On September 13, 1938, the commissioners of the Port of Camas-Washougal hold a public hearing to present the Port's first comprehensive scheme to its constituents. The creation of the port district, which serves the neighboring cities of Camas and Washougal on the Columbia River, had been approved by the voters at an election three years earlier. At the time of its creation in 1935, the Port owned virtually nothing, and this first comprehensive scheme marks the beginning of a process of incremental development that continues to this day (2010). Seasonal flooding, freak storms, and rare but catastrophic inundations will challenge the Port over the years, but a levee built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1966 will allow development in previously unbuildable areas. Currently, the Port of Camas-Washougal operates an industrial park (the expansion of which is currently in the permitting stage), a marina, an airport, and three public parks located along the north bank of the Columbia River.
Camas, incorporated in 1906, and Washougal, incorporated two years later, are neighboring cities arrayed along the north bank of the Columbia River and the Camas Slough, about 15 miles east of Vancouver, Washington. The slough begins where the Washougal River meets the Columbia, and it separates the north shore of Lady Island from the mainland before rejoining the larger river farther downstream. Most of Camas lies west of the Washougal River, but a small section crosses onto the east bank, where it blends seamlessly into the neighboring city of Washougal.
The immediate Camas-Washougal area had no permanent Native American settlements that are known, but the area was frequented by Chinookan-speaking Indians who camped and fished there for centuries before the first European explorers and trappers arrived. Among the first settlers to stay were Richard Ough (1790-1884) and his Native American wife, Betsy Ough (1811?-1911), who had a farm in what is now Washougal, and David Parker, who settled along the river a little farther west, recorded a plat in 1854 and called his town Parkersville. It was not to survive for long, and Parker's Landing Historical Park now stands where Parker had hoped to build a town.
Camas grew considerably faster than Washougal in the early years, due largely to the presence there of the Camas paper mill, established in 1884. Washougal's economy was centered more on agriculture and, after 1910, a large woolen mill. By 1930 Camas had a population of 4,239, compared to 1,206 in neighboring Washougal. But they shared roads, rails, and most importantly, the Columbia River, and it was clear that these adjacent communities could accomplish more acting in concert than in competition.
The Port District Act of 1911
In March 1911 the Washington state Legislature passed the Port District Act, which allowed citizens to vote into existence public port districts and bring to an end private-monopoly control of urban harbors and waterfront. Voters in Seattle and Grays Harbor formed port districts that same year, and Vancouver did so the following year, in April 1912.
In its early days, the Port of Vancouver was largely inactive, but shipbuilding during World War I and aggressive expansion in the post-war years soon made it a formidable commercial presence on the riverfront just a few miles downstream from Camas and Washougal. The citizens of these two much-smaller towns were keeping an eye on their neighbor to the west, and learning at close hand the advantages a port district could provide.
The Birth of the Port of Camas-Washougal
Vancouver had some advantages that Camas and Washougal did not. Its riverfront was less marshy than that of its neighbors to the east, the Columbia River was deeper there, and it was not as vulnerable to seasonal flooding as were the two towns just upriver. Nonetheless, the Port of Vancouver's rapid development in the 1930s was viewed with some alarm by Camas and Washougal. Under state law, a port district's boundaries did not necessarily have to end in the community whose name it carried, and there was concern that the Port of Vancouver, having just added a second marine terminal and 22 acres of new land, might decide to expand eastward to include the riverfront at Camas and Washougal within its boundaries. This would take a public vote of course, but Vancouver had a population of 15,766 in 1930, compared to a combined total in Camas and Washougal of only 5,445.
The best thing to do to prevent becoming part of the Port of Vancouver was to beat Vancouver to the punch and become the Port of Camas-Washougal instead. An added incentive was $82,000 in federal funds available for development if a port measure was approved. A special election was held in 1935 and the voters of Camas and Washougal created a jointly operated port authority composed of three districts, with one commissioner elected from each. The first three commissioners were Victor C. Gault (1891-1964), W. C. Webster, and Wilmer "Bill" Swank (1884-1952), who would serve on the commission until his death in 1952. The Port's first auditor, Helen Munger, outlasted Swank by a year, finally stepping down in 1953.
Voting a port into existence was the easy part, as many other cities and towns had learned. The job of actually creating a functioning port, whatever components it would ultimately include, took considerably more time and effort. With Camas and Washougal, the newly elected commissioners were starting with virtually nothing but a vote of confidence from the public as they set about the task of developing a port that would serve both communities.
