Between its start and World War II, Vancouver generally gained slowly in size, spreading gradually away from the waterfront.
Then in World War II, the city boomed, and downtown Vancouver reached its zenith, so busy that a visiting reporter compared it to Fourth and Pike in Seattle.
“Restaurants, doing an undreamed-of volume, are continually operating short-handed,” the newsman wrote. “Stores are rapidly running short of even the necessities of life because of the ballooning population. Public transportation is painfully overcrowded.”
It was a big change of pace from most of the earlier era, as in the 1850s, when the town gradually grew along the military reservation’s west side, despite controversy over land titles. The south end of the business district ended at the Columbia River, where steamboats landed in the early decades. Early development moved north from the waterfront, along trails that later became roads.
“Store buildings and residences were mixed in a hit-and-miss fashion,” one writer observed.
“Later, store buildings continued to encroach upon residential districts. Meanwhile, nearby farms were taken over for residential building. The result was a glorious hodgepodge of all types of land usages.”
An 1886 description of Vancouver:
“One of the agreeable features of Vancouver is its public square (Esther Short Park at Eighth and Columbia streets), containing about five acres of ground studded with beautiful evergreen trees and ornamented with a fountain in the center. This is a popular summer picnic resort for excursion parties from Portland and elsewhere.”
The biggest building in the town was the three-story House of Providence, built in the shape of a cross. Vancouver in the late ’80s also was proud of its $35,000 county Courthouse, $20,000 public school, bank buildings, City Hall and engine house, all clustered in or near the downtown.
Railroad prompts growth
Completion of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway in 1908 brought increased population to the area and a boom to downtown Vancouver.
Horses, buggies and carriages rolled along Main and adjacent streets. Livery stables were a prominent feature.
C.T. Campbell’s livery, feed and boarding stables advertised “first-class rigs,” with and without drivers, in 1909.
John Hastings Feed and Livery Barn at 11th and Harney Streets would take a passenger to “any part of the city” for 25 cents.
Both businesses sent vehicles to meet all ferries and trains.
At least three other livery stables also were active at the time, along with blacksmith shops, general stores, numerous saloons and other businesses.
Downtown took on more of an atmosphere of propriety in 1916, when state prohibition forced the closure of the saloons and the brewery.
Shortly afterward, when the United States entered World War I, the downtown enjoyed its biggest surge of prosperity to date.
Standifer Shipyard was built just upstream from the Interstate Bridge, which opened in 1917. Shipyard workers and their families provided additional business for theaters and stores downtown.
Prunes bolstered economy
Prunes were a major economic prop of Clark County, and prune prices were good. Farmers had money to spend.
And more soldiers than ever visited downtown or boarded streetcars to Portland; the Army had expanded its force at the Barracks.
Armistice Day 1918 ended the war, bringing a rapid readjustment to Vancouver. The Spruce Production Division, which had been based at the Barracks, turning out spruce for airplanes, began disbanding. The shipyards completed a few more ships and finally closed in 1921.
Vancouver entered the new decade with prune prices at a lower level, but probably the most significant development of this time was auto travel, which had started increasing greatly just before the war.
The main north-south highway extended through town, and when it was renamed the Pacific Highway and paved all the way up and down the West Coast in the 1920s, many more tourists traveled through each year.
Numerous business buildings were constructed northward along Main Street in the 1920s to the vicinity of the old Vancouver High School on 26th Street, now Fourth Plain Boulevard. In 1928, the Evergreen Hotel was built at Fifth and Main streets.
The 1936 city directory shows the Automobile Club of Washington, Gyro Club, Kiwanis, Lions and Rotary clubs and Vancouver Chamber of Commerce all based at the hotel.
Taxis operated from an office across the street, and the bus or “stage” depot was a short distance south, in the 400 block.
Real estate offices, barber shops, cafes and other businesses were active along the streets.
Main Street commercial activity still extended in the mid-’30s as far south as the 200 block, where such enterprises as Columbia Auto Wreckers, the West Way Products Co. (agricultural implements), the Portland Traction Co. waiting room and Vancouver Fur Factory awaited patrons.
In December 1941 the United States entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Kaiser Shipyard was established in the next year upstream from the Interstate Bridge, and reached a peak employment of 38,000 in 1944.
Crowds lined up at four downtown theaters for tickets to see Betty Grable, Clark Gable and other reigning movie stars.
Shipyard workers and their families thronged the streets, along with troops and others. For many soldiers, downtown Vancouver offered a fling at civilian life before shipment to other parts of the world, or a welcome place to visit after duty out of the United States.
One local historian reported that the Castle Club “became headquarters for night operations.”
The Castle was a basement nightclub with bar service and four-piece orchestra (under the building at 915 Main St., later occupied by J.C. Penney Co. and now the home of Jessica Klein, interiors and gifts store).
“Don’t Fence Me In” became the company’s unofficial song, “sung loudly and boisterously at the slightest provocation.”