Sunday, February 10, 2013
Save Pearson Air Museum
This week--Pearson Air Museum in Vancouver, Washington was given two days notice that the National Park Service (NPS) intended to take over the museum. The Fort Vancouver National Trust which currently ran the museum and the Pearson volunteers had two days to pack up everything in the museum and move it out. The NPS intended for the contents to remain and to run the museum themselves. Giving only two days notice, they were hoping that they would be able to seize all the exhibits. While the Pearson Air Museum resides on NPS property, the museum was built with funds raised by the Pearson Field Historical Society and was turned over to the Fort Vancouver National Trust to run the museum on behalf of the City of Vancouver several years ago. All the exhibits are property of the Trust or private donors.
This has been an upsetting turn of events for our community and for our family. We got involved with the Pearson Air Museum shortly after we moved here. I remember one of the first events that we attended was when Tom Murphy reenacted the Silas Christofferson flight off the roof of the Multnomah Hotel in 1995. We went down to the old Pearson Air Museum in a small green hangar to witness this historic flight commemorating the 1912 flight in a Curtiss Pusher. The flight kept getting delayed so I took Tom and Chris home and watched on TV. Once the pilot took off from the roof of the building, I rushed to pack the kids back in the minivan to get back to the airport to see him land. Shortly after that, Bill got involved on the Board of the Pearson Field Historical Society and eventually became President of the Board. He was involved in the transition of the museum from the Historical Society to the Trust. One of the reasons being that the NPS was difficult to deal with at that time as well and the thought was that the Trust on behalf of the City would be in a better position to deal with the bureaucracy of the NPS than the Historical Society might have been. Over the years, we have attended many events at the museum--children's day activities, hangar dances, Christmas parties, various charitable fundraising events including Dancing with the Local Stars and Festival of Trees, and a friend's wedding. We even purchased a sleepover at the museum one year and invited Tom's entire 5th grade class. Years later, his friends still remembered what a wonderful experience that was for them.
I love everything located on the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site--including Fort Vancouver which the NPS runs. So this isn't about bashing Fort Vancouver. It is a wonderful place. But the history of that site goes way beyond Fort Vancouver--which was actually located there a relatively short time compared to Pearson Field. Hudson's Bay Company may have been here first (after the Indians of course) but the U.S. Army wasn't far behind arriving in 1849. I love Officer's Row in particular but it is fascinating to see the other old Vancouver Barracks buildings as well. Vancouver Barracks went by a few different names early in its history but it played a central role in protection of settlers arriving on the Oregon Trail and in the Indian Wars of the mid-1800's. Pearson Field's history dates back to 1905 when a dirigible landed on the polo grounds at Vancouver Barracks--making it the longest continuous running airport in the United States. The first airplane landed here in 1911. During WWI, the site was instrumental in spruce production for building planes for the war effort. From 1923-1941, it was the home to the U.S. Army Air Service. In 1937, the famous landing of Valery Chkalov and two other Russian pilots at Pearson after the first non-stop transpolar flight made news around the world and the City of Vancouver still has a close relationship with the Russians and the Chkalov family because of this historic landing in Vancouver. During WWII, it was a staging area for the war and the Kaiser shipyards were producing warships nearby on the Columbia River. The military has continued its presence at Vancouver Barracks until very recently. In the 1990's, the phrase "One Place Across Time" was used to describe this site because of its long history. Fort Vancouver and the NPS's narrow-minded view about the history of the site represents only a small portion of the history here. Being located in a thriving city, it continues to make history.
The National Park Service was re-negotiating its contract with the Trust. It essentially made it impossible for the museum to continue any of the programs and activities that it has worked so hard to put in place. The NPS has recently not allowed certain events to take place at the museum citing that they don't meet the NPS rules. This closure is especially hard on many non-profit groups in Vancouver that hosted their events there at a discounted rate. By allowing organizations to host their fundraisers at the museum, it helped the community as a whole allowing more dollars to go to charitable causes rather than to venue rental. It has forced the museum to remove STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) based educational programs such as its summer aviation camps and Exploring Careers in Aviation program which the museum was in partnership with the Clark County Skills Center. I just read on their Facebook site today, that a Simply Scientific Saturday was scheduled to be held in two weeks. Programs like that were being scheduled all the time. Now they are being canceled. Bill and I attended one of the protests yesterday in our support of the museum. So hard to go there and not be able to go inside and see the airplanes and other exhibits.
My son, 2LT Thomas Roller, also mourns that fact that this place has closed. "I'm very disappointed that the place I learned to love flight has closed its doors for the time being. It is a place I still hold dear to my heart. I hope that the issues surrounding it are resolved before I go home and it can once again reopen.” He is currently learning to fly the T-6 in the Air Force Undergraduate Combat Systems Officer course in Pensacola, FL. His story is just one of many young people that have been touched by the Pearson Air Museum and sparked their interest in aviation and aviation history.
I too hope that it is possible to open the museum again. The museum exhibits must return to their home and be under the control of the Fort Vancouver National Trust and not the NPS. No other location will be the same. If you want to help, there is a new Facebook page devoted to saving the museum. Look for "Save Pearson Air Museum" on Facebook for events and ways that you can help.
Here is just a sampling of some of our more recent memories of Pearson Air Museum. Unfortunately, many of our memories are from prior to owning a digital camera. But I hope you can get a sense of what a special place it was to us through my photos.