At the beginning, the Port of Camas-Washougal did not even have an office in which its commissioners could meet, so they got together at various places around the two towns, including a Camas furniture store owned by Commissioner Swank, where the three planned the Port's future while seated on couches in the display room. The long-serving Swank was to hold many other civic posts in Camas over the years, including mayor, member of the city council, city clerk, city treasurer, and member of the school board.
The first order of business was to put together a "comprehensive scheme of harbor improvement," a requirement of the Port District Act. The Port was technically not allowed to spend any money until the scheme had been voted on by the public, but on June 14, 1938, five months before that vote was taken, the commissioners approved the purchase of tidelands along the Columbia from C. M. Keep. This became the first property in the Port's portfolio, and whether the purchase was actually legal or not was an issue that apparently no one raised.
The First Comprehensive Scheme
The voters of Camas and Washougal approved the Port's first comprehensive scheme on November 8, 1938. Among its provisions were plans to acquire more land; to create a dry-land storage area next to the river, using a bulkhead and fill material; creating two large docking and loading facilities; and building a warehouse, grain elevator, cold-storage plant, and oil tanks. This was a very ambitious slate of projects, and not all of it was brought to fruition. But the Port did continue to buy land, including a 15-acre site just north of the proposed dock site in 1940.
The Port focused on industrial development in these early years, and concentrated on areas slightly inland from the river, north of the marina and bracketed by SE Whitney and Lechner streets in Camas. The Camas paper mill, which by the 1930s was known as the Crown-Willamette mill, and later still the Crown Zellerbach mill, created a demand for supporting industries, and these in turn created a need for industrial property, which the Port could provide.
The River Giveth and the River Taketh Away
The Columbia River near the Port of Camas-Washougal was not deep enough to accommodate a marine terminal for ocean-going ships, but it did provide other opportunities, and by 1940 the Port of Camas-Washougal was operating a tiny marina on the river, charging all of $1 a month for small-boat moorage. But although in normal times its flow was slow and gentle in front of the two towns, the Columbia River was capable of wreaking havoc. Seasonal flooding would regularly invade parts of Oak Park in Camas, residential and industrial property in Washougal, and agricultural land east of that town, and every few years an inundation of unusual proportions would cause extensive damage.
As early as 1936, just a year after it was formed, the port commission threw its support behind a plan that would have created a dike along the north bank of the Columbia from Mt. Pleasant east of Washougal all the way to Vancouver to the west. Nothing came of this, and the unpredictable river would bedevil the two communities for decades to come. Of particular note was the catastrophic Vanport Flood of May and June 1948, which inundated much of the area around Camas and Washougal and destroyed, forever, the town of Vanport, Oregon, which had been built by Henry Kaiser to house workers at his massive World War II shipyards. The impact of the flood on the Port's properties was noted in the commissioners' minutes of June 14, 1948:
"The dock is completely submerged. The water is at least a foot deep on the ceiling [sic] of the offices. The crest of the flood was 30.1 feet at Vancouver which means that we have approximately 37 feet at Camas. The elevation of the dock is 27 feet, hence there is at least 10 feet of water all over the dock" ("Port Perspectives").
But compared to Vanport, the Port emerged from the disaster relatively unscathed. Despite sending out men to chop holes in the loading dock to relieve the pressure of rising water, the Port was unable to save it, and it was later demolished and cut up for firewood. Several businesses which the Port served, notably the Pendleton Woolen Mills in Washougal and the Crown Zellerbach paper mill in Camas, suffered major damage as well. But the Port and the two towns, unlike Vanport, were able to rebuild.
Even the shock of the Vanport flood did not lead to immediate steps to rein in the river, and it was not until 1956 that the Port of Camas-Washougal started tackling the problem aggressively, hiring an attorney to draft legislation that would fund a proposed levee stretching from the mouth of the Washougal River east along the Columbia as far as Lawton Creek, near the border between Clark and Skamania counties. But it would take another 10 years before real progress would be made on a levee, and in the meantime the Port had other projects to keep it occupied.
On the Water
The port's delay in developing and improving its small marina proved fortunate, as anything that had been built would have been wiped out by the 1948 flood. In 1953, the Port started studying plans for "developing a small boat harbor at the dock" ("Port Perspectives"). At that time, the marina housed only about a half-dozen vessels; the study, with a notable lack of precision, found that the number of boats that might use an expanded marina ranged from 50 to 200.
This potential demand was enough to spur action, and in the spring of 1953 work began, with Port Commissioner Leighton Blake, who owned a gravel pit, bringing in his own excavator to deepen the near-shore portion of the marina site. A "Comprehensive Marina Development Plan" issued in early 1954 indicated that the port had already created moorage sufficient for 150 vessels, and most marina improvements were completed by 1959. But Mother Nature was soon to hammer Camas and Washougal again, and the infamous Columbus Day storm of 1962, with wind gusts as high as 110 m.p.h., wiped out much of the nearly new marina.
