For many thousands of years, the area of Vancouver, Washington, has been home to a wide assortment of people. The first inhabitants began arriving in 1792 via the “Great River of the West” which has attracted then sustained those who chose to make this area home.
The first permanent settlers to enter this storied place was a trader/sailor named Robert Gray, who made two pioneering voyages to the area in 1792, and was largely responsible for beginning the maritime fur trade in the region. Later that same year, a naval officer, Lt. William Broughon, who served under the command of Capt. George Vancouver, explored more than 100 miles up the river and established a point of land along the way named after his commander.
Explorers and frontiersmen Meriwether Lewis and William Clark reached the area in 1806 as part of their famous trip of discovery of the Louisiana Purchase territory. The area known today as Cottonwood Beach just east of Vancouver was the campsite for the explorers during the return segment of their adventure. They referred to the area as “the only desired situation for settlement west of the Rocky Mountains.”
In 1825, the superintendent of the Columbia District of the Hudson Bay Company, Dr. John McLoughlin, moved the headquarters of the company from Oregon to a better site upriver from where they were. He named the site Fort Vancouver after the reference made to it on Brougton’s maps.
Only after a few years, Fort Vancouver became the center of virtually all fur trading in the Pacific Northwest. Also a factor in the location was the fact that others were able to establish their dominance over the area, thanks to its strategic location along the Columbia River. In 1847, the American government moved its control northward to the 49th parallel, effectively moving Vancouver to Canada, where the new city was born. The Canadian city of Vancouver was formally incorporated 29 years later, in 1876.
In 1849, American troops were moved to the area to establish the Columbia (later Vancouver) Barracks. From this location quickly sprang the military headquarters for the region of the Pacific Northwest.
An explosion in growth occurred for Vancouver as soon as a rail line was completed on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. A railroad bridge was opened on the southern side across the river in 1910. In 1917, the bridge was completed.
The huge potential for logging was recognized early, but it wasn’t until the start of World War I that the first mill was constructed. The site, eventually known as Pearson Field, became home to the cutting of raw timber that provided for much of the aircraft industry that helped America win the war in Europe. During World War II, the area converted largely to a shipbuilding center with the construction of Vancouver’s Kaiser Plant that built a significant number of vessels for the war effort.
Today, the city of Vancouver works with other groups and agencies in an effort to preserve many of the historical sites and artifacts of the area’s rich history. Not only can visitors learn from interactive displays that military history, but the commercial influences that have contributed to the exciting place that the people of Vancouver enjoy today.