By DEAN BAKER, Columbian staff writer
November 22, 2000
McGOWAN — There’s little here to catch the eye beyond the gulls soaring and the surf pounding the shoulders of Highway 101 a mile north of the historic Astoria Bridge.
There’s a little old church, a few weathered houses, second-growth timber crawling up a slope over the Columbia River, skies usually gray, and, most often, gales screaming.
Yet sometimes simple silence rules this long-neglected spot, marked only by a sign and a faded 50-year-old chainsaw carving of the explorers Lewis and Clark, standing stoic and sturdy year after year.
But this modest site is uniquely historic, and now it’s being promoted as part of a new national park.
Called Station Camp, it’s where Lewis and Clark first saw the Pacific Ocean and camped for 18 days in November 1805.
“This I could plainly see would be the extent of our journey by water . . . in full view of the ocian (sic) from Point Adams to Cape Disappointment,” wrote Capt. William Clark on Nov. 15, 1805.
Nevertheless, the site has been ignored. Now, with the bicentennial of the historic expedition coming in five years, the effort to recognize Station Camp has sprung to life.
A bill in Congress nominates it to become part of America’s newest national park, in tandem with its famous neighboring site across the Columbia River, Fort Clatsop, where the Corps of Discovery wintered in 1805 and 1806.
“Everyone involved in history and culture agrees with the Pacific County folks in Washington that this site (Station Camp) is of unquestionable national significance,” said Fort Clatsop Supt. Don Striker in Astoria.
He and Washington officials favor the national park designation.
A bill making the national park proposal was introduced by Oregon’s two U.S. senators, Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Gordon Smith, by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and by Reps. David Wu, D-Ore., and Brian Baird, D-Wash. The bill is stalled along with much of the other business of the federal government.
But $2 million in highway funds is earmarked for the site over the next five years, leading up to a nationally celebrated bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s arrival here in 2005.
Highway 101 is likely to be moved at least 100 feet to the east. The current one-acre Lewis and Clark campsite is likely to be expanded by about 15 times, and a new work of art is proposed for installation a couple hundred feet out into the river where Capt. William Clark’s exact compass readings show Station Camp stood 195 years ago.
Under plans drawn by students from the University of Washington, a memorial would be built out over the water, raising a tribute to President Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark’s overland journey.
Developments in the area also will include a 20-mile-long trail following Lewis and Clark’s footsteps north along the coast to Willapa Bay.
Earlier this month, on the river shore near McGowan, amateur historian Rex Ziak, a Lewis and Clark expert, waved his arm over the lower Columbia, an area he’s been studying for 16 years, and shook his head at what’s obvious to him.
The whole Washington shoreline from Knappton to Cape Disappointment to Willapa Bay is worthy of becoming a national shrine honoring Lewis and Clark, he said. He and a growing group of Pacific County residents, plus the Washington and Oregon historical societies and public officials are working to make it that.
Station Camp is emerging from long obscurity. Its importance is scheduled to be marked by a major nation-wide observance on Nov. 25, 2005 Thanksgiving Day exactly 200 years after a historic vote; the Corps of Discovery decided to spend the winter south of the Columbia River.
The band of 31 explorers, their leather clothing rotting from their backs, decided to go there rather than back upstream to winter because Chinook Indians told them there were elk to hunt so they could make clothes to replace their buckskins.
The 2005 Thanksgiving is to be observed as a “day of equality” because both the black slave York and the Indian translator Sacagawea cast votes in favor of going south of the river to hunt elk and winter.
Some historians said this vote was the first such case in America by a black man and an American Indian woman.
Because of its historic importance, the site has been marked along with Fort Clatsop as one of only two “signature event” locations chosen so far along the 4,200-mile Lewis and Clark trail from the Washington D.C. area to the Pacific Ocean.
The other site so honored by the national Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Council is Monticello, where Thomas Jefferson hatched the idea of the exploration west of the Mississippi.
Several signature event sites are being singled out as locations for national celebration during the 2003-2006 Lewis and Clark Bicentennial observances. Others will be added in the coming months.
But already it’s established that on Thanksgiving Day 2005, Station Camp will be the center of a national observance, featuring Jefferson scholars and national speakers including the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, said Carolyn Glenn, president of the Pacific county Friends of Lewis and Clark.
An authentic dinner of the time is to be served at ceremonies in location restaurants and at home, she said. And re-enactments are planned of the arrival of Lewis and Clark’s canoes, the survey of the site, the historic vote, the meeting with Chinook Indians and the carving of the explorers’ names on trees all in recognition of historic events of 1805.
There will also be hikes along the new 20-mile interpretive trail following the explorers’ footsteps from Station Camp to Cape Disappointment, McKenzie Head and Fort Canby. Tourists will be sent across the river also to Fort Clatsop for more demonstrations and commemoration.
Between 8 million and 20 million tourists are expected along the trail in the bicentennial celebration years, 2003-2006.
Buying historic lands
But, before a shovel is turned on a new park, backers need to buy 10 to 15 acres of riverbank property from the heirs of the McGowan family.
The family is willing to sell 10 to 15 acres of the 327 acres it owns at McGowan under certain conditions, said Bill Garvin, a Tumwater attorney. He said no appraisal has been made of the property.
Garvin was speaking for his 89-year-old mother, Catherine McGowan Garvin; his brother, Patrick; his two sisters, Jane and Mary, and his cousin, John McGowan, a former Bumblebee Seafoods President and former Astoria port commissioner.
The family’s conditions are that the stories of both the Chinook Indians and the early white settlers must be told at the riverside park, and it must be safe and secure, Garvin said.
Not a problem, said David Nicandri, executive director of the Washington State Historical Society, the point man for the purchases. He said the project will move on only with “a willing buyer and a willing seller. There’ll be no question of eminent domain,” he said.
“We’re eternally grateful for that,” said Garvin, noting the family wants to be sure the Chinook tribe approve of all that’s done.
The family also wants to be sure the story is told of early white settlers there, including his ancestor, Patrick James McGowan who arrived on the site in 1852 and opened the first commercial salt-pack salmon plant on the mouth of the Columbia River. It operated until 1945.
As planning proceeds, American Indians are being consulted and honored, although the Chinooks reportedly were unimpressed by Lewis and Clark.
“We just accepted the new white men,” said Tony Johnson, director of cultural affairs for the Chinooks. “We’d been dealing with white people for 15 years.”
The arrival of the explorers came to be important to Chinooks, however. Slowly, they lost their tribal lands and even their fishing rights to the white society, which fully insulted them in the 1950s by refusing to recognize the Chinooks as a tribe at all.
“It seems like it was a clerical error,” Johnson said. “Some clerk just forgot to put us on the list.”
So the Chinooks no longer exist, officially. But 2,000 of them are still around and on tribal rolls.
That’s good enough for commemoration observance organizers, who are consulting with the tribe on events. With or without official recognition, the Chinooks have a place at the Lewis and Clark bicentennial planning table.