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Life in Ruins: Fort Columbia State Park

Category: General Article

Back to Youth Activiites: Life in Ruins

GPS Coordinates: 46.26, -123.918889

Fort Columbia State Park is the site of a large military battery used to defend the mouth of the Columbia River from 1896 through the end of World War II. The park is located on Chinook Point in Washington State. It is similar in purpose and design to Fort Stevens State Park on the Oregon side of the river, as both were part of a larger military effort to secure the west coast from invasion. Because of their isolated locations, both forts were reminiscent of small cities where personnel were provided with on-site housing, medical care, shopping and recreational opportunities. What the facilities lacked, soldiers would sometimes create. During the Second World War, innovative servicemen at Fort Columbia converted an unused ordnance storage building in a popular theater and dance hall. This building — known as “The Closet” — serves this same purpose for park guests today.

Additionally, Fort Columbia offers 5 miles (8 km) of hiking trails through the concrete ruins and surrounding wilderness, an interpretive center, camping and picnic facilities and overnight rental cottages. Like other Life in Ruins locations, it is also an excellent site to observe wildlife or explore a coastal ecosystem.

One River, Many Uses

Long before the fort was established, this part of the Columbia River had been visited by such notable explorers as Bruno de Heceta, Robert Gray and William Broughton as part of the expedition led by Captain George Vancouver. All of these men had the same goal: to determine whether the Columbia River could be used for transportation and trade. In 1805, the Corps of Discovery Expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would extensively map the area and help secure the United States’ claim to the river and the larger Pacific Northwest.

Even after these areas became part of the United States, the river was still considered vulnerable to foreign invasion by sea. Fort Columbia was established to help defend this vital waterway and, along with Fort Stevens and Fort Canby, was part of the Three Fort Harbor Defense System.

After the fort was decommissioned in 1947, it was handed over the state of Washington. It was briefly used as a civil defense center and then developed into the current park. The park was declared a national historic landmark in 1964.

The Ruins Today

The fort’s three artillery batteries and two coastal gun emplacements date from different eras and are largely subterranean. Although all working weaponry was removed long ago, the subterranean bunkers that housed them remain. Some of these catacombs are over a century old and offer a unique opportunity for both exploration and wildlife spotting. Birds are particularly numerous among the ruins, often nesting just inside doorways or among the pipes and ductwork in the ceilings. Raccoons, Douglas’s squirrels and other small mammals can often be seen foraging in the vegetation covering the earthworks or on the perimeter of the forest. Hiking past “The Closet” allows for the exploration of the riverbank, where harbor seals can sometimes be found sunning themselves or black-tailed deer will come down to drink. Shorebirds can include black oystercatchers and plovers while predatory species like bald eagles may be observed in the treetops.

To learn more about the park, visit the Washington State Parks website.

Notable Animal Species: American crow | Bald eagle | Black bear | Black-tailed deer | Brown pelican | Common raven | Coyote | Harbor seal | Herring gull | Raccoon | Osprey | Steelhead trout

Notable Plant Species: Bigleaf maple | Douglas-fir | Marine eelgrass | Pacific rhododendron | Sitka spruce | Western hemlock | Western sword fern

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