Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

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Quick Overview

This is the audio-only described version of the park's brochure. It describes the history of the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Vancouver. Discover the history of this British fur trading post through text and historic images, learn how beaver fur from the Pacific Northwest was transformed into luxury items for a European market, and take a virtual tour through the fort with descriptions of each of the post's buildings. Finally, learn how to visit Fort Vancouver National Historic Site with a map of the national park and surrounding areas, as well as information about hours, directions and safety.
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TEXT: The Fort's History

Learn about the fort's history depicted in text and images in the selections that follow. 

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1845 John Mix Stanley painting

Image Caption: This painting of Fort Vancouver, reputedly by John Mix Stanley, dates from about 1845.

Image Description: This painting, at the top of the front half of the brochure,  shows a view of Fort Vancouver from the north. In the background, light reflects off the waters of the Columbia River. On the opposite side of the river is the forested southern bank, where present-day Oregon state is located. One tall ship with white sails floats eastward on the river; another ship appears to be docked on the shore.

On the north bank of the river is Fort Vancouver. A rectangular palisade wall encloses a number of wooden buildings, which are mostly obscured. The buildings have wood shingled roofs; four are painted white. In the northwestern corner of the fort is a tall tower called a bastion. In the southeastern corner, wooden buildings are positioned outside the fort palisade.

To the west of the fort lies the employee Village and Waterfront Complex, where many Hudson's Bay Company employees lived and worked. A series of small wooden houses can be seen in the distance, and several structures can be seen along the waterfront.

North of the fort palisade, a dirt road leads up from the fort gates to another main thoroughfare - a long dirt road that runs east-west, from one end of the painting to the other, almost bisecting the image. Two small figures and a person on a horse travel along this road. On the eastern side of the north-south road that leads to the fort's gates is another grassy field and two low buildings with sloping roofs. On the western side of the north-south road is an orchard with many roughly-sketched trees. Fences line both roads.

On the north side of the east-west road is a grassy field in which two shepherds stand, along with three white sheep. One farmer is holding a long shepherd's crook. At the western end of this field are two large, two-story wooden buildings.

In the foreground, a small group of people are on a dirt path. An ongahjay, or fur trade employee, wearing a blue shirt and red cap and belt sits atop a cart pulled by a horse. Close to him are two American Indians - one rides a brown horse, the other, wearing tan leather clothing and carrying a large load on his backs, walks. 

On the right and left sides of the painting in the foreground are also are evergreen trees, grass, and bursts of foliage.

Source: BEINECKE RARE BOOK AND MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY, YALE UNIVERSITY


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TEXT: Outpost of an Empire

As the 19th century dawned, the United States and Great Britain were locked in a struggle for control of North America’s northern Pacific coast, a region rich in furs. By 1818 the two nations had agreed to share access to the Oregon Country, as they had come to call the region, until they could decide upon a boundary. Seven years later, in a bold move designed to anchor Britain’s claim to all of Oregon, the Hudson’s Bay Company—the giant fur trading organization—moved its Columbia Department headquarters from Fort George at the mouth of the Columbia to the newly established Fort Vancouver, 100 miles upstream. For the next two decades Fort Vancouver was directed by strong-willed, capable men who made it into the fur trade capital of the Pacific coast.

Primarily responsible for the post’s success was Dr. John McLoughlin, an energetic man and a genius at organization who served as chief factor during most of those years. In the 1830s and 1840s American settlers were attracted to the rich farm lands of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. McLoughlin made supplies and credit available to the needy settlers. This influx of Americans resulted in a division of the Oregon Country in 1846 along the 49th parallel, a decision that left—contrary to British hopes—Fort  Vancouver on American soil. For a few years the Hudson’s Bay Company continued to trade with the settlers and Indians, but trade diminished and the company moved out in 1860. By 1866 fires and decay had destroyed all the structures.

