Wars, the Civil War, the Oregon Trail, and the Fort Vancouver Village. Visitors can experience historic weapons demonstrations, play historic games, and talk with costumed volunteers about our local history. As visitors walk from the street to the fort, they are slowly transported back in time, until they finally arrive in the 1840s.

Inside the reconstructed Fort Vancouver, reenactors portray a specific night from the history of the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Vancouver, a fur trading fort that operated from 1825 to 1860. The theme of the re-enactment rotates.

Campfires & Candlelight 2019: "The Night of the Fire"

September 7, 2019, 4 pm to 10 pm

At the 2019 Campfires & Candlelight, reenactors inside the reconstructed Fort Vancouver will portray historical figures who were present at the fort on the night of September 26, 1844, as they tell the story of "The Night of the Fire." On that night, a massive wildfire threatened the fort, and the clerks, tradesmen, women and children who lived inside the fort spent their evening anxiously awaiting their fate. Visitors will experience this dramatic night, and will have the unique opportunity to hear about the history of Fort Vancouver from the characters who lived through it!

Historical Background

Over the summer of 1844, very little rain was recorded by the Hudson's Bay Company employees at Fort Vancouver from mid-July until mid-October. As a result of these hot, dry conditions, on Tuesday, September 24, 1844, a fire broke out to the east of Fort Vancouver. Fort Vancouver's Chief Trader James Douglas wrote that on that day "a dense cloud of smoke, indicating the existence of an extensive fire, was observed rising from the banks of the River at some distance to the eastward." At the time the fire broke out, Chief Factor Dr. John McLoughlin was visiting the Hudson's Bay Company's operation in the Willamette Valley, where fires were also raging, and Douglas had been left in charge.

On September 25, 1844, Hudson's Bay Company employees fought to extinguish the fire. Thanks to extensive trenching and water carted up from the river, by the end of the day Douglas believed the fire was "completely subdued."

However, on Thursday, September 26, 1844, "a thick column of smoke" was spotted coming from the camas plain to the northeast of the fort, approximately 5 to 6 miles away. Douglas rode to the fireline and surmised that the fort would be "assailed at all points" by this new fire. Over the course of the day, men were stationed to protect the HBC barns at Mill Plain, as well as the Company's Saw Mill and Flour Mill. Casks of water were placed around the barns near the fort that housed food for the fort's livestock (today, this spot is in the Great Meadow, across from Pearson Air Museum).

That night, Douglas wrote that "having thus made the best preparations in our power, to meet the assault of [the fire], a period of the most painful suspense followed, while we listened, in perfect impotence, to its frightful ravages in the forest, which came upon the ear like the beating of the distant ocean."

By 8:30 pm on the 26th, the fire was about 2 and a half miles away from the fort. By midnight, the fire had reached the "Lower Plain" fields to the east of the fort, where it threatened to destroy the Company's pastures, cattle, sheep, and horses. In the early morning hours of the 27th, the Hudson's Bay Company men working to extinguish the fire were joined by Chief Kiesno and a group of American Indian men.

On September 27, 1844, the fire reached its zenith, sweeping towards Fort Vancouver with the help of a strong easterly wind. In the end, the fire came within 300 feet of the fort before it was extinguished. Many of the HBC buildings outside the fort were able to be saved, with the exception of the five barns in the Great Meadow.

On Saturday, September 28, 1844, the fire was "gradually expiring for want of fuel," and the worst of the danger was over.

Lewes 1844 map
The dotted red line on this map, made by HBC clerk Adolphus Lee Lewes, shows how close the 1844 fire came to Fort Vancouver.

Hudson's Bay Company Archives

Last updated: August 20, 2019

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