Friday, April 2, 2010

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park is one of those interesting partnership parks that have evolved in recent decades.  It has a core resource -- Fort Clatsop -- directly owned and managed by the National Park Service, and a number of partner sites in the area around the mouth of the Columbia River that are in some way associated with the Lewis and Clark expedition, like Cape Disappointment State Park in Washington.  The wayside above, for example, is in Astoria, near the Astoria column. 
The views from that location are, to say the least, good. 

There are also a fair number of NPS-designed waysides along the waterfront in Astoria, each one providing some insight into local history, the natural environment, and Lewis and Clark.  On the Washington side of the river, Lewis and Clark turn up at sites all the way up to Long Beach. 
William Clark apparently caught a sturgeon there, as well as observing a flounder for the first time. 

Cape Disappointment State Park also features prominently in the Lewis and Clark story.  The expedition apparently spent some time in the Cape Disappointment area debating whether they should remain on that side of the river for the winter, or move to the south bank. 
Cape Disappointment State Park covers about 5,000 acres, includes 2 lighthouses (Cape Disappointment and North Head), and has the usual hiking trails and campgrounds in addition to the late 19th century military fortifications and a really nice visitor center. Fort Canby was built to protect the mouth of the Columbia River, as was Fort Stevens on the Oregon side.  From whom, I'm not sure, but apparently someone felt vulnerable.

The original plan for the fort was to place the guns right next to the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, right about where that Jeep is sitting in the photo.  The visitor center had a nifty circa 1895 photo showing the mortars in place, cannonballs stacked neatly next to them, as well as a number of no-longer extant ancillary buildings for the lighthouse (a keepers' quarters to the right of that modern sidewalk, for example).  Then they test-fired the largest gun -- and multiple windows shattered.  So they moved everything, and built Fort Canby.  The lighthouse had a first-order Fresnel lens that's now on display in this building:
This is what Fort Canby looks like now as seen from the lighthouse -- it's the visitor center at the park.

That wide concrete path leading up to the Cape Disappointment lighthouse is rather deceptive, too.  It's the Coast Guard access road -- there is a Coast Guard station located on Cape Disappointment; it abuts the state park.  This is the signage in the parking lot for the park, and when they said muddy trail, they weren't kidding.  The first 3/4s of the trail was slick, mucky, and occcasionally treacherous, especially when it was raining.  Then you come around a bend, and see that concrete leading to a gate in the chain link fence for the Coast Guard station.  And it's not really a path; it's a road -- we met a full-size government pickup truck coming down it while we were walking up. After slipping on mud for almost half a mile, it felt weird to do the last couple hundred feet on smooth concrete. 

The other lighthouse in the park is North Head; it was built because ships approaching from north were unable to see the Cape Disappointment light until they were a lot closer than they wanted to be to the treacherous shoals around the mouth of the river.
As for the site most closely associated with Lewis and Clark, Fort Clatsop, it was about what one would expect. Everyone knows the fort is a reproduction, and a pretty new one at that.  The "original" Fort Clatsop visitors saw at this site was a reconstruction from the mid-1950s.  It burned down right about the time everyone was gearing up for the big Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebration a few years ago.  NPS managed to get a reproduction reproduction up in record time, and it looks great.  The nice thing about it being so new is it does a great job of conveying the feeling that the actual Fort Clatsop would have had back in 1804:  raw timbers, nothing weathered, no brush growing up around the fort.  One thing that strikes me when I look at photos taken of the original reproduction fort was the way bushes (ornamental shrubs?) were allowed to grow right up against the structure, which was bizarre.  Historical accuracy would demand cleared land for quite a distance around it simply because it would have all been as raw as any other piece of new construction.
Gotta love those wooden chimneys.  They were plastered on the inside with mud and designed to be pulled down fast if they caught fire (they were pretty common in pioneer construction), but nonetheless the mind boggles.

Fort Clatsop itself is quite nice for a small park.  It has a few trails for ambling along, including board walks through the boggy spots along the river, picnic areas, and a decent visitor center.
The visitor center has a film that tells the Lewis and Clark story from the perspective of the Native Americans who were stuck with the explorers as not especially welcome neighbors for the winter. 

There were several other state parks in the area that are partners with NPS in Lewis and Clark National Historical Park that we simply did not have time to see.  Maybe next time.


  1. I'm sorry we didn't see more of the state when we lived there. This looks like a cool place to visit.

  2. Nice overview. We puttered around from Ft Stevens, which kept those sneaky Japanese from capturing Astoria in WW II, down to Cannon Beach on the OR side. Apparently L&C heard of a dead whale down that way and headed down for the oil and some meat. The Sitka spruce along the route were 200 hrs old in 1805 and are still standing. No reproductions there! It's a great spot for we history buffs.


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