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IMAGE and TEXT: John McLoughlin, 1784-1857

Photo description: A black and white three-quarters length portrait photograph of Dr. John McLoughlin, Chief Factor of Fort Vancouver. McLoughlin is an older man in the photograph. He has medium-length white hair, prominent sideburns, and light-colored eyes. His gaze is directed to the left. His brow is furrowed. He wears a dark coat and vest, a large dark cravat, and a high-collared white shirt.

Source: National Park Service photo

Text: John McLoughlin, 1784–1857, was born in the Province of Quebec and trained as a physician near Montreal. He joined the North West Company as a physician at its post at Fort William (now Thunder Bay, Ontario). When the North West and Hudson’s Bay companies merged, McLoughlin was named head of the Columbia Department. His job was to keep peace with the Indians, squeeze Americans out of the market, and firmly establish the British claim to all of Oregon. As a businessman, McLoughlin succeeded. But he was hospitable and generous to the growing number of American settlers who came to Oregon, selling them supplies and extending them credit. His superiors became more and more critical. When the new boundary was agreed upon in 1846, McLoughlin retired, moved to Oregon City, Ore., and became an American citizen. To Oregonians he has come to be called the “Father of Oregon.”

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IMAGE and TEXT: Sir George Simpson, 1786-1860

Image description: A painting showing a three-quarters length view of Sir George Simpson. Simpson is pale with rosy cheeks and blue eyes. His gaze is directed to the right side of the image frame. He is bald on the top of his head, with blond hair on the sides of his head and long blond sideburns. He is wearing a black coat and vest, a black cravat, and a high-collared white shirt.

Source: Hudson's Bay Company Library

Text: Sir George Simpson, 1786–1860, head of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s North American operations, chose John McLoughlin to take charge of the Columbia Department because of McLoughlin’s administrative and leadership abilities. Simpson and McLoughlin, however, never became friends and throughout their careers could barely control the irritation and hostility that they felt for one another. This portrait by Stephen Pearce shows Simpson in 1857.

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TEXT: The Trapper and the Hatmaker

Long before the American West was settled, it had been crisscrossed by lone scouts and hunters and trappers searching for new untouched  trapping grounds. At the center of this fur trading enterprise stood the Hudson’s Bay Company and its main post, Fort Vancouver. As the vagaries of fashion carried the beaver hat to the height of popularity, the demand for that animal’s fur increased enormously. From Fort Vancouver the Hudson’s Bay Company sent out brigades of trappers that included from 50 to 200 men, women, and children. Trapping was hard and often dangerous work, particularly because most of it was done in the winter, when the pelts are the thickest.

The earliest trappers had adopted the Indians’ method of breaking into a beaver lodge and taking the animals, but soon the steel trap came into use.

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TEXT: The Trap

1. The trap, designed to catch the beaver by the leg, was set in shallow water. It was attached by a chain to a sharpened stake implanted in deeper water. The traps were baited with castoreum, a scent obtained from glands in the hind legs of the beaver. All this activity was going on while the trapper stood in the water, often ice-cold, so that he did not leave his scent on the bank.

Line drawing description: Two 19th century fur trappers stand in water to set a beaver trap. One sets the trap in shallow water, while the other hammers a stake to hold the trap's chain. They are dressed in traditional fur trappers' clothing, with caps and capotes, or wool jackets.

Source: Illustration by NPS/John Dawson

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TEXT: The Curious Beaver

2. The curious beaver, attracted by the castoreum, stepped into the trap. The next morning the trapper skinned his catch. 

Line drawing description: A side profile of a beaver dame in a river or lake bed.  A beaver is shown with its paw trapped between the jaws of a beaver trap. The trap's chain is hooked to a stake nearby. In the background, a tall tree stands next to tree stumps that have been chewed by the beaver.

