Lining Up History

Local archaeologists try to connect the present to the past

By Rodger Nichols

Archeologist Eric Gleason takes notes in the field while working on a dig near Lake Roosevelt on the upper Columbia River near Kettle Falls. Photo by Jacqui Cheung

The Dalles is rich in history. Since moving to town in 1989, archeologist Eric Gleason and his partner, Jacqui Cheung, have been gathering forgotten information locally and at other sites in the Northwest.

Eric’s latest project involves matching accurate hand-drawn maps of the original Fort Dalles compound to current locations. Such work is not easy or quick, but Eric has 2 essential qualities in a researcher: patience and determination.

The new information may inform future excavations, but it also makes it possible for property owners to know where their homes and other features of their land are in relation to the original fort buildings and grounds.

Eric’s father was in the Navy, and the family moved several times before settling in Oregon. Eric grew up in Boring and went to Sam Barlow High in Gresham before earning a degree in anthropology from Washington State University in 1982.

He has been pursuing the life of a field archaeologist since then. He has worked at North Bonneville, Washington, and most recently on the upper Columbia River on Lake Roosevelt for the Colville Confederated Tribes.

Jacqui has a degree in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley.

Since arriving in The Dalles, the two have bought a fixer-upper house, a fixer-upper building on First Street, and a fixer-upper Stanley Steamer car.

The Surgeon’s Quarters from Fort Dalles now holds the Fort Dalles Museum. It and a garden shed are the only surviving buildings from Fort Dalles. Photo courtesy of the Dalles Chronicle

The building on First Street was once the Wing Hong Hai Co. store operated by Lee Yuen Hong. The store and associated laundry were part of a thriving Chinatown from the 1860s to the early 20th century.

Discoveries in and around the building led Eric and Jacqui to research many historical records, resulting in a 40-minute presentation on The Dalles’ Chinatown.

The presentation is available to view on Portland State University’s Archaeology Roadshow YouTube channel.

Eric explains how he was led to his current project.

“Historic archaeologists are always interested in old maps because they help us figure out where we’re digging and where we want to dig, and the patterns of how land use has changed over time,” he says. “I knew that Fort Dalles Museum had a bunch of historic maps of the fort. I looked at them and thought it would be good if somebody put these all together and tried to place them over the modern street grid. Then we could figure out how the fort was laid out in relationship to how the town is now.”

Eric says he thought someone else would take on the project, but that didn’t happen.

“We’ve been taking photographs of the maps and joining them together,” he says. “There’s a freeware program that allows you to import them into a mapping program. Then I use that mapping program to georeference them all. They’re all kind of on the same scale, and you can layer them, one map on top of the other.”

Eric says the Army had a topographic corps that made maps.

A map of the Military Reservation at Fort Dalles by Lieutenant J. Dixson is georeferenced with the modern street grid, with landmarks in the background. The buildings in yellow are from the Military Reserve map. Image courtesy of Eric Gleason

“I’m surprised by how accurate the maps are sometimes and then sometimes how inaccurate,” he says. “There’s an earlier map that kind of shows the course of Mill Creek pretty well. And then there’s a map done a few years later, which looks like it was mostly a tracing of that earlier map, but somehow they got the course of Mill Creek all off on that one.”

One riddle still to be solved is a longstanding urban legend that says the flagpole on the grounds at Col. Wright School is at the same spot as the flagpole on the fort’s parade ground.

“I haven’t really looked at that question specifically,” Eric says. “I’m not sure any of the maps have the flagpole. There might be one that has the parade ground and maybe a flagpole towards the center that I could kind of see. It will be interesting to look into that more carefully.”

One of the main reasons for doing the study is because the Fort Dalles Museum keeps several historic vehicles, including stagecoaches, in a shed open to the weather on one side. The museum would like to build a weatherproof shelter but needs to determine where the historic buildings were, so construction does not disturb any of those sites.

“We want to provide protection for the collection without disturbing other sites,” Eric says.

Eric Gleason and Jacqui Cheung present an in-depth look at their mapping project during a Regional History Forum on Saturday, February 25, at 1:30 p.m. at the Original Wasco County Courthouse, 410 West Second Place, The Dalles. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.