All Over The Map: Twisted history of the Fort Vancouver Centennial Half-Dollar

Aug 6, 2021, 7:01 AM | Updated: 12:00 pm

Historic Fort Vancouver will commemorate its bicentennial less than four years from now in 2025. The fort was originally founded in 1825 by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and later became a U.S. Army base; it’s now a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service.

Back in 1925, the community marked the centennial of the fort’s founding with a series of notable events during August. One thing they did was to produce a big historical pageant written by a Vancouver resident and called, no kidding, “The Coming of the White Man.” Another thing they did was to get the U.S. Mint to produce a commemorative half-dollar coin.

And it was this week back in 1925 – Saturday, Aug. 1, 1925, to be exact – when part of the first batch of those coins was flown up from San Francisco to the airfield at Fort Vancouver.

The pilot was legendary aviator Oakley Kelly, who had recently been put in charge of the airfield at Fort Vancouver. It took about Kelly 10 and a half hours to make the round trip to San Francisco’s old Crissy Field and back. Some accounts say Kelly flew all 50,000 coins to Vancouver, but that would’ve weighed far too much for his World War I-era DH-4 Liberty biplane to handle.

Other accounts say Kelly carried just 500 coins; this is likely correct, since he also took a reporter from the Oregon Journal along for the round-trip ride. They touched down in Eugene, Oregon, each way to refuel.

Design of the Fort Vancouver centennial half-dollar is fairly straightforward. It features John McLoughlin on the front (or the “obverse,” for you fellow coin geeks out there). McLoughlin was the “Chief Factor” in charge of Fort Vancouver for the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1820s and 1830s, and is generally credited with having been a reasonable and helpful guy to anyone who showed up at the fort needing food or supplies. He’s often been called the “Father of Oregon” for his gravitas and many acts of kindness, and he was also known as the “Great White Eagle” because he was well over 6-feet tall, and possessed a head of longish, shiny white hair.

The back of the coin (or “reverse” in coin collector language, which doesn’t sound very nerdy) has an image of the fort with a fur trapper standing in front, and Mount Hood visible in the distance. Words stamped into the reverse say, “FORT VANCOUVER CENTENNIAL/VANCOUVER WASHINGTON/FOUNDED 1825 BY HUDSON’S BAY COMPANY.”

Thanks to an administrative snafu back in the nation’s capitol, the Fort Vancouver coin almost didn’t happen in time. Creating the coin required federal legislation, which was championed by United States Representative Albert Johnson of Washington, who’s regarded nowadays as something of a notorious figure for his sponsorship of the Immigration Act of 1924.

The snafu came when there was confusion in the typing pool and the Fort Vancouver coin was lumped together with a coin marking the “diamond jubilee” (or 75th anniversary) of California statehood. The initial wording of the bill made it sound as if Fort Vancouver was in California and was only 75 years old.

The confusion was cleared up, and the bill was signed by President Calvin Coolidge in February 1925. The U.S. Mint was authorized to make up to 300,000 of the coins, but the first and only batch consisted of just 50,000 coins. The Vancouver Centennial Corporation, which was essentially a nonprofit entity created by community leaders in Clark County and led by Vancouver’s Columbian newspaper publisher Herbert J. Campbell, could apparently purchase the coins from the U.S. Mint at face value. They then sold them in and around Vancouver for a dollar in order to raise money to fund the centennial celebration.

But something wasn’t quite right. Along with that first batch of 50,000 coins being the only batch, about 36,000 of those were later returned by the Centennial Corporation for a refund and were melted down by the U.S. Mint, meaning only about 14,000 of the coins had been distributed. Thus, the Fort Vancouver centennial half-dollar is relatively rare compared to other commemorative coins of that era.

Along with the melted returns, a few other elements of the story are fairly twisted. One is that Charles A. Watts, the secretary of the Centennial Corporation – who was described by some as the main force behind creating the coin –  committed suicide at the centennial festival grounds on the evening of Friday, Aug. 21, 1925, in the midst of the celebration week. Some sources point to financial shortfalls as a contributing factor in Watts’ suicide.

Meanwhile, an order of 1,000 coins was sent to the Hudson’s Bay Company headquarters in Manitoba where they apparently remained untouched until they were stolen by an employee in the early 1980s and spent in and around Winnipeg.

On eBay, Fort Vancouver centennial coins of various condition and provenance sell for around $400 and up. Replicas – and very convincing ones at that – are available for as little as a few dollars each. If you buy, shop carefully and get advice from someone who knows coin collecting.

For the record, other commemorative coins featuring Washington state locations would include the Washington State quarter from 2007 and the Olympic National Park quarter from 2011. You might also count the Oregon Trail half-dollar, which was produced for several years in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Lewis & Clark bicentennial silver dollar of 2004.

It’s believed that many of the Fort Vancouver centennial coins did circulate in the 1920s, so it might be worth carefully checking your coin jar – or grandpa’s closet – to see what you might find.

With just four years to go, the not-for-profit Friends of Fort Vancouver group is beginning to plan for the bicentennial in 2025. As of yet, there’s been no decision about whether or not to create a commemorative coin for this milestone anniversary.

Heads or tails, I don’t need a penny for my thoughts, so here’s my two-cents: I’d say definitely produce a Fort Vancouver bicentennial coin – and don’t take any wooden nickels.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Twisted history of the Fort Vancouver Centennial Half-Dollar