Source: Illustration by NPS/John Dawson

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TEXT: Back at Camp

3. Back at camp, he or his Indian wife scraped the flesh from the skins and stretched them to dry.

After almost a year in the wilderness, the trapping brigades, with their furs in tow, got ready to head back to Fort Vancouver. Joining up with one another, the brigades made their way to the Columbia and Fort Vancouver where the people awaited their arrival. It was a festive time of year, and the trappers themselves made a show of their arrival, donning their best and most colorful clothes, swaggering out of their boats, and jauntily unloading their furs. The winters in the wilderness had convinced them that they were superior to the fort’s regular work force.

Now the company clerks took over, appraising the furs, paying the trappers, and preparing the furs for shipment to London. Turning the beaver pelts into the fashionable hats involved a number of steps. The hats were not made from the whole pelt as is sometimes assumed. First, the coarse guard hairs were pulled off. Then, the soft and desirable underfur was shaved off and set aside.

From experience the hatters knew how much fur was needed to make one hat. They weighed out the proper amount of fur and piled it in a small mound.

Line drawing description: A round beaver skin is tied to a wood hoop to help it stretch and dry. In the background, two more furs are tied to hoops. A fur trapper wearing traditional 19th century fur trappers' clothes stands next to a wood frame holding many already-prepared furs. Next to the frame is a wrapped bale containing more furs packaged for shipment to Europe.

Source: Illustration by NPS/John Dawson

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TEXT: Twanging a Bow

4. Twanging a bow string through the fur spread it out evenly and caused the microscopic hairs to hook onto one another, forming a thick but loosely structured mat of material called a ”batt.”

This batt was stacked with others separated by wet cloths from which the batts absorbed moisture. Two batts, which were needed for each hat, were joined together in the shape of a hood.

Line drawing description: A male laborer with his shirtsleeves rolled to his elbow holds a long wooden bow with a string. Below the bowstring on a shelf is a pile of beaver hairs.

Source Illustration by NPS/John Dawson

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TEXT: the Hoods

5.  These hoods, or hat bodies, were boiled for six to eight hours to produce the compact and tight body needed for the final step.

Line drawing description: Two male laborers with their shirtsleeves rolled to their elbows work over a brick basin holding boiling water. The basin has a door at its base showing where a fire is kept to keep the water hot. One laborer removes a wet hood from the steaming water. Next to him is a barrel full of more water. The other laborer wears a dark apron. He holds a small wooden club with one hand, and with his other hand he holds a fur hood.

Source: Illustration by NPS/John Dawson

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TEXT: The Body

Text: 6. The body was placed on a wooden mold in the shape of a hat and carefully shaped so that it fitted smoothly. In the hatter’s capable hands this step was soon completed and except for finishing touches the work was done.

In the 1830s silk hats were introduced. As the beaver population of the Northwest declined through over-trapping, silk replaced beaver on the market. By the 1860s the demand for beaver pelts had declined and the large scale commercial trapping of beavers came to an end.

Line drawing description: A male laborer shapes a hat on a wooden mold. The laborer wears an apron and has his shirtsleeves rolled up. The hat is black, and the laborer uses a small iron to press the brim into shape. Other shaping tools lie nearby. Next to him sits a stack of bell-shaped hoods that have yet to be shaped into hats. Next to them sits another wooden hat mold.

Source: Illustration by NPS/John Dawson


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IMAGE and TEXT: Exploring Fort Vancouver

Painting description: This color painting shows Fort Vancouver as it would have appeared in the 1840s. In the background is the south bank of the Columbia River, and the river itself. A tall, white-sailed ship floats eastward on the river. Along the north bank of the river are several wooden buildings, representing the fort's Waterfront Complex. Near this complex of industrial and agricultural buildings are several small cabins, representing the fort's employee village. Patches of evergreen trees are also present.

In the foreground is Fort Vancouver. It is surrounded by a tall wooden palisade made of timbers. 21 buildings can be seen inside the fort. They are all wooden, though four are painted white. Inside the fort palisade is also a flagpole and a bell tower, as well as several people. At the northwest corner of the fort, a tower - called a bastion - is present. Along the north wall of the fort, the fort gate is open, and several people and horses are gathered there. Outbuildings are present at the fort palisade's southeast corner. Outside the palisade wall on the fort's west side is a large agricultural field.

