In late fall, 200 years ago, Capts. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had at long last reached the Pacific Coast, but found themselves in a cold, rain-soaked forest facing the onset of an even wetter and colder winter. To protect themselves from the elements, Lewis and Clark and the men of the Corps of Discovery built a log fort -- the site of which would become a national memorial and a central part of the region's identity.
When a replica of Fort Clatsop, built in 1955, burned to the ground last month, it was, says the park's superintendent, "like losing a part of one's home."
The fort was to have played a key role in this month's Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commemoration -- and the first instinct of many was to rebuild it quickly.
"I wanted to rebuild in time for the events in November. My reaction was: 'By God, we can do it,' " said Skip Hauke, executive director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce and a third-generation Astorian.
After discussions with other groups, however, Hauke decided to support a Park Service plan to excavate the site for archaeological purposes and then rebuild the fort slowly into an educational and cultural facility.
"We're going to have a better fort, and it will be an educational tool for generations," Hauke said. "If a situation like this can be said to have a silver lining, that's the silver."
Workers have begun implementing the Park Service's plan. Clearing the site took three days last month, and then the archaeological work began. Cyndi Mudge, director of a nonprofit umbrella group working on the bicentennial commemoration, said it has been amazing to watch the park staff, including the rangers, rebound from the fire.
"I was there that morning," she said. "You could see the grief and shock on their faces. They had a school group coming and a tour bus of 18 seniors. It would have been so easy to close up for the day, but they didn't. They put on a program at the visitors center. Their attitude was, and is: The show must go on."
Chip Jenkins, superintendent of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, said, "There are people here who have two decades of memories in that place. You see the look on Ron's face out there today . . . and that says it all."
Jenkins was referring to Ron Tyson, head of maintenance at the park, located six miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. Tyson has worked at Fort Clatsop for 23 years. He was among the first to arrive at the fire, which destroyed the fort in three hours.
"It was intense," Tyson said. "We had three fire departments out here, 25, 30 men."
Investigators have determined that the fire was accidental -- it was traced to a fire on a hearth in a barracks.
Meanwhile, park employees and community members have adjusted their plans for the bicentennial celebration and the park itself.
"We have never had a chance to excavate under the fort before," said Jill Harding, the park's visitor services director. "It's a great opportunity for us to find out more about the fort and rebuild it in an even more accurate way."
Harding said recently discovered historical accounts provide more specific and more detailed descriptions of the fort -- descriptions that the Jaycees did not have when they built the replica.
The archaeological work will take about a month.
The Corps of Discovery broke ground for Fort Clatsop -- named after the local Clatsop Indians -- on Dec. 10, 1805, and Jenkins said his goal is to do the same, 200 years later. "We may only be ready for the flagpole by then, but we will get it started on that day."