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Insider: Fortunate Fire Volume 59 Number 1, January/February 2006

Last October, Oregon's Fort Clatsop, one of the National Park Service's most-beloved reconstructions, burned to the ground just a month before Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebrations were scheduled to begin at the site. A sad event, to be sure, but the incident has unexpectedly given archaeologists their first chance in 50 years to excavate what might be one of the most important sites of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Fort Clatsop, near the Columbia River about five miles south of present-day Astoria, was the 1805 winter encampment of the 33-member Corps of Discovery. "It's the first physical presence of the U.S. on the Pacific coast," says Stephen Beckham, a historian at Lewis and Clark College. "The fort went on to become critical to the U.S. claims on the region."

Occupied for only a little more than three months, the original fort was probably burned in the 1850s to make way for a pioneer's garden. In 1955, the local community built a replica of Fort Clatsop (named after a local tribe) to celebrate the expedition's 150th anniversary. The 50-by-50-foot wooden stockade was reconstructed on the site of the original fort based on the accounts of early homesteaders who recalled the fort before it was burned.

A federal arson investigation found that the reconstructed Fort Clatsop was the victim of an accidental fire started by a stray ember from a working hearth. The investigators may be forgiven for momentarily considering archaeologists as suspects. Though some excavation was performed at the site of the encampment in the 1950s, the destruction of the replica has now given National Park Service archaeologist Doug Wilson a chance to properly excavate the site using modern methods, including remote sensing. His crew has already pinpointed about 20 percent of the site not disturbed by the concrete foundation of the reconstructed fort, including several deep pits filled with charcoal, the possible remains of holes dug for the fort's stockade. "We turned this tragedy into a real opportunity," says Wilson.

"Whether we'll find any definitive architecture remains to be seen, and there won't be many artifacts," he says. "The expedition probably tried to hold on to everything they possibly could for their trip back across the continent. But we know they were eating a lot of elk, so hopefully we'll find some remains of the meals. Also, we know they dug privies. Finding those would be great." Any architectural finds could be helpful to historians in charge of the planned second reconstruction of the fort.

"At a minimum, it will look rougher," says Chip Jenkins, superintendent of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. "The guys who built the fort 50 years ago, some of them were finish carpenters. They wanted everything to fit well, everything done exactly right. In 1805, all the expedition wanted was to stop living under rotting elk hide [tents]. So they had a real incentive to build something quickly."

A new and improved (if more rustic-looking) fort should be open by summer. The replica will showcase any archaeological discoveries and should give visitors a better sense of how the Corps of Discovery lived in the winter of 1805. It will also include a fire-detection system.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America