A fenced road extends northward from the fort gate and bisects with an east-west road. On the northern side of the fort is a large orchard and an agricultural field being plowed by a farmer and horse. On the northern side of the intersection where the north-south and east-west roads meet are two large two-story buildings and two smaller sheds. Another smaller wood building with a fenced area is located in the lower right of the image.

Fifteen areas, which are mostly buildings, are numbered on the painting and described in more detail with associated text. 

Source: NPS/Richard Schlect

Text: Since 1966 Fort Vancouver’s palisade and several buildings have been reconstructed on their original locations. Together they can give you an idea of what life was like when Fort Vancouver was the most important settlement in the Pacific Northwest. Use this painting and text as your fort guide.


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IMAGE and TEXT: Blacksmith Shop

Image description: A rectangular building with an open door and one small window located in the southeast corner of the fort palisade. The building is made of wood timbers, assembled in a post-on-sill style. It has a gabled roof. Gray smoke comes from a single chimney.

Text: 1. Blacksmith Shop: This shop served as the fort’s principal smithy. Here blacksmiths made items of iron and steel that were needed for the fur trade. They made hardware for construction at the fort and other Hudson’s Bay Company posts in the Columbia District.


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IMAGE and TEXT: Bakehouse

Image description: This building is half inside and half outside the fort's stockade eastern wall. Made of wood with a gabled roof, the building is painted white. A brick section protrudes from the back side of the building, outside the fort's palisade wall. Gray smoke comes from two brick chimneys at the back of the building. A small window can be seen on the second story.

Text: 2. The bakehouse was a two-story structure set in the east wall. It contained two fire-brick ovens. As many as four men baked sea biscuits for the 200 to 300 fort employees. The biscuits were also baked for the brigades, for use by ship crews and other posts, and for trade.

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IMAGE and TEXT: Indian Trade Shop and Dispensary

Image description: A long rectangular wooden building with a gabled roof and some windows is located along the southern wall of the fort palisade. 

Text: 3. Indian Trade Shop and Dispensary: In keeping with Hudson’s Bay Company practice, the Indian Trade Shop was under the immediate charge of the fort’s doctor. This building housed the fur trading operations at Fort Vancouver, and also the hospital, doctor’s office, and the doctor’s residence.

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IMAGE and TEXT: Wash House

Image description: The gabled roof of a rectangular wooden structure is partially seen over the northern wall of the palisade.

Text: 4. The wash house appears on several maps of Fort Vancouver drawn in the early 1840s. Very little is known of its appearance or use.


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IMAGE and TEXT: Chief Factor’s Residence

Image description: A white painted building with a hip roof is located near the northern palisadewall. It is partially obscured by other buildings, but some windows and part of a veranda can be seen. The building has one chimney.

Text: 5. Chief Factor’s Residence: Early visitors to Fort Vancouver called the home of the post’s most senior officer “very handsome” and “commodious and elegant.” Built to replace an earlier structure, the Big House was impressive—with white clapboard siding and a large front veranda. Grapevines climbed on iron trellises, and two spiked cannon stood in front. Clerks and officers ate meals in a large mess hall, where parties and dances were also held.


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IMAGE and TEXT: Kitchen

Image description: A rectangular wooden structure with a gabled roof is located along the north wall of the palisade, behind the Chief Factor's Residence. It is partially obscured by the palisade wall. One chimney rises from the center of the roof.

Text: 6. Kitchen: Few details are known about kitchens used at Fort Vancouver over the years. The 1845 kitchen evidently contained a cooking area, pantry, a larder, and living quarters for some of the kitchen staff. The kitchen provided meals for the gentlemen of the fort and for special guests.

