Although not the smallest plankhouse excavated at the Cathlapotle Archaeological Site, at just 37 by 78 feet this plankhouse is modest compared to other structures excavated at the site. While an historic longhouse would have housed up to 200 people, 40-60 people would have lived comfortably in the building.
On March 29, 2005, hundreds of volunteers gathered at the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge to celebrate the opening of the just-completed cedar plankhouse, built near the ancient Chinookan village site of Cathlapotle, known also as Quathlapotle or Cathlapoodle. This lone plankhouse stands in for the hundreds that Chinookan people built in the Wapato Valley, which extended from the westernmost end of the Columbia River Gorge at the Sandy River to the confluence of the Columbia and Cowlitz rivers near Longview, Washington. Lewis and Clark named the valley for the aquatic tuber harvested from its vast wetlands and traded throughout the Columbia River Basin. Cathlapotle, a town of 14 plankhouses and 600-900 people in 1800 CE, was strategically located at the crossroads of the region’s river highways, on a major trade route, and within easy reach of the area’s natural abundance.
To walk from the gravel parking lot of the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge to the contemporary plankhouse is to move through layers of time. A rusty bridge built in 1981 dominates the refuge entrance and arches high over railroad tracks still in use, providing a view of old oak trees and open meadows used for decades as a farmed homestead. Across the bridge, the size and beauty of the plankhouse engulfs the landscape, shifting attention from what were once agricultural fields to the sounds of wetland birds and other protected creatures of the refuge. Stepping through the brightly painted entrance into the plankhouse suggests a much earlier era of indigenous habitation that lasted for hundreds of years. Inside the cool, dark interior the songs of sparrows and herons and the smell of sweet grasses filter in. These sensory experiences are part of revisioning the past – at the plankhouse and in this website – built upon a foundation of historical evidence from archaeology and written accounts, together with the cultural memories preserved and passed down through generations by descendants of Chinookan peoples.
Slideshow taking you over the bridge and inside the plankhouse.