Rebuilding a piece of history

On the 199th anniversary of Lewis and Clark’s visit to the Pacific Northwest, the door to the Cathlapotle Plankhouse on the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge opened to its first visitors March 29, 2005.

The opening ceremony, led by Chinookan Elders, was the culmination of more than 3,500 hours of research and construction, virtually all coming from volunteer labor and donated materials.

Measuring 37 feet wide and 78 feet long, the plankhouse is a full-scale Chinookan-style split cedar dwelling, modeled after descriptions of a Chinook village as recorded by Lewis and Clark during their Voyage of Discovery.

“Lewis and Clark actually camped within a mile of the plankhouse,” said Cameron Smith, adjunct professor of anthropology at Portland State.

From 1987 to 1991, the Meier Site, which a Chinookan plankhouse occupied from1400-1830, was excavated by PSU students under supervision of anthropology professor Kenneth M. Ames.

“Ames had read the Lewis and Clark records of the villages seen in the Cathlapotle area. He noticed that there was a village missing – unaccounted for,” Smith said. “Ames had an idea where the site was, and the Carty family went back and helped him find it.”

Students at the Meier Site excavated both inside and outside of the plankhouse site, identifying stone, bone and antler tools, fishing points and thousands of non-human bones.


House facts

What: A reconstruction of an early 19th-century Chinook lodge.

Where: The Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Washington, about 45 minutes from Portland via I-5.

When: The plankhouse is free and open to the public on certain days. Visit for a complete schedule.

From 1991-1996, an adjacent site, Cathlapotle Village, was excavated by PSU students under Smith’s leadership. Several plankhouse depressions were identified, the largest measuring 200 by 45 feet. Among the materials identified or removed were fire pits, hearths, caches of stone materials, trade beads, food remains and pieces of metal.

One of the most unique findings was that of extensive cellars under the plankhouses. According to Smith, such structures are typically seen in agricultural communities. The Chinook were not an agricultural community: they were fishers and foragers.

“We found large pits under the floorboards,” Smith said. “This was tremendously significant. They’re the largest storage facilities for a foraging people found anywhere in the world.”

The Chinook tribe played a key role in the excavations, including blessing the worksites before excavations began. The tribe was also deeply involved in the plankhouse’s creation. Tribal members Tony and Fred Johnson are responsible for the art and traditional woodworking seen at the site.

The Corps of Discovery first observed the Cathlapotle site on Nov. 5, 1805, en route to the Pacific Ocean.

In his journal, Meriwether Lewis wrote: “I observed a large village, the front of which occupies nearly 1/4 mile fronting the Channel, and closely connected, I counted 14 houses (Quathlapotle nation) … Seven canoes of Indians came out from this large village to trade with us, they appeared orderly and well-disposed, they accompanied us a few miles and tuned back.”

On their March 29, 1806 return trip, Lewis and Clark actually stopped to visit and trade with the Cathlapotle Chinookans. The Corps then camped a short distance upriver at Wapato Portage, a location named for a water-growing tuber that was a staple of the Chinook diet.

Cathlapotle was one of 19 Chinookan villages encountered by Lewis and Clark on their journeys, and was probably the largest.

The Carty family owned the village site and the adjacent lands for decades. Thanks to the Cartys’ stewardship, the site remained in pristine condition, escaping the ravages of looting and development.

In the 1940s, the site was sold to the Department of Fish and Wildlife and turned into a federal wildlife refuge. A partnership between the department, the Chinook Tribe and Portland State University has since sponsored excavations that have produced a wealth of information about the Chinookan people who lived in the area.

According to Smith, the first systematic professional surveys took place in the 1970s and found traces of early human activity.

The late Chinook poet Ed Nielsen visited the Cathlapotle excavation in 1995, and was inspired to write a poem, which concludes with the lines, “Green tree limbed / shadow summered light / in the digs, ridges / of long extinct fires / soil shadows / layers of debris / we stand in this place / of past living / but life is here again / The Chinookan History is once again / given back to Us!”

The architecture of the plankhouse was based on Lewis and Clark’s observations and on data retrieved from the excavation process.

To enter the plankhouse, visitors must crouch and duck through a round door. The interior seems even larger than it appears from the outside, the center ridgepole reaching 21 feet to the ceiling.

Two huge rectangular fire pits are framed in the structure’s center, the smoke curling upwards to exit through an intricate system of plank vents. Along one of the building’s long sides are rows of bunks, while tiered seating galleries line the opposite wall.

On a recent day at the newly-opened site, volunteers were roasting clams, salmon and wapato, a dish with a slightly sweet taste and a texture much like a potato, and offering tastes of each to visitors. Other volunteers demonstrated the use of Chinookan tools and woodworking. Everywhere, people wandered with rapt expressions at the scope of the building, the craftsmanship and the beautifully carved and painted artwork.