Fort burns to ground; cause unknown
|10/4/2005, 4:12 p.m. PT
By JOSEPH B. FRAZIERThe Associated Press
WARRENTON, Ore. (AP) — Fort Clatsop, a popular tourist attraction and replica of where the Lewis and Clark expedition spent the soggy winter of 1805-1806 after reaching the Pacific, has been destroyed by fire, officials said Tuesday.
Volunteer firefighters worked for hours Monday night to try to save the fort at the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park. But "half of the fort was burned up, and the other half is essentially a loss," said park superintendent Chip Jenkins.
The site is being treated as a crime scene, he said.
Investigators said Tuesday afternoon that they were looking for a truck seen leaving the area when firefighters arrived on scene. The vehicle is a dark-colored, newer Chevrolet truck, with the letters Z-7-1 on the rear fender, National Park Service officials said.
Oregon State Police joined the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives with dogs trained to sniff out the presence of any flammable liquids, said Ron Tyson, who heads a volunteer search and rescue team.
The fire happened just 40 days before a Lewis and Clark Bicentennial event was scheduled to be held at the fort, the culmination of a two-year, national celebration of the explorers' journey to the West.
"We will rebuild," Jenkins said. "The Lewis and Clark Bicentennial events will go on through the winter."
He said he did not know when it would be rebuilt. But flyers soliciting funds for the project were circulating only a few hours after the fire was out.
The fort is not essential for bicentennial events scheduled for Nov. 11-14, said Cyndi Mudge, one of the organizers. There are Lewis and Clark sites scattered across the area, and events will still be held there as previously scheduled.
There was no electricity or natural gas source in the fort, Jenkins said.
But during the day, fires are occasionally burned in fireplaces inside some of the fort's quarters to recreate the ambience of the time that Lewis and Clark spent in the fort.
Jenkins said some fireplaces were burning "for a couple of hours" on Monday, but that it wasn't clear whether those controlled fires were related to the blaze.
Ron Tyson, chief of the Olney-Walluski Volunteer Fire and Rescue, said the fire was phoned in by a passing motorist. The fire was well involved when Tyson got there about 15 minutes later, he said.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski visited the site Tuesday afternoon and called it "a difficult day" for history and for the state.
Fort Clatsop is the centerpiece of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, which is among the newest of the nation's 388 national parks and the second one in Oregon. The park is made up of several sites in Oregon and Washington tied to the westward end of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806.
The park covers 10,000 acres, including a six-mile trail under construction that traces the route the explorers used to get from Fort Clatsop, south of Astoria, to the sea.
The 50-by-50-foot fort was built by the local community in 1955 to mark the sesquicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. It was erected near the site where experts believe the original stood. The exact site of the original remains unknown despite several efforts by scientists of various disciplines to find it.
Jenkins said scholarship has advanced in the 50 years since the replica was built and that could lead to a more authentic fort going up on the site.
"We will look to the current state of knowledge and take advantage of that," he said.
Fort Clatsop contained a replica of the explorers' winter quarters, based on drawings and descriptions in the journals of William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. There were regular demonstrations of weaponry and of skills the explorers relied on, such as tanning elk hides and making clothing.
"It was a memorial to Lewis and Clark but i was also a teaching tool," Jenkins said. "It was a well-built, lovingly-crafted tool. We will build a new tool."
A group of 41 people following the Lewis and Clark trail arrived at the fort hoping to see the structure Tuesday.
"We didn't get to see it, and I won't get to see it," said Bill Watson, a retired state trooper from Oaklawn, Ill. "We were looking forward to see it, today was the day. We can't get over it."
Watson was on a tour that began in St. Charles, Mo. 18 days ago. A visit to the fort was the culmination of their tour.
On the Web: ttp://http://www.nps.gov/focl/