The Port picked up the pieces and started anew, restoring the marina to its former condition and incrementally expanding its size and improving its amenities in the following years. A major snowstorm in 1980 collapsed roofs and sank dozens of vessels, but once again the port rebuilt, making the marina better than ever. Today it is a complete facility, with moorage space for more than 350 boats, a self-service fuel dock, a floating restaurant, and a launch ramp. On shore are a yacht club, a boat-repair and dry storage facility, parking for boat trailers and tow vehicles, and overnight camping spaces for RVs. The Port's offices are located on shore immediately to the north of the marina.
In the Air
In 1945 Ward Grove (1910-1992), a World War II military pilot and long-time Camas resident, started to develop a small landing field on 15 acres of land in Fern Prairie, about three miles north of downtown Camas. The original grass landing strip was only 1,650 feet long, but in 1946 Grove purchased additional acreage and extended the runway to its current length of a little over 2,700 feet. He built a single hangar, and for the next 16 years operated the strip and Grove's Flying Service with his wife, Kessie (1911-1996), selling airplanes and giving flying lessons. It is estimated that in the immediate post-war years Grove trained at least 400 private pilots under the GI Bill, and he trained hundreds more in the ensuing years.
In 1962, the Port of Camas-Washougal purchased the air strip, and just the air strip, from the Groves, who remained on the property as paid caretakers. Grove continued to give lessons there until 1975. Among the first steps the Port took was to bury the power lines near the landing strip and build a new hangar that could hold 10 planes. In 1975, more new hangars were added, and in 1978, a year after the Port purchased the rest of the property from the Groves, the taxiways were paved. In 1984, the Port commission adopted a resolution officially naming the airstrip Grove Field, noting that Ward Grove by that time had accumulated more than 7,000 hours in the air.
Over the years since, the Port has steadily expanded and improved the facility. The runway was paved in 1990, and Grove Field now serves the Camas-Washougal area 24 hours a day, seven days a week as a general aviation airfield. It currently (2010) houses 79 hangars, provides support for firefighting activities and medical transportation, and hosts a flying club. Airplane owners are offered 24-hour self-serve fueling, restrooms, shower facilities, and facilities for major airframe and engine repair.
The Industrial Park
The Port of Camas-Washougal leased land to businesses and industry from its early days, but it was not until the regular flooding of the Columbia was tamed that it was able to develop the 310-acre industrial park that it boasts today. The taming was done by the US Army Corps of Engineers, which in 1966 completed a 5,500-foot levee along the river on the eastern outskirts of Washougal.
This levee effectively ended seasonal flooding in the lowlands near the river and created a fully usable site that now houses the Port's industrial park. On the river side, the levee is flanked by Captain William Clark Park at Cottonwood Beach, and this area is still subject to rare flooding, most recently in 1996. But on the shore side, the levee has protected the industrial park and the eastern reaches of Washougal for nearly half a century, allowing full development of the site, which now (2010) leases sites to nearly 50 companies. Its proximity to the shipping facilities at the Port of Vancouver and Portland International Airport, together with convenient rail and interstate highway access, add to its attractiveness for business and industry.
The Port in 2010 was deep into the planning and permitting process for the development of an additional 125 acres adjacent to the current site on the east, to be called the Steigerwald Commerce Center. Named after the family that ran a dairy farm there during Washougal's earlier years, this new development would abut the 996-acre Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. This proximity of course raises significant environmental issues that the port has been working hard to address.
Captain William Clark Park
In addition to its commercial activities, the Port of Camas-Washougal operates three parks that provide recreational facilities for both residents and visitors. Two of the parks are closely linked to the area's earliest history and the third is tied to one of the Port's first commercial ventures.
Captain William Clark Park at Cottonwood Beach was formally dedicated on August 7, 2005, with a weekend of gala events. At this place, from March 31 to April 6, 1806, Lewis and Clark's Corp of Discovery made camp. Clark's journals described the area:
"We continued our rout along the N. side of the river passed diamond Island and white brant island [now Lady Island] to the lower point of a handsom prarie opposite to the upper entrance of the Quicksand river [now Oregon's Sandy River]; here we encamped having traveled 25 miles today. a little below the upper point of the White brant Island Seal river [the Washougal] discharges itself on the N. side. it is about 80 yards wide, and at present discharges a large body of water. the water is very clear" (Journals of Lewis and Clark).
