Spring buds and spring-break tourists have been greening up the countryside and bank accounts the past several weeks. Even though it was a fairly pleasant and economically active winter, it’s encouraging to see more people on the streets, in stores and visiting our area’s remarkable national and state parks.
A couple weeks ago I visited the Fort Clatsop unit of Lewis and Clark National Park for the first time in probably 20 years. It was a cool day with intermittent drizzle and hail, and yet the visitor center was bustling. A bus-load of school kids from the Willamette Valley arrived as I was leaving. It was fun hearing their excited voices. Thinking back to “ancient days” of watching reruns of Disney’s “Davy Crockett,” I can imagine how fun it would have been to visit a real-looking fort and dash around in the footsteps of America’s most-famous explorers.
As we observed a dozen years ago, the elevation and expansion of Fort Clatsop National Memorial to full-fledged national park status is a gift that will keep giving for many years into the future. Our area’s depth of genuine history coupled with scenery and cultural assets provide us with an irreplaceable head start when it comes to long-term vitality.
There currently are in the vicinity of 300,000 visitors to Fort Clatsop and even more to some of our recreational state parks; Cape Disappointment State Park on the Long Beach Peninsula typically draws more than 1 million annual visits and ranks among Washington state’s leading natural destinations. The same is true of Fort Stevens State Park in Warrenton.
I recently participated in a panel discussion at the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum — itself a remarkable and unexpected institution to find in the small town of Ilwaco. The audience consisted of around 20 current participants in the Peninsula’s robust Community Historian project. The years-long annual series of seminars provides attendees with a grounding in key aspects of local history, as well as some of the skills and tools needed to pursue interests of their own. As personal enrichment, the program instills a sense of belonging within the continuum of time, the latest but not the last of rugged individuals who make homes and have adventures here on the far western edge of North America. In an age when our connections with other people — in both the present and past — can sometimes seem frayed, Community Historians become living transistors that make their communities hum with awareness.
The economic benefits of our history cannot be overstated. Whether it’s Astoria’s wealth of vintage homes and businesses, Gearhart and Seaview’s enviable seashore cottages, or all the sites associated with our region’s First Peoples and tough pioneers, the ways in which our rich past remains constantly tangible translates into visitors and jobs.
At least since the 2004-06 Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, I’ve thought we can do a better job than we do of intelligently using our history to make our towns healthier and more resilient. School students here should receive a thorough grounding and be able to identify landmarks by their Chinook/Clatsop names, for example, and be ready to offer that information to visitors and, eventually, their own kids. We all should know and share this place’s colorful and intriguing stories.
It’s going to be a busy year. Brace yourselves to enjoy and profit from it.