With the sun still minutes above the fall horizon, I park the Scion inside Fort Vancouver National Park, switch from a cramped pair of work shoes to those for walking (I always carry a pair just in case) grab the Nikon and head out. History abounds here in this favorite park of mine: Native American tribes lived and traded along the Columbia River, the Lewis and Clark Corp of Discovery Expedition canoed along the shoreline camping in nearby Washougal. Hudson Bay Fur Company setup Fort Vancouver in 1826 at that time under Canada control. Notable soldiers Ulysses S. Grant, O.O. Howard, George McClellan, and George C. Marshall, served at the fort before, during, and after the Civil War. The Standifer shipyard west of downtown Vancouver built ships during WWI, Henry Kaiser’s shipyard east of Fort Vancouver built liberty ships during WWII, and the oldest Apple Tree in the Northwest blossoms every spring a short walk from the fort. Whew, you get the idea.
Strolling the footpath near the fort replica the sun closes in on its’ vanishing point I am now perpendicular to Pearson Airfield (in operation since 1905) bright lights outline runway, a private plane passes over, I pause, look up, and with child’s wonder, Wow! still
tracking the plane as it bounces down the landing strip smack in the middle of those lights. Turning away to continue I come face to face with an elderly gentleman wearing a sky blue spring jacket, walking shoes, a blue and grey stocking hat, and large lens eyeglasses emphasizing a youthful, energetic attitude.
Forgoing introductions, “I like the ability of walking so close to this airfield, so close to planes landing and taking off. There are not many fields that allow one to get so close. The plane that just passed over was so close you could almost reach up and touch it.”
Elderly gentleman replies, “Yes you could.”
He continues, “Did you know that developers want to shut down Pearson.”
I interrupt, “No I didn’t, for the land?”
“Well yes, sort of, developers want to construct taller buildings downtown and private planes on their final approach would be in the way.”
Vancouver desires to break away from the moniker of being a suburb of Portland,
Oregon and city officials planning to redefine the skyline with high-rise office buildings and apartment complexes for workers; currently, the tallest building in town is the beer can shaped Smith Apartments reaching 158’ into the cool, northwest air. The former Standifer Shipyard west of downtown is the first phase in the remolding of the city with apartments and retail space.
Segue into conversation about a replica plane he and other aero enthusiasts are building the elderly gentleman’s eyes sparkle his voice crackles with youthful vigor the original, a Wright Brothers like aero plane, launched from atop a ten-story hotel building in Portland, 1912. Cell phone in left hand the right hand forefinger taps, sweeps the screen producing dozen of pictures depicting progress, “But there is a snag with the wing material,” he adds.
Sweep, sweep goes the aged forefinger again pictures reveal cotton-based material used as the plane’s skin wrinkling as he explains how today processed cotton is is not the same as in the early days of aviation.
“Are you going this way?” I interrupt pointing toward the land-bridge that goes up and
over Washington State Route 14 Highway and under the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway. The walkway, built in 2008, reconnects people to the Columbia River cutoff when the highway was constructed in the 1950s. Long trestles built above the land once carried BNSF rail traffic over the land allowing access below but was later rebuilt on berms thus effectively cutting off access to the river.
Elderly gentlemen: “Yes, I am.”
We make little progress up the bridge when the elderly gentleman abruptly stops (that zing of youth reappears) next to some graffiti and switches the conversation from cotton crumpled wings, “Ah-ha let me show something the city has put together.”
More taps from the active forefinger on the phone reveals an application called MyVancouver tap, tap, tap the graffiti on the land-bridge is recorded and, via the internet, sent to city officials for handling, neat. He goes on to explain not only graffiti but also sign damage, street light outages or damage, potholes and a variety of other concerns. So Mr. and Mrs. Citizen out on that Sunday stroll can report these concerns directly to those that will produce results.
“Is the app available to anyone? “I inquisitively ask.
Concentrating on more graffiti discovered on the bridge elderly gentleman’s forefinger and thumb squeeze across the phone screen to zoom in then sends this to city officials, “Yes just go to the play store and type in, I’m not sure if it is Vancouver, Washington or MyVancouver but one of those will work.”
At that very moment my brain registers his reply a thought of my own crowds in: Wow, I never remember to use the phone camera zoom! Dam, all those pictures I’ve shot could have been better!
At the opposite end of the land bridge we come before a wrought iron fence cornered
with 3’ high white, concrete posts inside (protection from unwarranted cuttings) the 191 year Apple Tree planted the year both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson passed away, 1826; the seed brought over from London. Now through a short tunnel under BNSF tracks, look and behold, the mighty Columbia River the same Columbia River that Lewis and Clark traversed on the Corp of Discover Expedition in 1804; no light pollution, blackness, figures huddled around campfire appear ghost-like.
The walkway takes us under the Interstate Bridge humming and shaking from four-lanes
of mindboggling, mechanized, mayhem between Oregon and Washington State today a vibrant part of the Interstate 5 freeway system but, back in 1917 when it opened there was only one lane ferrying horse and buggy traffic. Then the interurban ran tracks across it, soon the automobile, expansion and before one could say Ticonderoga two more lanes were added. I chime in about Oregon and Washington State officials’ debate about congestion, “You know I would rather see a second bridge built as opposed to replacing this one as it is over 100 years old, so much history attached to it.”
Elderly gentlemen smiles: “Well yes but there are so many implications that need to be addressed namely where to build that bridge not to mention clearing land for such a project.”
Rush-hour congestion on the Oregon side is a conglomerate of motorized machines trying to get ahead of those ahead of them creating a nightmare those city governments from both states discusses yet no progress. Our discussion on location, land rights, tolls, carries us several city blocks to Ester Short Park, downtown Vancouver. In one short mile we’ve passed through decades of history.
Entering the park a tall, stately Douglas Fir chosen as the city’s Christmas tree receives its’ wrapping of primary colored LED lights, the elderly gentleman speaks, “Have you seen any of the murals painted on the sides of buildings along Main Street?”
Me: “I have not.”
Elderly gentlemen: “If you have time walk along Evergreen and on the corner of, I believe, Main Street there is a mural on a building depicting the unplanned landing of Chkalov.”
Me: “You mean Chkalov the Russian aviator that attempted the transpolar flight in 1937 and had to make an emergency landing at Pearson Airfield.”
With a smile of appreciated history knowledge, “That’s the one.”
Minutes pass in silent attention lights sparkle in the night, “Well I must be off,” I extend my right hand, “By the way my name is Jim.”
Elderly gentlemen: “Allen, nice to have met you, enjoyed the conversation.”
Me: “Me to.”
I turn away and disappear into the night. Walking along Evergreen I cross Main Street
and there on the opposite side of the street in two stories of reds, blues, greens, and yellows Chkalov and the ANT-25 plane mural commemorating the unplanned landing in 1937. Snap, I capture the memorial and head back to the Scion goose bumps spread from head to toe, yes I do love history.