The genesis of the park at Cottonwood Beach came in 1996 when the port's executive director, Sheldon Tyler, approached Clark County to seek support for the idea. In 2001, the "East Clark County Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commemoration Committee" was formed to plan events recognizing the 200th anniversary of the Corps of Discovery's journey through the area, and this gave added impetus to the park plan. That same year, Clark County, the Port of Camas-Washougal, and the cities of Washougal and Camas formed a partnership to create a regional park along the Columbia River. After determining that the Corps of Discovery had in fact camped at Cottonwood Beach, the coalition went on to develop Captain William Clark Park there.
Today, Captain William Clark Park extends for about a mile along Cottonwood Beach, separated from the mainland by the dike built by the Corps of Engineers in 1966. A two-mile-long dike trail starts at Steamboat Landing, runs the length of the park, and continues on to Steigerwald Lake in the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The park's 85 acres are laced with scenic trails and offer numerous campsites, 18 RV slots, and public restrooms and showers.
Parker's Landing Historical Park
One of the Camas-Washougal area's first settlers was David C. Parker, who arrived in 1846 and squatted on public land. After the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 was passed, Parker laid claim to 582 acres. He built a dock east of the Washougal River called Parker’s Landing and in 1854 platted out a town he named Parkersville.
Some of the Parker property, including the area that is now the park, later came into the possession of another early settler family, the Van Vleets. Lewis Van Vleet operated a ferry from the site and recorded a new Parkersville plat in 1879. His descendants owned the property until 1968, when it was sold to the Port of Camas-Washougal.
Parker's Landing Historical Park did not have an easy birth. By 1976, the property now occupied by the park was listed on both the state and national registers of historic places, but these were not universally popular designations. The Port had announced plans to dismantle the historic Van Vleet house on the property, but deferred any action after complaints by the Camas-Washougal Historical Society. In October 1978, the 100-year-old home was destroyed in an arson fire that was never solved, and the property sat idle for the next several years. Charges were made that the port had not taken due care to protect the historic site, and the port commission began to doubt the wisdom of creating a general-use park at a site that was already heavily invested in purely marine uses
However, in June 1986 Parker's Landing Historical Park was dedicated, although controversy continued for several years over the park's size and historical designation. In 1988, the port commissioners formally adopted the position that the area was not suited to a general-purpose park, and in 1989 there were discussions about selling the property to the city of Washougal. But things soon quieted down, and the Port has worked hard in the years since to improve the park and its facilities.
Today (2010) at the park, the Van Vleet Historical Plaza memorializes in brick the area's long history. Beginning at the eastern end, the plaza's bricks are etched with the names of the Chinook people who first frequented the region, followed by explorers, fur traders, and early travelers who passed through on their way to other places. Then come the names of the early settlers who took Donation Land Claims and homesites, along with many of their descendants. And, on September 12, 2009, in further recognition of the region's First Peoples, the Port dedicated Chinook Plaza to the accompaniment of a Native drumming ceremony.
Adjacent to Parker's Landing Historical Park lies the Port's smallest recreational area, Marina Park. From the park's benches and picnic areas there is an expansive view of Mount Hood to the east and the far bank of the Columbia River in Oregon to the south.
Marina Park hosts the Riverside Concert Series every summer, fishing tournaments, and annual ceremonies marking the opening and closing days of boating season. Immediately adjacent to Marina Park is the Port of Camas-Washougal headquarters building.
What the Future Holds
In 2010, the Port of Camas-Washougal was in the process of updating its Comprehensive Plan, mapping out its five-years goal for all its component parts -- the industrial park, including the planned Steigerwald Commerce Center; Grove Field; the Port of Camas-Washougal Marina; Parker's Landing Historical Park; Captain William Clark Park at Cottonwood Beach; and Marina Park. The Port encompasses a diverse range of interests among its "stakeholders," which include port tenants, economic development partners, elected officials and agency staff, port-district taxpayers, and the community. The Port has described its approach and philosophy:
"The real benefit of the strategic planning process is the process, not the plan document. There is no such thing as a perfect plan; what’s important is doing your best at strategic thinking and learning from what you're doing to enhance what you're doing the next time around. The strategic planning process is usually not an 'aha!' experience. It's like the management process itself -- it's a series of small moves that together keep the organization doing things right as it heads in the right direction. In planning, things usually aren't as bad as you fear nor as good as you'd like" ("What Is The Comprehensive Plan Update?").
The year 2010 marked the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Port of Camas-Washougal. Both cities have grown substantially since then and have become more equal in size, with estimated populations in April 2010 of 17,210 for Camas and 14,050 for Washougal. Since starting with nothing but an idea in 1935, the two communities, acting through their elected port commissioners, have built an impressive portfolio of business, industrial, and recreational facilities to serve a broad range of interests and activities.