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Opportunity Rises From the Ashes

The burned replica of a Lewis and Clark fort was to be key to bicentennial events. But archeologists plan to dig deeper into the past while they can.

October 23, 2005|Lynn Marshall | Times Staff Writer

ASTORIA, Ore. — In late fall, 200 years ago, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had at long last reached the Pacific Coast, but found themselves in a cold, rain-soaked forest facing the onset of an even wetter and colder winter. To protect themselves from the elements, Lewis and Clark and the men of the Corps of Discovery built a log fort -- the site of which would go on to become a national memorial and a central part of the region's identity.

When a replica of Ft. Clatsop, built in 1955, burned to the ground this month, it was, the park's superintendent says, "like losing a part of one's home."

The fort was to play a key role in next month's Lewis and Clark bicentennial commemoration -- and the first instinct of many was to quickly rebuild it.

"I wanted to rebuild in time for the events in November. My reaction was, 'By God, we can do it,' " said Skip Hauke, executive director of the Astoria-Warrington Area Chamber of Commerce and a third-generation Astorian.

After discussions with other groups, however, Hauke decided to support a National Park Service plan to excavate the site for archeological purposes and then rebuild the fort slowly into an educational and cultural facility.

"We're going to have a better fort, and it will be an educational tool for generations," Hauke said. "If a situation like this can be said to have a silver lining, that's the silver."

Workers began implementing the park service's plan last week. Clearing the site took three days, and archeological work is set to start this week.

Cyndi Mudge, director of a nonprofit umbrella group working on the bicentennial commemoration, said that it had been amazing to watch the park staff, including the rangers, rebound from the fire.

"I was there that morning," she said. "You could see the grief and shock on their faces. They had a school group coming, and a tour bus of 18 seniors. It would have been so easy to close up for the day, but they didn't. They put on a program at the visitors center. Their attitude was, and is: The show must go on."

"There are people here who have two decades of memories in that place," said Chip Jenkins, superintendent of Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. "You see the look on Ron's face out there today ... and that says it all."

Jenkins was referring to Ron Tyson, head of maintenance at the park, located six miles inland from the Pacific. Tyson has worked at Ft. Clatsop for 23 years. He was among the first to arrive at the fire, which took three hours to destroy the fort.

"It was intense," Tyson said. "We had three fire departments out here -- 25, 30 men."

Last week, investigators determined that the fire was accidental; it was traced to a fire on a hearth in a barracks.

Park employees and community members have adjusted their plans for the bicentennial celebration and the park itself.

"We have never had a chance to excavate under the fort before," said Jill Harding, director of visitors services at the park. "It's a great opportunity for us to find out more about the fort, and rebuild it in an even more accurate way."

Harding said that recently discovered historical accounts provided more specific and more detailed descriptions of the fort -- descriptions that volunteers did not have at the time they built the replica.

The archeological work is expected to take about a month.

Oregon and Washington are working on a program called "Destination the Pacific," which is part of the nation's official Lewis and Clark bicentennial commemoration.

"Destination the Pacific" consists of nine programs, including a speaker series, food festival, dedication of a new trail and historical reenactments. Volunteer actors will show what life was like for the 33 members of the Corps of Discovery before the 50-by-50-foot fort was constructed, instead of after, as originally planned.

While they built the fort, the corps members had to live in a tent encampment. "Their tents were in shreds, and they were wet and unhappy," Harding says. "Now, it's actually going to be more historically accurate."

The program at Ft. Clatsop will be part of a series of events Nov. 11-15. The archeologists excavating the site will work through that weekend so the public can watch.

Supt. Jenkins said he wanted the community to be part of the process of investigating and rebuilding.

"The community support has been amazing," he said. "We have gotten e-mail and calls from all over."

Jenkins said Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton had assured him that the money needed for the project would be provided, but he thought that private donations of money, materials and volunteer labor would probably make up the bulk of what was needed.

"The one thing I have said to Skip [Jenkins] is, 'Let us be involved; let the community have a role,' " Hauke said of the chamber of commerce.

Hauke said that his father, now in his 90s, helped raise money for the construction of the first fort replica. "Those old-timers -- we have to rebuild it for them, if nothing else," he said.

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