By DEAN BAKER, Columbian staff writer
December 15, 2000
WASHOUGAL — Dozens of boaters, water skiers and sunbathers spend hot summer days here, romping on 200 yards of white sand along the Columbia River at the foot of 32nd Street.
Accessible by boat and foot, the popular beach is hidden in an industrial area behind a 50-foot dike the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built in the late 1960s to keep floods out of town.
It’s called Cottonwood Beach, and few folks are aware it’s historic.
That’s likely to change in the next few years.
It’s an open secret that the explorers Lewis and Clark stopped here briefly in November 1805 and then camped here for seven nights five months later in 1806.
Still, there’s not a mark on the beach not even a simple sign mentioning the historic Corps of Discovery.
But signs and beach improvements are on their way.
So are more than 9 million tourists expected to follow Lewis and Clark’s 4,200-mile trail from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast between 2003 and 2006 in observance of the bicentennial of the ambitious exploration ordered by President Thomas Jefferson.
Cottonwood Beach is one of 13 Lewis and Clark campsites in Vancouver and Portland. The sites are being linked to form a Discovery Greenway to mark the 200th anniversary to the expedition.
As a part of the nationwide commemoration, signs or kiosks are going to mark the trail; camp sites are to be upgraded, and toilets may be built under the nearby trees.
A mile downstream, the Parker’s Landing historic site also will upgraded, said Roberta Tidland of the Parkersville Heritage Foundation, which plans a brick plaza saluting Lewis and Clark and honoring pioneers who came after them.
There’s talk afoot, too, in this community of 8,125 that a new boat ramp may be built and new space developed along the river for recreational vehicles. But backers say those plans are all “off the record” and speculative.
‘Crossroads to discovery’
“We expect a lot of people will be coming through here,” said Roger Daniels, 50, a longtime Washougal resident charged by Clark County commissioners and the Port of Camas-Washougal to spearhead bicentennial plans here.
“We think Washougal deserves recognition as the crossroads to discovery,” said Daniels, an avid boater, fisherman and amateur historian who is director of recruitment and outreach at Clark College. “And we believe that for several reasons.”
The first reason, he said, isn’t Lewis and Clark.
It’s Lt. William Broughton who visited Reed Island in the middle of the Columbia just upstream from Cottonwood Beach in October 1792.
Broughton was the first white man to travel up the Columbia from the coast. Serving under Capt. Robert Gray, Broughton named Mount Hood and Point Vancouver.
Broughton opened a way for discovery, Daniels said.
So did Lewis and Clark, who showed the way to settlement here in 1806.
And so did three pioneers who in 1844 came to Parker’s Landing, a mile downstream from Cottonwood Beach, a place that became the first town in Washington as well a frequent river crossing. It also was a gateway for American settlers moving between the Sandy River and Washougal River and wishing to avoid the unfriendly British Hudson’s Bay Co. officials at Fort Vancouver.
The three pioneers were David Clark Parker, Michael Troutman Simmons and George Washington Bush.
Bush was the first black man to settle in this state. Bush Prairie near Olympia is named after him. Simmons settled near Tumwater, and Parker took a homestead that became Parker’s Landing and then Parkerville, the predecessor of today’s Washougal.
Cottonwood’s white sands draw gunnel-to-gunnel crowds of power boaters and sailboaters every summer.
In winter, the beach is nearly deserted as freezing winds whip off the river, denude the trees and drive away all but the toughest hikers.
But some of the toughest guys ever to show up here came on March 31, 1806.
Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and 29 ragged, starving explorers pulled their flat-bottomed boats out of the 16-mph current they’d been paddling upstream against.
They proceed to make major use of the site.
For six days in April they boated across the Columbia and hunted up the Sandy River, then dried meat to provision themselves for their journey back upriver to St. Louis.
The explorers’ journals show that they spent more time here on their journey than at any other site except Fort Clatsop near Astoria on the Oregon coast and the Mandan Indian village, now near Bismarck, N.D.
While Lewis and Clark camped here, they met Indians who told them they had missed seeing the Willamette River, then hidden behind several sand bars.
“Capt. Clark determined to return and examine this river accordingly he took a party of seven men and one of the perogues and set out one-half after 11 A.M.,” Lewis wrote, with his unique spelling. “He hired one of the Cashhooks (Chinook Indians), for a birning glass (magnifying glass) to pilot him to the entrance of the Multnomah (Willamette) river and took him on board with him.”
Clark went back down the Columbia, and turned into the Willamette, traveling as far inland as the present University of Portland on the bluff at St. Johns in Portland.
If the party had not stopped at Cottonwood Beach, they might never have found the Willamette River, Daniels said.
“It’s an important site,” he said. “No doubt about it.”