Cathlapotle Plankhouse Project

The Plankhouse


wapato Plankhouse Homepage

What is the Cathlapotle Plankhouse Project? It's a unique and exciting project to interpret the natural and cultural heritage conserved on Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Washington through the construction of a full-scale Chinookan-style cedar plankhouse with associated accoutrements that will evoke for visitors a tangible link to those who lived here in the past.

Beginning in 2003, the commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition's Bicentennial will propel hundreds of thousands of visitors into Clark County in search of historical sites and experiences related to the Corps of Discovery. Ridgefield NWR is on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and hosts three significant sites associated with the Expedition, making it a prime attraction for tourists as well as local students and residents. A crucial component of the commemoration that must not be overlooked is the story of the people who were living in the area when the explorers arrived. Through its unique combination of habitat and history, the Refuge offers an ideal opportunity to educate visitors about the local culture and the environment.

There is currently no site in Clark County or the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area open to the public on a regular basis that interprets the culture of this area's original inhabitants prior to Euroamerican contact. The proposed reproduction of a cedar plankhouse will become a living history classroom where visitors will be able to experiment with traditional skills, learn about native plants and animals, and catch a glimpse of what life may have been like for those who lived in settlements like Cathlapotle and Wapato Portage. The Chinookans were master woodworkers and the plankhouse will honor the legacy of traditional craftsmanship.

This Page

wapato Project Status

wapato Countdown to Completion

Additional Information

wapato Plankhouse Location (pdf)

wapato Project Summary (pdf)

wapato Log List (pdf)


Project Status

Since the early 1990s, archaeologists have been studying the site of Cathlapotle, recovering information about several of the fourteen cedar plankhouses Lewis and Clark recorded and visited on March 29, 1806.

Archaeological sites are fragile resources that can be easily damaged by looting, flooding, development, and even the footsteps of well-meaning visitors. By situating the plankhouse on a part of the Refuge removed from the cultural resources and accessible to the public, the project was conceived as a way to both protect the archaeological resources and to share the wealth of information the site has revealed about the daily lives of the Cathlapotle people.

Though the idea of undertaking such a feat of traditional technology has been dear to the hearts of the archaeologists for many years, it was the appearance of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial on the horizon that provided the impetus for action.

Spring/Summer 2002: A group of FWS staff, archaeologists, tribal members and community partners began meeting to discuss the feasibility, cost, and potential location of the plankhouse. The project was identified as one of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Committee of Vancouver/ Clark County's Legacy Projects, and fundraising efforts were initiated under LCBCVCC's auspices.

Fall 2002: Initial grant funding enabled us to secure the services of Cedar Tree Architects, a Seattle firm which has worked with numerous Northwest tribes to build community structures based on traditional materials and designs. Architect Art Petersen incorporated archaeological and ethnographic data as well as input from the tribe and FWS accessibility/safety personnel. This will ensure a structure that is not only culturally authentic but also is safe and long lasting. The conceptual plans were unveiled during the Kick-Off Event at the Refuge in September.

Winter 2003: Partners' fundraising efforts continued. A series of hands-on workshops was initiated. There are two main goals behind these workshops: 1) to develop an inventory of the tools and building materials necessary to construct the plankhouse, and 2) to provide the community with hands-on experiences in a broad range of topics which introduce them to the rich cultural heritage of the area. Click here to find out about upcoming workshops.

Spring 2003 to Fall 2003: The plankhouse foundation was prepared during Summer 2003. Throughout the summer, volunteers sought out donations of at least 115 cedar trees of various dimensions and lengths. Those logs destined to become planks will be split, using both traditional and modern methods, by volunteers during regular work parties. Some logs will be set aside as structural elements to be carved in the Chinookan style. The first post was raised at the plankhouse site during a ceremony on November 1, 2003. Regularly scheduled work parties began in Fall 2003, and continue to the present (see below).

Winter 2004 and Spring 2004: At regularly scheduled Sunday work parties, volunteers continued to prepare eave posts, ridge and eave beams, and wall planks in anticipation of getting out to the construction site in late summer.


Countdown to Completion

Summer to Fall 2004: Work parties and traditional skills workshops contine. Click here to see the work party schedule. Currently, volunteer efforts are focusing on critical woodworking activities such as cutting, planing, and finishing house posts and splitting wall planks.

In addition to woodworking, other items that will be used to furnish and construct the house will be produced and stockpiled -- cordage, cattail mats, stone tools, wooden benches, baskets, etc.. Workshops will be presented by skilled traditional craftspeople who will guide volunteers in learning the necessary skills.

It is anticipated that Fall 2004 will be spent in the actual construction of the building, and it is hoped that it will be complete by March 29, 2005, the 199th anniversary of the day Lewis and Clark stopped to visit and trade with the Cathlapotle People.