Fort Vancouver is renamed Vancouver Barracks on April 5, 1879.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 3/07/2010
  • Essay 9326
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On April 5, 1879, Fort Vancouver, in Clark County, is renamed  Vancouver Barracks. This army post will become the oldest on the West Coast and the most historic in the Northwest. Vancouver Barracks will provide troops in the Indian Wars, Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. However, because Fort Vancouver lacked adequate maneuver and training space, Fort Lewis in Pierce County will replace it as a major military installation. In 1946 the post will become an Army Reserve facility, and portions of it will later be turned over to the U.S. National Park Service's Fort Vancouver National Site, with the final United States Army parcel closing in 2011 upon completion of a new Army Reserve Center at a different Vancouver location.

Vancouver Barracks Beginnings

Before being renamed the Vancouver Barracks, the post had three previous names: Camp Vancouver (1849-1850), Columbia Barracks (1850-1853), Fort Vancouver (1853-1879). The original army contingent had arrived on May 13, 1849, to protect settlers and to police the Oregon Territory. The post was constructed on land above the Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver, a trading post that closed in 1860 and was destroyed by fire in 1866. At the site the United States National Park Service maintains a replica of the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Vancouver.

The U.S. Army Vancouver Barracks has over the years experienced both growth and decline. Portions of it have been declared excess and put to new uses or demolished. In 2011 the final active army area will be closed when the Army Reserve moves to a new facility on Vancouver’s east side. This will bring to a close the oldest army post on the West Coast and the Pacific Northwest’s most historic military facility. The closed post will become part of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site and the National Park Service plans adaptive use of the historic buildings. 

The Historic Buildings of Vancouver Barracks          
The first major permanent construction program started shortly after the installation became Vancouver Barracks. A number of these early buildings survive. In 1850 the commanding officer's residence, today called Grant House, was completed. This hand-hewed log structure has been covered with siding. General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) did not live there, but served as quartermaster at the barracks in 1853. Also, the former President Grant visited the post in 1879. Grant House functioned as the commander’s residence until 1886 and has been put to a number of uses since, including as an officer’s club, and, today, a restaurant.

Another historic home, the Marshall House, a Queen Anne Victorian-style beauty completed in 1886, also became the commanding officer's house. Brigadier General George C. Marshall (1880-1959) lived there when he commanded a 3rd Division brigade in 1936-1938. Marshall would go on to become General of the Army, author of the postwar Marshall Plan to help rebuild Europe, Secretary of State in 1947-1849, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. This building has served many roles, and is now available for conferences and public events. Inside is an exhibit on Marshall’s life.

A third historic residence, now called the Howard House, was finished in 1879. Its first resident, Major General Oliver Otis Howard (1830-1909), has been honored by its naming. General Howard earned the Medal of Honor during the Civil War and in 1874-1880 commanded the Department of the Columbia with headquarters at Fort Vancouver. He led troops in the Indian Wars (1865-1884) in the Northwest and achieved lasting honor for his contribution in founding Howard University, a significant black university. During World War II, this Italianate Revival-style structure served as an NCO club, and now the impressive Howard House is a visitor’s center. Other buildings also went up during the 1880s and 1890s, including barracks, a hospital steward's house (which was moved to its present location in 1954 during I-5 highway construction ), and a chapel.

Duties and Activities

Vancouver Barracks had an active role in local and world events from its creation in 1879 through the 1890s. With the end of the Indian Wars, post life turned inward, with more work on beautification and soldier recreation. Vancouver Barracks paid considerable attention to landscaping, which combined with nearby forests and views to Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens to make a pleasing post.

The 14th Infantry Regiment occupied Vanvouver Barracks from 1884 into the 1890s. In February 1898 elements of the 14th Infantry were sent to Alaska to aid prospectors stranded during the Gold Rush, but returned that spring with the start of the Spanish-American War. A tent mobilization camp went up at the barracks and served as a staging area for transfer to San Francisco and dispatch to the war. The 14th Infantry captured Guam (Guahan) and then went on duty in the Philippines. In April 1899 Company B of the 24th Infantry Regiment, an African American unit, arrived at Vancouver Barracks. They would stay only a short time and departed in May 1900. The next year, elements of the 7th Infantry Regiment reported for duty as the 14th Infantry remained in the Philippines.

Another building expansion came early in the twentieth century. The years 1903-1907 saw construction of new barracks, a two and one-half story brick hospital, a Hospital Corps sergeant’s house (also moved to its present site to make way for the interstate highway), and post headquarters. The 14th Infantry soldiers had returned and in 1906 were sent to San Francisco, where they provided aid and assistance to victims of the devastating earthquake.

