Fort Clatsop, one of Clatsop County's most cherished landmarks and the focal point of the upcoming Lewis and Clark 200th anniversary, was destroyed by fire late Monday night.
Fire investigators converged at the park this morning to examine the remains of the replica log structure for clues to the start of the fire, which was first reported at 10:30 p.m.
But even as the ruins still smoldered, an exhausted and at times tearful Chip Jenkins, superintendent of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, said a new Fort Clatsop would rise from the ashes to replace the building erected by volunteers 50 years ago.
"Yes, we will rebuild," he said. "Just like the absolutely fabulous people in the community who built the replica."
About 30 firefighters from the Lewis and Clark, Olney-Walluski, Astoria and Warrenton fire departments responded to the blaze. But the person who reported the fire, who called from south Astoria, could not pinpoint the exact location in the darkness and dense fog, and it took fire crews 15 minutes to find the blaze, according to Lewis and Clark Fire Chief Ian O'Connor.
Crews had the fire under control in a little over an hour, but the flames had already destroyed one side of the fort and gutted the other. The flames would have spread quickly and burned especially hot in the log structure, O'Connor said.
Scott Stonum, the park's resource management chief, said "I'm still wondering if I'm awake" as he watched firefighters hose down some remaining hot spots among the ruins.
"A lot of people from the community put their hearts into this and supported Fort Clatsop," he said. "It's a part of the community. I feel for that."
Ron Tyson responded to the fire as chief of the Olney-Walluski Fire and Rescue District, but he knows the park from his 23 years as maintenance supervisor.
"Other than the original builders, no one's got more in that fort than I do," he said.
"You see that chimney? I helped build it," seasonal park ranger Sean Johnson said to some firefighters as they mopped up the fire.
Johnson, whose father, Curt Johnson, was a longtime ranger, has taken part in interpretive programs at the park since he was an infant. "I grew up in this fort," he said.
In the summer, at least one fire is usually kept burning in the fort, usually in the captains' quarters, Johnson said. During special programs, such as the "Wintering Over" first-person interpretive program, more of the fireplaces may be in use. But staff and interpreters are always careful to keep the fires small, he said.
During closing hours, the doors and windows of the fort were always secured with cast-iron bars and padlocks. "Everything should have been locked up tonight," Johnson said.
Jenkins said fires were lit in two of the fort's fireplaces Monday afternoon - just after a countywide burn ban was lifted at noon. The park has protocols in place to ensure that the fires remain small, are burned for only a limited period and are thoroughly extinguished before the fort closes, he said.
The fort was slightly damaged three years ago when a fire in one of the fireplaces caused the adjacent wall to get too hot and burn. Last year, as part of a larger improvement project, all the building's fireplaces and chimneys were rebuilt to add fireproofing next to the log walls.
No other clues about the fire's possible origins were released this morning. O'Connor, who was the first person on the scene, said he saw a dark, full-size pickup driving out of the park as he entered, but doesn't know if the driver was simply checking out the scene.
The park's visitor center remained open today, with free admission, but the area around the fort was put off-limits to allow the investigators to probe the scene. Supporters of Fort Clatsop converged on the park this morning to view the damage and offer condolences to one another.
"It makes me heartsick," said Michael Foster, who served as the fort's first guide in the 1950s and now heads the Fort Clatsop Historical Society. "People worked so hard for so many years to make this a place they could be proud of."
Les McNary, head of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Association, said the five-day commemoration slated for November and all the events included in it will go forward as planned. He said the park and others have already received offers of assistance from a variety of sources, including the Oregon National Guard.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski was scheduled to tour the fort this afternoon with Oregon Sen. Betsy Johnson and National Park Service officials.
The Corps of Discovery spent three months in the rough-hewn fort during their winter stay on the Lower Columbia in 1805-06. The fort fell into decay soon after the explorers' departure and was little more than a pile of rotting logs when the first settlers arrived in Clatsop County.
In the 1950s, the spot was marked only by a tiny, weed-filled public park with a stone marker, flagpole and a few picnic tables when the then-new Junior Chamber of Commerce decided to build a replica of the fort in time for the upcoming 150th Lewis and Clark anniversary in August 1955.
The project attracted support from across the community. Crown Zellerbach timber company donated the wood, local Finnish carpenters cut and shaped the logs, and other groups and individuals lent support to the Jaycees, who assembled the structure just in time for the Sesquicentennial celebration. The National Park Service took over the park in 1958.
Just last year, the park hosted a reunion for the community members who helped build the fort, and in August celebrated the 50th anniversary of the replica's dedication with another gathering for the builders.
"We need to honor the work of those who put the work into this 50 years ago," Jenkins said.
The park will also host all the events it has planned for the Bicentennial, Jenkins said. But while the park is committed to rebuilding the replica fort, it's too early to tell when that might happen, and if it would be attempted to have a new fort ready in time for the Bicentennial, he said.
Late last year, Fort Clatsop became part of the new Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, which encompasses numerous sites on both sides of the Columbia. Jenkins said even if there's no fort at Fort Clatsop for Bicentennial visitors this November, Lewis and Clark fans these days are more aware that the story of the explorers' arrival at the Pacific involves far more than just a little log structure in the woods.
"The replica is a symbol of a larger story," he said. "From my eyes, replica Fort Clatsop has been the sole touchstone for the Lewis and Clark story on the Pacific Coast, but these days people are more sophisticated, and they know that Lewis and Clark did not just hole up in Fort Clatsop for three months."
The burned replica was crafted far more carefully than the rough structure that Lewis and Clark's men likely put together hastily with their crude tools in the rain and gloom in December 1805. With the benefit of new historical information, the park may be able to build a new replica that more closely resembles what the explorers actually built, Jenkins said.