Kids learn best when they can experience something hands-on. When you throw in some fun, they learn it even better. Make a trek to Fort Stevens State Park, just outside of Astoria, and you’ll be able to educate them about local history while camping, bicyling, hiking or partaking in any other of the variety of fun activities available in the area.
We all know about the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But did you know that the only military fort to be fired on since the War of 1812 is right here in Oregon? On June 21, 1942, Fort Stevens was fired upon by a Japanese submarine. But we didn’t fire back. Why? More on that later.
Fort Stevens was built in 1865 to protect the entrance to the Columbia River during the Civil War. Later it was part of the coastal defense system (along with Fort Canby and Fort Columbia on the Washington side of the river) during the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II. It was named after Union Army Major General Isaac Stevens, who was also the first territorial governor of Washington. According to the Oregon State Parks website, Fort Stevens has the “only Civil War-era, earthen fort on the west coast.” That’s pretty special.
The property has been added on to over the years, with gifts from Clatsop County and private donations, among others. At almost 4,300 acres, it is now Fort Stevens State Park and is a popular vacation destination.
A campground is on site and has just about everything you can think of for your style of camping. There are 174 full hookup sites, 302 sites with electric and water, and six tent camping spots. If you don’t have an RV or don’t want to tent camp, there are 15 yurts and 11 beautiful cabins.
Recreational opportunities are also abundant with nine miles of flat, easy biking trails and six miles of hiking trails. There are three lakes for fishing and kayaking. And, whatever you do, don’t miss going to the beach and seeing the wreck of the Peter Iredale. The remnants of the ship have been there since 1906. But you might want to hurry; it has decayed quite a bit over the years.
The Fort Stevens State Park website has a calendar of events listing many wildlife viewing, guided kayaking rides and kids activities, such as the fishing derby.
But even more fun for kids – of all ages – is the old fort itself. Battery Russell’s dark, scary concrete gun batteries and rooms make the perfect setting for a game of Zombie Tag. No matter what time of year or what kind of weather is happening, you’ll see kids running in and out, laughing and screaming with delight.
The military museum and information center provides educational displays covering the long history of the fort. At various times throughout the year, there are fun and fascinating re-creations of military life during the time period, with field camps, military vehicles and other activities. You can also go into Battery Mishler, normally closed off, except for during these special events. And don’t miss the chance to see the cannons shot off. The actors may even pick your child to help load the cannon or even to pull the cord and make it go “BOOM!”
A day use pass is required for Coffenbury Lake and the historic area. You can get a day-use pass at various spots on site, use an Oregon State Parks Annual Pass, a Pacific Coast Passport or, if you are camping, you can use your campsite permit.
Back to that time Fort Stevens was fired upon. Why didn’t we fire back? While it seemed like the perfect opportunity to defend ourselves, the military commanders at the time decided that they would rather not let the Japanese military know that the fortification was there. So they didn’t fire back so as not to give away the secret. The theory was that if the Japanese realized the fort was there, they could destroy it, leaving the mouth of the Columbia open and unguarded. The alternate theory is that the military didn’t want the public to know how easy it was for a submarine to get that close to the mainland. There is still discussion about this today, but we’ll never know how differently the war could have gone if we had fired back. Luckily, however, there were no injuries at all from the shelling.
And today the whole family can enjoy the location, the beauty and the wildlife while also learning about the history of Fort Stevens and how the Pacific Northwest has had an important role in keeping the region safe during many wars. Fort Stevens State Park provides a unique opportunity to combine history with fun. That’s how kids learn and remember and pass it on for generations to come.
Fort Stevens State Park
1675 Peter Iredale Rd.