During this period the army had to address a serious post shortcoming, the absence of maneuver and training areas. The post leadership searched for suitable training sites and found American Lake, near Tacoma, most suitable. This became a maneuver location, and in 1917 Camp Lewis (later Fort Lewis and now [2010] Joint Base Lewis-McChord). A rifle range and limited training area was established at Camp Bonneville a few miles from Vancouver Barracks. The facility did have a flat area that was used for aviation purposes starting in 1911. Pearson Airfield would be established in 1925.

World War I

The World War I high demand for wood, especially quality airplane material, led to the creation of the Spruce Production Division (SPD).  An SPD regional headquarters, and possibly the largest mill in the nation, opened at the post on February 7, 1918. This mill turned out large quantities until it closed in November 1919. Also, a temporary wood-frame camp went up that housed an engineer regiment and the 44th Infantry Regiment. They were at Vancouver when the Armistice was signed and did not go overseas.

On February 23, 1919, an impressive Red Cross Convalescence Hostess House was dedicated that provided entertainment for convalescing soldiers from the hospital across the street. It had a lounge with a fireplace and a basement with a billiards room and smoking area. Built in colonial style, it has been carefully restored and is open to the public. 
Vancouver Barracks became a demobilization center in 1919, with 30,000 leaving the army there. In 1920 a small force, Company B, 32nd Infantry Regiment, occupied the post. By 1921 the World War I facilities were gone and the barracks quiet. Felix Robinson (1882-1948), a civilian engineer moving to Camp Lewis, cleaned his office and found the only surviving early map of the installation and aided in its preservation.

The 1930s

The next new construction came in the 1930s with brick non-commissioned officer houses. These homes continue in use today as rental units. The 7th Infantry Regiment garrisoned at Vancouver Barracks.

Brigadier General Marshall, during his command from 1936-1938, found the place a wonderful assignment, with fishing opportunities and great beauty. The snow-covered Mount Hood could be seen from the Marshall bedroom. One of his most exciting days was June 20, 1937, when three  Russian pilots showed up at his quarters. They had just landed unexpectedly at the airfield on the first non-stop transpolar flight from Moscow to the United States. The post returned to normal until World War II, when soldiers stayed there awaiting shipment overseas.

Fort Vancouver Cemetery

The post cemetery, located north of Vancouver Barracks near I-5 on E 4th Plain Boulevard, contains about 1,400 grave sites, including four Medal of Honor recipients. They are:

  • Major William McCammon (1838-1903), Civil War;
  • First Sergeant Moses Williams (1845-1899), Indian Wars;
  • Sergeant James M. Hill (1845-1919), Indian Wars; 
  • Private Herman Pfisterer (1866-1905), Spanish-American War.

They were brave soldiers and were fond of the area. For example, Sergeant Moses Williams, a black soldier with the 9th Cavalry, retired to Vancouver in 1898 and died in his home there three weeks later. A monument to these Medal of Honor soldiers is located on Vancouver Barracks at East Evergreen Way and Fort Vancouver Way. 

Vancouver Barracks Preservation

In March 1946 the army determined the facility excess, but later in the year reactivated it as a reserve center. Since then Vancouver Barracks has trained reserve soldiers. However, the facilities exceeded the need, and portions were released.

With closure possible in the 1970s, the local community sought preservation. In 1980 Officers Row became surplus to the army, and the homes were deeded to the city for $1 in 1984, followed by a more than $10 million rehabilitation. The next year the first tenant moved in, and today there are 34 residential units, offices, and public spaces.

The Army Reserve and National Guard will vacate about 30 buildings when they move to their new facility.  These buildings, spread over 33 acres, will become part of the Vancouver National Historic Reserve. 

Sources: Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Part II: The Waking of a Military Town: Vancouver, Washington and the Vancouver National Historic Reserve, 1898-1920 (Vancouver: National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, January 2005); Barbara Hightower, Historic Properties Report: Vancouver Barracks Historic District (Silver Spring, Maryland: Building Technology Inc., 1986); Fred Greguras, "Spanish-American War Camps 1898-99 Period," Journal of America’s Military Past, No. 3 (Winter 2000), pp. 7-32; Ted Van Arsdol, Northwest Bastion: the U.S. Army Barracks at Vancouver 1849-1916 (Vancouver: Heritage Trust of Clark County, 1991); Ed Cray, General  Of The Army: George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990).

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