Clark County known as the ‘Cradle of Pacific Northwest History’


Local history buffs call Clark County the “Cradle of Pacific Northwest History,” reflecting the importance of the 628-square-mile southwestern Washington county as the scene of key historical developments.

Here the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived in 1805, the British Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Vancouver in 1825, and the town of Vancouver was incorporated in 1857.

The county’s location first made it an entrepôt (trading center), then an agricultural area.

The region developed in agriculture, lumber, and fishing, and later in shipbuilding and aluminum.

In recent times, energy from hydroelectric projects on the Lewis and Columbia rivers has fueled development as a manufacturing center.

Land of the Chinook

When the area’s written history began, sloping riverbanks provided accessibility to alternating lightly forested and grass-covered benches in the immediate area.

Rivers have been extraordinarily important in county history, not only as boundaries but also as opportunities.

Long before the first Euro-Americans arrived in what is now Clark County, Chinook Indians used its waterways as travel routes and took fish from them as a diet mainstay. The Cathlapottle resided just above the Lewis River in the villages of Galakanasisi and “Shoto” — as Lewis and Clark identified them — near Lake Vancouver.

When the Lewis and Clark Expedition camped at Salmon Creek in eastern Clark County on their way upriver in 1806, several Chinook visited their camp. The explorers estimated the Indian population from The Dalles to the coast at several thousand. The Hudson’s Bay Company, with more detailed information, reduced this estimate to about 2,500 around 1825.

Then, beginning around 1830, a mysterious illness, characterized in historical accounts as “intermittent fever,” swept through the Indian and white populations along the river. It may have been malaria or influenza. All suffered, but the disease killed almost all of the Indians along the lower Columbia, leaving only 30 to 40 Chinook survivors.

Clark County

Clark County had its forerunner in Vancouver District, established on Aug. 20, 1845, by the provisional government of Oregon that American settlers had created a few years earlier. The district encompassed a huge expanse of territory north of the Columbia River in what is now the state of Washington.

Later that year, the provisional government changed “district” to “county” and carved off a large portion of Vancouver County’s western reaches to form Lewis County, named for Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition.

In 1849, a year after Congress created Oregon Territory, the new territorial legislature renamed Vancouver County as Clark County in honor of William Clark (1770-1838), the other leader of the exploring expedition.

When Congress established Washington Territory in 1853, Clark County became a political subdivision of the new territory, whose legislators and other officials, for reasons that remain mysterious, immediately began spelling the name “Clarke.” Many years later, in 1925, the Washington State Legislature formally removed the extraneous “e.”

After the departure of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the county developed as a mostly agricultural area.

The 1890 census reported 907 farms and only 38 manufacturing establishments in the county, which had a population of just over 11,000 out of a total state population of 18,000. A Klondike gold rush-inspired spike in Puget Sound-area population quickly changed this ratio. (Towns like Seattle became ports of departure for Alaska and Canada’s Klondike River goldfields.) Ten years later, Clark County’s population rose to 13,419, but Washington’s total population ballooned to more than 500,000. County farms more than doubled from 907 to 1,873 and manufacturing establishments also more than doubled, from 38 to 87. These proportions would continue for decades.

Economic development

As the number of farms in Clark County grew, small settlements sprang up to service them and to process timber products harvested in the foothills leading to the Cascades. La Center, first settled in 1852 at the head of navigation on the East Fork of the Lewis River, was one of them. By 1875, La Center had Washington’s oldest Grange chapter, a post office, a lumber mill and a steamboat landing.

Small riverboats such as the Mascot, Swallow and Walker brought groceries and other supplies upriver and took farm and lumber products downriver. Camas, east of Vancouver, began in 1846 with a sawmill, and by 1884 had a paper mill. Washougal boasted a woolen mill. Woodland, at the confluence of the Lewis and Columbia rivers, traced its roots to pioneer farms started in the area in 1845, but was not named until a store opened there in 1881.

Vancouver itself acquired lumber and paper mills, docks, grain elevators and canneries. Gold seekers traveling on the Columbia to Idaho and Eastern Washington in the 1860s spurred community growth.

In 1870, the Northern Pacific Railway connected Vancouver to Puget Sound. In the 1880s, initiation of railroad ferry service across the Columbia linked Vancouver with Oregon and California by rail.

Clark County even had, and still has, its own railroad, today operated as an excursion route under the name Chelatchie Prairie Railroad. The 33-mile-long route originated in 1886 to provide service from Vancouver to Yakima via Klickitat Pass. It became known as the Clark County, or Lewis and Clark Railroad and eventually reached Chelatchie Prairie in northern Clark County, but never went farther north.

Significant rail lines and highways also intersected in the county. Roads leading east and west along the Columbia and north and south to interior Washington and Oregon were completed.

Shifting crop patterns in the county have been reflected by the changing names of geographical features. Strawberry Knoll 10 to 12 miles east of Vancouver became Prune Hill when M.A. Boyle set out 350 plum trees there in 1883. Fruit Valley, west of Vancouver, received its name because of all the orchards there.

In 1908, a rail bridge replaced the railroad ferries. In 1917, a highway bridge linked Vancouver to the Oregon side of the Columbia.

World War I (1917-1919) and World War II (1941-1945) brought additional industries and expanded population. The world’s largest spruce mill came with World War I as Northwest forests supplied lumber for thousands of warplanes. The U.S. government built the mill on the grounds of Vancouver Barracks and soldiers provided labor. A privately owned shipyard, Standifer Shipyard, constructed some of the vessels needed for “The War to End All Wars,” but closed in 1921.

The West’s first aluminum manufacturing plant, Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) and a significant shipyard, Vancouver Kaiser Shipyard, came with World War II. Beginning in 1943, Clark County yards built 50 escort carriers, 90 other ships, and two dry docks for the war effort. Vancouver Barracks troop strength increased during both wars.

Clark County, known as the “Prune Capital of the World” in the 1920s, moved on to a diversified economy. Its relationship to rivers — so significant in the early days — remained important. Port-related activities employed more than 5,000 people, directly affected the jobs of 49,000 more, and moved more than $1.5 billion annually in waterborne trade.


The full article from, titled “Clark County — Thumbnail History,” can be found online at


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