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IMAGE and TEXT: Fur Warehouse

Image description: A large, two-story, rectangular warehouse with a hip roof is located along the southern wall of the palisade, near the southwest corner. It has two visible doors, one of which is open. Three small windows look out from the second story.

Text: 7. Fur Warehouse: The multitude of animal pelts, primarily beaver, brought to the fort were kept in stores, or warehouses. The furs were cleaned and pressed into bales before being transported to England.


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IMAGE and TEXT: Counting House

Image description: A square building with a hip roof, painted white. It has a central location in the fort. 

Text: 8. Counting House: For its first 18 months this building served as quarters for Capt. Thomas Baillie of the British sloop HMS Modeste anchored at Fort Vancouver. With Baillie’s departure, the building became the administrative center for the vast Columbia Department. Clerks kept records of incoming and outgoing goods, employee pay and expenditures, and completed annual reports.



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IMAGE and TEXT: Jail

Image description: A small, rectangular wooden building sits behind the Counting House, along the northern wall of the palisade. Its gabled roof is just barely seen over the palisade wall.

Text: 9. Jail

Individuals who committed mostly minor crimes, such as petty theft, were confined here. The fort’s Chief Factor decided punishments for violators. These included jail, fines, deportation, or even flogging.

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IMAGE and TEXT: Carpenter Shop

Image description: A rectangular wooden structure with a gabled roof is located along the northern wall of the palisade.

Text: 10. Carpenter Shop: Three to four carpenters and several apprentices were employed at the fort. These skilled carpenters and other laborers constructed buildings for the fort. They also produced window frames and sashes, doors, furniture, carts and wagons, and wooden parts for tools.

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IMAGE and TEXT: Farming

Image description: Outside the fort is a large orchard of trees and an agricultural field. A man and horse are plowing the field.

Text: 11. Farming: Many of the Pacific Northwest’s agricultural firsts can be traced to Fort Vancouver. Both McLoughlin and Simpson agreed that the post should be self-sufficient. Fences enclosed more than 2,500 acres. Peas, oats, barley, wheat, and vegetables fed the fort community. The Northwest’s first orchard included apples, pears, peaches, plums, and cherries. Cattle, horses, sheep, hogs, and goats made up the livestock.


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IMAGE and TEXT: Palisade

Image description: Large wooden posts and timbers make up a rectangular palisade wall that surrounds many of the fort's buildings.

Text: 12. Palisade: Expanded at least five times, by 1845 the fort’s palisade enclosed an area 734 feet by 318 feet. Douglas fir posts about 15 feet high afforded privacy as well as protection from theft and attack.

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IMAGE and TEXT: Bastion

Image description: A wooden tower with a pointed roof is located at the northwestern corner of the palisade. The top section of the bastion is not perfectly round, but has many facets, and each section of wall has a small window for each of the bastion's cannons.

Text: 13. The 1845 bastion was built to protect the fort against threats and to fire salutes to arriving ships. It was three stories high; the top floor held eight three-pounder cannons.

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IMAGE and TEXT: the Village

Image description: Small rectangular wooden cabins are connected by dirt paths. Each has a door and windows, and is constructed using a post-on-sill technique. 

Text: 14 The Village: This community of up to 300 Company laborers was home to a culturally diverse people: French-Canadian, local American Indians, Iroquois, Europeans, and Hawaiians.

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IMAGE and TEXT: Shipping

Image description: A tall, white-sailed ship sails down the Columbia River. A small canoe floats alongside it.

Text: 15. Shipping: Transportation was vital to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s success in the Pacific Northwest. Ocean vessels crossed the treacherous bar at the mouth of the Columbia River, bringing supplies and trade goods. On return trips they loaded the year’s returns of furs, tallow, lumber, flour, salmon, and other products of the fort’s economy.

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TEXT: Hub of the “Oregon Country”

Fort Vancouver was headquarters for the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Columbia Department, embracing present-day British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The trading post also represented Britain’s business and governmental interests in competition with the United States.

