Researchers find new evidence of Indian houseA significant archeological find at the site of the Lewis and Clark encampment at Station Camp in Washington has thrown a roadblock in front of the highway re-alignment and park project planned for the site.
Researchers conducting archeological surveys of the site near U.S. Highway 101, two miles west of the north end of the Astoria Bridge last week, uncovered the remains of wooden planks and other artifacts believed to be from a Chinook Indian house.
The find prompted the Chinook Tribe to request that the highway project, due to begin Monday, be postponed until more is learned about the site.
The postponement has likely pushed the start of the highway project back at least to June. That in turn will probably mean that the new public park planned for the site will not be built this year.
Jilayne Jordan, spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Transportation, said the agency is waiting for word from the National Park Service before a decision is made about whether to proceed with the project as planned, delay it, re-design it or even cancel it altogether.
"It is safe to say that construction will be delayed," she said.
Crews were scheduled to begin work Monday to shift a short stretch of the highway to the north. The project is designed to eliminate a sharp curve and to provide space for the new waterfront park under development by the Washington State Historical Society.
The archeological work was commissioned by WSDOT and the National Park Service to look for significant artifacts along the new highway route behind St. Mary's Catholic Church before construction began.
The tribe is waiting to meet with state and federal officials and hear more information from the archeologists before taking a position on the fate of the highway project, said Chinook Tribal Council Chairman Gary Johnson. Federal rules covering the protection of historic sites will likely come into play, and under them the tribe "has a significant say in what is done," he said, but the tribe's exact role has yet to be determined.
"Certainly we are not in favor of the destruction of a very important village site," he said.
At a minimum, the new find means that the start of the highway project will likely be pushed back at least until summer, because of construction restrictions in place from March to June designed to protect migrating salmon.
That won't leave enough time to complete the Station Camp park project by November in time for the local commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.
"The immediate upshot is, the park cannot be ready for the Bicentennial," said Dave Nicandri, president of the Washington State Historical Society, which is heading the park project. "That seems ordained."
The Society is planning construction of a waterfront park on the land made available once the highway is re-aligned. The park, due to become part of the new Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks, is designed to not only commemorate the Corps of Discovery's arrival at the Pacific Ocean but also tell the story of the Chinook tribe's presence and the history of the community of McGowan that occupied the site.
"The tribe expressed concern, and that was reason enough to call a time-out," Nicandri said. "We are doing what seems necessary and prudent with a finding of some magnitude."
The park was scheduled to be dedicated as part of the Bicentennial events, and host a re-enactment of the explorers' historic vote on where to spend the winter Nov. 24, the 200th anniversary of the event.
"Obviously we are just going to have to be flexible," said Cyndi Mudge, executive director of "Destination: The Pacific." The group hopes to host some commemoration of the vote even if the park project doesn't go forward as planned, she said.
If the site is put off-limits, WSDOT could try to re-engineer the project to leave the highway closer to its original route while shaving off some of the curve, although that would impact the park project, Jordan said. The highway cannot be built without extensive excavation that would likely destroy any remaining artifacts, she said.
But if the highway project is canceled, the archeological work will be too, since both are funded from the same source, Jordan said.
The Chinook lived in seasonal villages around the mouth of the Columbia River and Willapa Bay, and the Station Camp site is believed to be the largest - Lewis and Clark noted 36 plankhouses when they arrived at the location in November 1805. The inhabitants of the village fished and traded with American and European fur traders.
Since the archeological work began last fall, researchers have been uncovering artifacts linked to the Chinook presence, including trade goods, arrowheads and hundreds of fire-cracked rocks likely used in cooking fires, as well as stains in the soil that pointed to cooking fires and post-holes.
But this recent discovery is the first apparent sign of an actual home site, the researchers say. And while the charred planks, about 10 inches wide, are visible as little more than darkened stains in the sandy soil, they are good evidence of a Chinook-built plank house, especially since other signs, including rocks used in cooking fires, fish bones, arrowheads, flakes and trade goods, were also found in the immediate vicinity, according to Bob Cromwell, an archeologist from Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
"We're pretty sure it's a Chinook site," he said.
The archeological work, which was set to wrap up Friday, will be extended at least through the weekend and possibly beyond. The researchers hope to determine if the planks were part of a wall or roof and determine where the house actually stood.
Claire Dean, an archeologist who worked on the restoration of the Astoria Column in the 1990s, worked Tuesday to apply a cast to a portion of a plank that she hoped would allow the piece to be removed intact and taken for analysis at a laboratory. Very little remains of the planks, which appear to be less than a half-centimeter in thickness, she said.
"There isn't much left," she said. "It's remarkable they've survived at all - the soil is very shallow, and a lot of water comes in and out of here with the tidal flows."
The planks were found under the foundation of a 19th-century barn, where they were protected from disturbance for more than a century.
Brian Harrison called the find "spectacular." Harrison, an archeologist from Astoria, conducted test digs at the site two years ago that laid the groundwork for the current round of excavations.
"It's amazing to see this show up," he said.
Chip Jenkins, superintendent of the Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks, said he's not overly concerned whether the Station Camp park is finished in time for the Bicentennial.
"We're in this for a legacy," he said. "It's more important that the project be done right than it be done fast."