National Park Road Trip 2010: End of the Oregon Trail

Stop by Fort Vancouver National Historic Site and you can view a replica of a Hudson's Bay Co. trading post. Photos by David and Kay Scott.

Editor's note: David and Kay Scott this summer are living what many of us wish we could do: They're following a meandering path across the country to visit units of the National Park System. This installment of their three-week trek comes from the end of the Oregon National Historic Trail in Oregon, and after some much-deserved rest with friends.

Here we are at the end of the Oregon Trail following a three-week drive of 2,600 miles from Independence, Missouri. This represents 500 more miles compared to the route taken by most of the pioneers, but the two of us were unable to follow many of the cross-country shortcuts favored by the emigrants. We zigged and we zagged in places where they cut along a diagonal. In addition, we chose to take several side trips that added to our overall mileage.

The official end of the trail is in Oregon City, Oregon, a suburb of Portland. Because we chose to follow the Barlow Road, rather than the Columbia River, we visited the official end of the trail in Oregon City prior to Fort Vancouver, an important stop for pioneers who arrived in Oregon City via the Columbia River.

We were disappointed to discover that Oregon City has closed the interpretive center at the end of the Oregon Trail. The reason, apparently, was financial, and there seems to be little indication that the center will be reopened anytime soon. After following the trail for more than 2,000 miles we were looking forward to spending several hours at the interpretive center that offered exhibits, videos, and multi-media presentations about the Oregon Trail and the pioneers who traveled it. How could we find a better place to visit at the end of our trip?

The interpretive center is still a worthwhile visit, just not as worthwhile as when it was up and running. There are informational signs, a large map of the trail and its important landmarks, and the wagon-like structures that were once open to visitors. Two other couples were touring the facility at the time we visited. Perhaps a lack of visitation was part of the decision for closure.

The following morning we departed Oregon City for the short drive to Vancouver, Washington, home of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Fort Vancouver served as headquarters for Hudson’s Bay Company's operations in the Northwest. Built in 1825, the fort was headed by chief factor John McLoughlin for nearly two decades. It housed supplies for the fur trade, settlers, Indians, and over two dozen other posts operated by Hudson’s Bay Company.

The historic site is part of Fort Vancouver National Reserve, which also includes Pearson Air Museum, Pearson Field, former officers’ housing called “Officers Row,” Vancouver Barracks, and the Water Resources Education Center. Officers Row includes the post commander’s home that was once occupied by General George C. Marshall. Also included is the first structure built on Officers Row that is named for Ulysses Grant who once served at Vancouver Barracks.

As mentioned previously, Fort Vancouver became an important stop for emigrants who chose to finish their trek along the Oregon Trail via the Columbia River rather than the Barlow Road. McLoughlin was a good businessman who earned the respect of the pioneers. Despite being in charge of a British outpost, he offered assistance to the emigrants who passed this way. In 1846 McLoughlin retired and moved to Oregon City where he became an American citizen.

The historic site is quite impressive. The palisade and numerous buildings have been reconstructed on their original sites. These include a bakery, blacksmith shop, fur warehouse, jail, counting house, and the chief factor’s house. Most of the buildings are open to visitors and we talked with several volunteers who were participating in the site’s living history program. An impressive garden is immediately outside the palisade.

The visitor center on a hill above the fort should be visited prior to a walk through the fort. Here you'll find exhibits, informational brochures, and an audio-visual presentation that all help visitors understand the history of Fort Vancouver and its chief factor. Visitors can choose to drive or walk from the visitor center to the fort where $3 per person is charged for admission.

The site of the original fort has proved a bonanza for archeologists who have recovered nearly two million artifacts. At the time we visited students from Washington State and Portland State were excavating an area just outside the palisade.

We are currently staying with long-time friends in Tacoma, Washington. In a couple of days we will return south to Lewis & Clark National Historical Park near Astoria, Oregon. From there we travel back east following the route of the Corps of Discovery to their departure point at St. Louis, Missouri, gateway to the West.

David and Kay Scott are regular contributors to the Traveler. Their book, The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges was first published by the Globe Pequot Press in 1997 and is now in its sixth edition.

Comments

Very nice series. I enjoyed it immensely. I have visited that area of the country,but have never seen the detail of the history. It was quite the feat to travel all that distance (mostly walking). It amazes me that 90% made it through to the end.

We are sorry that you found that the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center closed - and as you thought, due to economic reasons. However, a mile uphill from the Center is the Dr. John McLoughlin House, a unit of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Deemed a NPS unit in 2003, the McLoughlin House was built in 1845 by Dr John McLoughlin, the retired Chief Factor of Fort Vancouver ( built in 1824). The McLoughlin House, full of period furnishings of this era, was a mansion of its time. Docents, clothed in period clothing of the 1840s, lead the free 45 minute tours of the house, as you learn about the Hudson's Bay Company, Dr. McLoughlin, the Oregon Trail, and local history. Our docents are quite knowledgeable about the Trail. We are open Wed - Sat, 10 - 4, and Sun 1 - 4.

The next time you visit us in the area, please come by.

Hello, just passing thru Vald. on our way to see Mom and Dad. Thought about you and hoping you're having a good summer!

Amy and Cathy