On March 12, Dr. Jim Hills led his own study-abroad program in miniature — a field trip with eight students from his Literature of the American West class.
Hills took his class to visit two of Oregon’s major historical sites, the McLoughlin House and Fort Vancouver, allowing the students to step out of their textbooks and into Oregon’s history for a few hours at least. I was one of the students.
We started from Corban about 9:30 a.m. and met rain during the hour-long drive to Oregon City. Of the two places on our itinerary, the McLoughlin House tour was inside; the fort was not. Dr. Hills decided we should start at the house and see if the weather changed during the afternoon.
We found the house — a white, two-story building — on a narrow residential street a couple blocks from Highway 99E. Tours were free, but we had to be guided through the house. Dr. Hills directed us next door, to the Barclay House, where we learned that a tour had just begun. We hurried into the back room to join the one other visitor.
The first part of the tour was a 20-minute biography of McLoughlin. Trained as a physician, the docent told us, he became the Hudson Bay Company’s Chief Factor, the regional overseer, supervising the Northwest Fur Trade from Alaska to California.
Later, as settlers arrived on the Oregon Trail, often penniless and running out of food, McLoughlin loaned them supplies and directed them to the Willamette Valley. He hoped the Americans would stay in the valley, below the Columbia River, leaving the north to the British. His employers, however, thought he was encouraging the Americans to immigrate, and so they forced him to retire.
We also learned about the two men who bought Portland for 50 cents apiece — they flipped a coin to decide who should name the town, and the man from Portland, Maine, won.
Unfortunately, by the time our guide finished telling us the house’s history, we only had a few minutes left to explore it. We saw the parlor and the McLoughlins’ box piano — specially built so it could be shipped around Cape Horn in a crate — but we had barely time to peek into the upstairs bedrooms before the next tour group arrived.
Fortunately, the rain had stopped, because we still had a fort to wander through.
After lunch at a local restaurant, we crossed into Washington and headed for Fort Vancouver. We approached the fort from the north, and behind it — contrasting oddly with the long wooden palisade — I could see the I5 bridges over the Columbia.
As we drove nearer, I suddenly realized the fort’s size. This was no mere blockhouse; it was a village.
Through the front gate — a wide breach cut into the fort’s 15-foot-high palisade —a dozen carefully reconstructed buildings lay scattered across a 5-acre lawn. At the far corner of the fort, a bastion looked out over the grounds, while patches of green moss showed the foundations of other buildings, still waiting to be rebuilt.
Our first stop was the National Park Service building just inside the gate, where a ranger collected park fees — $3 for an individual, $5 for a family — and offered headsets for an audio tour. We skipped the audio tour, but picked up maps and started around the fort, wandering leisurely past the replica cannons in front of the Chief Factor’s Residence
We didn’t stay there long, though. The wind was blowing hard up the Gorge, carrying us around the next corner and dropping us in front of the kitchen.
After fighting the wind, it felt like summer to step through the low doorway. Two re-enactors were busy preparing a meal over an open fireplace and the smell of warm molasses filled the dusky room.
We lingered in the warmth for several minutes, listening to the head cook explain the fort’s activities, from contemporary politics — “the barricades weren’t to protect from Indian attacks; they were to keep out the wolves and the Americans” — to the typical meals she prepared for the fort’s officers and visitors.
Eventually, our group strolled on, visiting the dispensary and pausing a few minutes in the blacksmith’s shop to hear his story. By then, though, it was past 2 p.m., and we were ready for the wind to carry us home.
Gathering our last stragglers, we headed for the parking lot, leaving the fort’s jail and the carpenter’s shop for another visit, some other time — maybe after school gets out.