The timeless draw of Clark County’s history

COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically shifted travel patterns, but high-tech options are available to help visitors plan future tours

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Courtesy of The Historic Trust

Heritage and hospitality go hand-in-hand in Vancouver and Clark County. With deep historical roots and more than 123 landmarked sites around the county, visitors find plenty of places to learn about local history. Heritage tourism offers connections to these many layers of history and plays a vital economic role in generating income for lodging, restaurants and shops. In addition, local cultural heritage institutions gain admission and program fees and gift shop sales.

Enthusiasm for heritage tourism reaches across generations. High percentages of those traveling for pleasure and business visit historic sites in family groups and as individuals. A 2017 study showed that more than 75% of millennials specifically seek out historic neighborhoods, restaurants and museums during travel. Visitors oriented to heritage opportunities statistically stay longer in a locale and spend more money while there. Those coming to Vancouver find growing links between a revitalizing downtown with an exciting modern waterfront and the 366-acre Vancouver National Historic Reserve, which offers unique opportunities for visitors to learn from and experience the ambiance of the past.

Cliff Myers, president and CEO of Visit Vancouver USA, observes that “Tourism is the backbone of so many aspects of the community … From our delicious restaurants and breweries to local makers and farmers, our area trails and lakes to the sports our children play — tourism plays a role in growing and supporting each one of these … From gatherings on the Columbia River to trading at Fort Vancouver, a lot of history has happened in this place … We see many of our visitors coming specifically to engage with history, and the historic nature of our city will always be part of our appeal.”

Though hard hit at present by the COVID-19 crisis, tourism is the fourth largest industry in the state, and produces impressive statistics in Clark County as well. In 2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Visit Vancouver reported that having the welcome mat out brought $585 million to the county.

The Clark County Historical Museum serves as one of the downtown gateways to community history for visitors. Approximately one-third of the people who come to view exhibits at the historic Carnegie Library headquarters are from out of the area. Museum staff makes a special effort to present exhibits that will help people find connections with other places in the community. As Executive Director Brad Richardson notes: “Assisting tourists is a vital component of our work. When people come to a community, whether as tourists or because they are thinking about moving here, it is natural for them to want to know about its past and how that connects to the present.”

The Historic Trust’s visitor roster mirrors the Museum’s in that approximately 38% of guests are from outside the area. Trust tours of Officers Row and environs, Providence Academy, and Marshall House, and exhibits and public programs such as Vancouver’s Chautauqua draw visitors seeking heritage experiences focused on military and social history, and the inspiring legacy of the Sisters of Providence – as well as those coming for athletic events, civic celebrations, and patriotic observances.

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is one of the Vancouver/Portland metro area’s most visited places. The park’s vibrant educational tours, programs, heritage garden, Pearson Air Museum, and living history demonstrations attract well over 1,000,000 visitors a year, of which more than 50% are from outside the area. The Visitor Center is often the first place that tourists go when they arrive in town, and NPS staff and the volunteer Friends of Fort Vancouver provide a warm and knowledgeable welcome. Mary Rose, executive director of the Friends finds that “While we live in exciting times with a changing heritage — that is not unusual to this Site. Families have lived here for centuries — welcoming travelers and newcomers from afar. In the nineteenth century Native Americans, British, French Canadians…Hawaiians, Scots and American military families all greeted settlers from the Oregon Trail and those who had voyaged around the Horn.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically shifted travel patterns and will continue to do so in unpredictable ways. Fortunately, high-tech options are available to help visitors plan future tours. The free Clark County Historical Sites mobile app created by the Clark County Historic Preservation Commission helps tourists and locals alike connect with heritage locales. It is downloadable through Apple Store and Google Play. The Clark County Historical Museum provides a self-guided Vancouver downtown and environs walking tour at Historic Routes. The tour, which works on iOS and Android, is downloadable for free at the Apple Store and Google Store.

Despite the challenges of the present time, staff and volunteers of local heritage sites look forward to welcoming visitors again, to inspire all with their historic spaces and stories and foster community connectivity and economic growth.

Holly Chamberlain is director of preservation at the Historic Trust. She can be reached at