The fort’s warehouses stocked supplies for the fur brigades, the Indian and settler trade, and for the 20 to 30 other Company posts in the Department. Most Indians were shrewd traders, so trade goods were carefully chosen. Almost all trade items were imported from or through Britain, so there was a two-year lapse between ordering and receiving.

The fort’s shops bustled with activity, manufacturing as many items as possible. The fort echoed to the sounds of carpenters hammering and sawing, of blacksmiths making new tools and repairing old ones, and of coopers making barrels. Carts rumbled to and fro piled high with supplies and with firewood for the bakehouse’s large brick ovens. Indians arrived to trade, passing by farmers and herders tending crops and livestock.

Company clerks bent over account books figuring out how much who owed whom. Frequent visitors were welcomed and eagerly quizzed for news and gossip of the outside. The arrival of a supply ship or a Royal Navy vessel was cause for celebration.

Although everyone worked hard and long hours—Sunday was the only day of rest in the early years—free time was enjoyed to the fullest. Hunting, riding, picnicking, footracing, and other competitive feats of strength were favored pastimes. Once a group of naval officers produced a play, the first known theatrical performance in the Pacific Northwest.

Clerks and officers, who came from the British Isles and Canada, formed  what was known as the “gentlemen” class. The working lower class, or engagés, made up most of the employees. Gentlemen and their families  lived a comfortable life within the fort’s palisade, while laborers lived in crude dwellings in the village.

The workers at the fort represented many nationalities. George Simpson wrote a description of a trip down the Columbia River that indicated the diversity of Fort Vancouver. “Our crew of ten men contained Iroquois who spoke their own tongue; a Cree halfbreed of French origin, who appeared to have borrowed his dialect from both his parents; a North Briton who understood only the Gaellic of his native hills; Canadians who, of course, knew French, and Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islanders, who jabbered a medley of chinook and their own vernacular jargon. Add to all this that the passengers were natives of England, Scotland, Russia, Canada, and the Hudson Bay Territories.”

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TEXT: Visiting the Park

Text: Today’s Fort Vancouver structures are reconstructions. Starting in 1947, archeologists have excavated the site of the original fort, recovering almost two million artifacts. Study of these objects and documentary material formed the basis for the reconstructions. The painting above shows the fort in prosperous times.

To visit the park, in the city of Vancouver, Washington, turn east off I-5 at the Mill Plain Boulevard exit and follow the signs to the visitor center on East Evergreen Boulevard. From I-205, exit at Wash. 14. Go west on Wash. 14 about six miles and take I-5 North. Exit on Mill Plain Boulevard; follow signs to the park.

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Map of Fort Vancouver within the City of Vancouver

Map description: Fort Vancouver National Historic Reserve Park Map shows the entire park including roads, the location of the reconstructed Fort Vancouver, and the location of the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center. The map is orientated with North at the top. The reserve is a rectangular shaped area approximately 366 square miles nestled between Highway 5 and Hghway 14, the Columbia River, and the City of Vancouver. The Visitor Center is located less than a mile to the northeast of the reconstructed fort. State Route 14 runs between the main areas of the park and its Columbia River Waterfront property. Interstate 5 runs along the parks western boundary. On the west side of Interstate 5 is the downtown section of the City of Vancouver. The park can be entered from the north via Fort Vancouver Way, from the east or west via East Evergreen Boulevard, or from the east via East Fifth Street. The reconstructed fort is located just south of East Fifth Street.

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TEXT: Safety

The ground at the fort is uneven. Don’t let a slip or fall spoil your visit. Watch your children.

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OVERVIEW: MORE INFORMATION

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site 612 East Reserve Street; Vancouver, WA 98661; 360-816-6230; www.nps.gov/fova

The McLoughlin House is a unit of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Its address is 713 Center Street, Oregon City, OR 97045; Phone: 503-656-5146.

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is one of over 380 parks in the National Park System. Visit www.nps.gov to learn more about parks and National Park Service programs in America’s communities.

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