photos by todd gunderson
You don’t have to be a military buff to enjoy Fort Columbia State Park and in Chinook, but those who are will soak up the history and scenery like a sponge. Middle Village/Station Camp, dedicated in 2012, is equally fascinating, and paints a clear and complex picture of the cultures that came before us.
Known as Middle Village, as well as the town of McGowan and Station Camp, this special spot is where the mighty Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. This area was inhabited for thousands of years by the industrious community of Chinook Indians. But they had to defend themselves against scores of Europeans, and by 1825, the Plank Houses of Middle Village had been burned down.
Canoes were central to Chinook community and commercial life – typically, there were enough canoes to put everyone afloat at once, large ones holding up to 20 people and tons of cargo. Smaller, “Sweetwater” canoes carried one person and up to 250 pounds of goods and were often used for harvesting camas bulbs. Lifesize models of Chinook canoes are central to the Middle Village historic site, and a walking path with lookout structures encircles the site, with very informative placards and monuments telling the history of the place and leading the visitor back in time.
The site was developed by the McGowans, a family that came west for the Gold Rush and later made its fortune in fish. The McGowans established the first commercial salmon packing business in the region in 1857 after P.J. McGowan laid claim to 320 acres of a failed Catholic mission to convert the Chinook to Christianity.
In 1904, McGowan paid for the construction of a Catholic Church built of Port Orford Cedar. While six generations of McGowans lived here, after the cannery moved and fish traps and seines were outlawed, many of the Middle Village/Station Camp buildings deteriorated. In 1962, St. Mary’s was restored and Sunday evening service is held there every week for parishioners and visitors alike. The church was known as the “Star of the Sea” and was one of the earliest know mission land grants in Washington.
The Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery spent just 10 days here in 1805. Historians called the spot “Station Camp” because it was Lieutenant William Clark’s primary survey station to produce a detailed and accurate map of the mouth of the Columbia River and surrounding area.
Fort Columbia has not changed much since it was established to defend the upper Pacific coast from 1906 through World War II. It’s a quick tour but a fun one for families with spooky buildings to explore, grassy knolls to picnic on and a large cannon to peer into. The State Park and national Lewis and Clark site encompasses 593 acres and a mile of freshwater shoreline. The site includes Barracks and Officer’s Quarters, which now serve as an interpretive site and administration. Battery Ord makes for a truly personal look inside the protected operations of the base. The Powerhouse is hidden in the grass, sporting a large historic steam generator and the remains of a telephone switchboard. The Ordnance Storehouse today is a community theater, which upon our visit was showing Wizard of Oz.
Before you leave the site, make your way down behind the theater and splash around on the secluded beach. It’s quite a lovely stop before the long drive back to the city.
With thanks to the National Park Service for providing such great infomation on these important sites.