Parks Have History
Today in Washington you can explore a variety of different military bases that have been turned into state parks or recreational areas. You can easily find a former base outfitted with artillery batteries where guns were clustered together for our state’s defense, or a fort that housed torpedoes and dismantled enemy explosives. Many of these historical relics line the Puget Sound, with a few others dispersed throughout the state. They offer an opportunity to experience the past firsthand, while often showcasing some breathtaking views of the Pacific Northwest. You can camp, hike, boat, swim, fly a kite or sometimes even paraglide. Below are a few fascinating places that make for an excellent day trip.
These are just a few of the places key to Washington’s military history. There are many more to explore and many others which no longer exist. Keep your eyes peeled because some are scattered, with little fanfare, along hiking trails and or marked as monuments throughout our state. Whether it is a monument to battles between the Army and Native Americans in places like Steptoe Battlefield State Park or others like the Puget Sound Naval Museum, there are endless places to explore and learn about our state’s rich military history.
Lewis and Clark
The early military history of Washington state traces back to the early 1800s. Comprised of U.S. Army volunteers, the Corps of Discovery Expedition—better known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition—reached the West Coast in November of 1805.
A few locations in Washington commemorate their expedition. Most notable is the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in southwest Washington, where, through sketches, pictures and more, you can trace their journey westward. The center is next to Cape Disappointment State Park, which housed Fort Canby, built in the mid-1800s during the Civil War.
A military escalation on San Juan Island in 1859 nearly resulted in a war between the United States and England. The Pig War started when an American farmer shot a large pig who was eating from his garden. The Irishman who owned the pig demanded $100 to pay for the animal. The farmer refused. British authorities threatened to arrest the farmer. Troops from both sides were sent to the island, and the dispute, astoundingly, escalated to the deployment of warships and thousands of troops. But not a single shot was fired, and the two nations settled their dispute peaceably.
More than a century later, San Juan Island National Historical Park was created in 1966 to show the world that nations can solve their problems without violence. Spanning San Juan Island, both the American and British camps of the 1859 Pig War are a look back in time and a couple fun places to stop on a day trip to the Island.
July 27–29 is an especially good time to visit. That’s when the National Historical Park Encampment takes place, where Canadians and Americans come together to re-enact mid-19th-century military life. There are blacksmiths, weaving, and sewing, along with a daily black powder musket and howitzer demonstration.
Geographically, Washington—which had yet to achieve state-hood—was the furthest removed from the Civil War, but there were still several forts manned during that time. Some recognizable ones today include Cape Disappointment State Park, Fort Vancouver and Fort Townsend.
Cape Disappointment has the oldest lighthouse in the Pacific Northwest, and during the Civil War housed northern troops for the defense of the Columbia River entrance. Cannons were put in place, and Cape Disappointment continued to grow and be used into the early 1900s. Today you can still explore some of the old bunkers and batteries.
Fort Vancouver, a Hudson Bay Trading Company hub in Vancouver, Wash., was expanded with barracks in 1849 because of the Whitman massacre, when Oregon missionary Marcus Whitman was among 11 killed by Cayuse Native Americans who believed he poisoned 200 Cayuse, triggering war. The barracks remained manned through World War II and wasn’t closed until 2011. The fort has a self-guided tour and often holds cultural events.
Built in the 1856 and deemed unfit in 1859, Fort Townsend on Port Townsend Bay remained closed until 1874 when it resumed operations. The fort stayed active until 1895 when a fire burned down the barracks. Resuming activities during World War II, Fort Townsend was used as an enemy munitions diffusing station. Today, what remains is an old torpedo ware-house utilized during World War II and a self-guided tour along the parks’ trails featuring bits and pieces of history.
WWI and WWII
The Triangle of Fire
Forts Worden, Casey on Whidbey Island and Flagler, on an island near Port Townsend, make up the “Triangle of Fire.” Strategically placed, these three forts were built to safeguard the entrance to Puget Sound.
Fort Worden, in Port Townsend, became the headquarters of Harbor Defense of Puget Sound in 1904. It used to house nearly 1,000 troops and officers and stayed operational through World War II. Worden also had a short-lived balloon program where observation (spy) balloons were housed. The building is one of only two remaining. Worden’s Coast Artillery Museum is home to the history of Puget Sound’s defense. The museum is in one of the original barracks built in 1904.
At Fort Casey, you can explore the fort, bunker, Admiralty Head Lighthouse and catch an amazing view of Mount Rainier. It also houses two giant disappearing guns. At the height of technology in the early 1900s, the 10-inch guns were placed on carriages that would raise up long enough to fire before being lowered down out of view.
Construction on Fort Flagler began in 1897 and it remained active until 1953, the year the Korean War armistice was signed. The fort is named after Brigadier General Daniel Webster Flagler, who served during the Civil and Spanish-American Wars. He was the U.S. Army’s 9th Chief of Ordnance where he managed research, production and shipment arms and artillery across the nation. On Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays you can step into the past and take a guided tour of the fort’s military hospital built in 1905.
Fort Columbia built near the mouth of the Columbia River remains one of the most well-preserved forts in Washington. Built in 1896 and renovated in World War II, there are still three artillery batteries and two coastal artillery guns standing. Free tours of the base are offered Fridays through Sundays in July and August.
A Trip Around The World
Magnuson Park in Seattle is named after Warren Grant “Maggie” Magnuson, a former U.S. senator from Washington state. Before that, the park was Sand Point Naval Air Station. Sand Point was the start and end point of the first circumnavigation of the world by plane in 1924. The trip took 175 days. Today, much of what was an airbase has been replaced with sporting fields and a massive off-leash area for dogs, but an art sculpture in the park, made from old submarine fins, was arranged to look like a pod of orca dorsal fins. The sculpture spans about 500 feet and is a tribute to the history of the Navy in the area. Each fin weighs about 10,000 pounds.
Almost The End Of The War
Fort Ebey in Coupeville has an unforgettable view of the Olympic Mountains and is one of the best locations to watch the sun set. If you’re lucky, you can catch the sight of paragliders taking off from the bluff. Built just before the end of World War II, it was one of the last forts constructed along the Puget Sound. It housed two 6-inch shielded guns in 1943 and a radar station. One of the fort’s antennas was disguised as a water tower. The under-ground bunkers built into the fort are dug into the side of the bluff and are an excellent place to explore, but bring a flashlight.
For those who are adventurous and seeking a unique historical tour, check out Hanford Site’s Reactor B. It is best known for being a part of the Manhattan Project and producing plutonium for the “Fat Man” atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Hanford Site was attacked during World War II by a Japanese fire balloon. The hydrogen-filled balloons held explosives or incendiary devices and were launched from Japan and would follow the jet stream to the U.S. On March 10, 1945, one of these weapons hit power lines supplying energy to Hanford’s reactor, causing a potentially disastrous short circuit to the reactor cooling pumps. But backup power supplied energy soon after. If you go, be sure to make reservations for this tour.
If you enjoyed this article, check out our feature on Military Bases here.