First there was a river...The mighty Columbia flows from its beginnings in British Columbia 1,243 miles to the Pacific Ocean.
Then came the Native Americans who lived in harmony with the river. It gave them salmon and in turn, strength, wealth and power. A natural avenue of trade and transportation, the river sustained the native people for thousands of years, and then brought rapid change. By chance or destiny, those who came after - Euro-American explorers, fur traders, soldiers, settlers, builders of ships and airplanes — would alter the history of a place, a nation, a world in two short centuries.
The broad plain that rests on the north shore near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers inspired Meriwether Lewis to comment in 1806 that "It is, in fact, the only desirable situation for a settlement on the western side of the Rocky Mountains."
In 1825, England's Hudson's Bay Company built Fort Vancouver beside the Columbia River. The company's reach extended over 1.5 million square miles,
dominating the western continental fur trade and making Vancouver the hub of its activities west of the Rockies.
Just 21 years later, a treaty with Great Britain gave the United States the Oregon country. The U.S. Army built an outpost by Fort Vancouver to protect settlers who followed the Oregon Trail to its end on the river. Vancouver Barracks would remain a military operations center into the 20th century, active for more than 150 years.
During World War I, Vancouver Barracks was also the site of the world's largest spruce saw mill. 30,000 soldiers helped produce up to one million board feet of straight-grained spruce a day to make airplanes.
In 1937, three Russians landed their plane at Pearson Field after flying nonstop over the North Pole — an aviation first and a timely, if serendipitous diplomatic coup. The event helped generate goodwill between the Soviet Union and the United States during a tense pre-World War II era.
Shipbuilding at the river's edge, dating from the arrival of the Hudson's Bay Company, peaked during World War II when the Kaiser shipyard employed 38,000 workers in Vancouver. Portland and Vancouver yards recruited women earlier and in greater numbers than any other U.S. shipbuilding center — 20,000 were at work by 1944.