Work on the Station Camp highway re-alignment project came to a stop Tuesday morning following the discovery of human remains.
Workers excavating a trench for utility lines uncovered what appeared to be human bones under the project site, located on U.S. Highway 101 about two miles west of the north end of the Astoria Bridge.
Few details of the discovery have been released so far, but officials from various agencies and the Chinook Indian Nation believe the remains likely belong to a former inhabitant of the large American Indian village that once occupied the site.
"We have to go on the presumption at this point that they are Native American," said Dave Nicandri, executive director of the Washington State Historical Society.
The Washington State Department of Transportation contacted the Pacific County Sheriff's Office following the discovery just after 8 a.m. Tuesday. Two deputies responded, but determined that the remains were not of recent origin and turned the investigation over to the National Park Service and state transportation department.
"It was obvious to me looking at it," that the remains were very old, Chief Deputy Ron Clark said. An archeologist on site also pointed out some clues that pointed to the bones' apparent age, he said.
The bones have been left in place and covered until further investigation can pinpoint their origin. Security personnel have also been called to the site to safeguard the remains.
"Today we just wanted to get everything covered up properly and have the right tribal protocols, stop work at the site and establish security," Chinook Tribal Council Chairman Gary Johnson said Tuesday afternoon.
Johnson and representatives of various Washington agencies were meeting this morning at the project site to plan the next course of action.
"Our principal concern is that we do the right thing in terms of all the necessary procedures and protocols," Nicandri said today, adding that the Washington Historical Preservation Office may also be brought in.
Jim Sayce, project coordinator for the historical society and liaison with the Chinook tribe, said archeologists will likely be called in to further study the remains.
The highway project, which kicked off last week after a lengthy delay, is rerouting a one-third-mile section of the highway away from the riverbank to straighten out a dangerous curve and to make room for a new riverfront park.
The project was delayed last January just before work was slated to begin by the discovery of some charred wooden planks believed to have once been part of a Chinook house. After lengthy discussions between the tribe and state officials, construction was allowed to resume after further archeological studies were conducted.
The site, which was incorporated into the new Lewis and Clark National Historical Park last year, is famous as Lewis and Clark's Station Camp, where the explorers declared their westward journey complete and polled the expedition members on where to spend the winter.
But the area was also once the site of a large Chinook Indian settlement known by the tribe as the "Middle Village." Two thousand or more people may have lived in the seasonal village, where they harvested salmon and, beginning in the late 1700s, traded with American and European fur traders until disease and the influx of settlers decimated their numbers.
The area was also the site of the community of McGowan, which grew up around a salmon cannery established at the site in the 1850s.
"This area is the nexus of some very remarkable history, that's what makes this site so special," Sayce said. "But the history that's easy to overlook is the Chinook history."
The park was designed to commemorate not only Lewis and Clark's story but also the history of the Chinook presence, the fur trade and the salmon industry.
Following the plank house discovery, the Chinook tribe and the historical society established an "inadvertent discovery plan" that spelled out what steps would be taken in the event human remains or other important finds were uncovered during construction of the highway.