There have been over a hundred Christmas celebrations at Fort Worden since its commissioning in 1902. Two that come to mind this holiday season took place in 1917 and 1918. One hundred years ago, our country had been at war for eight months (Congress declared war on Germany April 6, 1917) and by late December the fort was in the midst of a dramatic transformation from a bastion of defense for Puget Sound to an embarkation point for young recruits on their way to Europe.
Recruits were arriving at a pace beyond the post’s capacity to accommodate. The Leader’s daily edition of December 20th reported that no sooner had a contractor announced that his crew had completed a 32-building construction project than the Army offered a contract to build 42 more. In the meantime troops were stationed in tents on Artillery Hill behind the huge gun emplacements. Housing wasn’t the only shortage. Two days after Christmas 490 troops from Iowa arrived wearing “cits” (civilian clothes). The Leader reporting that “owing to a scarcity of uniforms the new arrivals looked somewhat out of place in comparison to the nattily clothed men who had been at the post for weeks or months past.”
Cramped quarters and soldiers in civilian clothes aside, the Leader’s Christmas Eve edition reported that “Christmas was fittingly observed” at the fort that day. A decorated tree was placed in front of 8th Company barracks and the 6th Army Band entertained the soldiers, officers, and their families. The festivities culminated with the delivery of Red Cross packages to all the artillerymen.
The upheaval of 1917 brought significant change to Fort Worden and Christmas that year for many was likely their first away from home. As the troops celebrated, it’s also likely they thought of their ultimate destination and what the year ahead would bring. The Christmas celebration in the coming year would be like no other.
A month after the War ended with the Armistice of November 11, 1918, Fort Worden was being overrun with troops returning from the war, all of them expecting to be home by Christmas. The Leader’s December 24th edition reported a record breaking number of discharges for the day releasing almost five hundred boys back to civilian life. Unfortunately, many of them could not find transportation up sound owing to the shortage of Seattle bound passenger ferries. No longer in the Army, the men filed into town looking for a place to stay. For those still in the ranks at the fort all the companies provided an elaborate dinner. The barracks were festively decorated and the menu was a big change from regular Army fare.
The Christmas’ of 1917 and 1918 for the troops could not have been more different. One was a celebration muted by the foreboding road ahead and the other was filled with the joy of coming home. The fort itself was changed forever. No longer bristling with big guns, many of them removed and shipped to European battlegrounds during the war, the post was transformed into a training station. A hundred years later, the holiday season celebrations continue at the fort in the peaceful surroundings of the park.
When word reached Fort Worden and the town that Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii had been attacked by Japan and that a state of war existed, it was a much different reaction than when the country went to war a short twenty-four years earlier. The surprise attack in the Pacific put this world war much closer to home than the previous one. In 1917, when the U.S. went to war in Europe, the fort and community felt time and distance were on their side. In 1941, there was a strong sense the enemy was already inside the nation’s defensive perimeter.
“There is a good chance Bremerton will be attacked tonight,” declared Brigadier General James H. Cunningham, harbor defenses commander. He was speaking the night after the Pearl Harbor bombing to civil defense volunteers at the fire hall (now the Jefferson County Art & History Museum).
The grim message from the Fort’s commanding officer galvanized the town to action. A community wide blackout was immediately put into place and rigidly enforced. All military personnel were confined to the post, Fort Worden pulled back from the community and went on high alert closing public access and restricting all outbound communications. This included the fort’s weekly publication, the “Salvo,” issuing its last edition on December 19, 1941.
Interestingly, the hard separation between the fort and town came just as the community was preparing to dedicate the new USO Building at the corner of Water and Monroe streets (now the American Legion, Marvin Shields Memorial Post 26). Later in the war, the USO Hall would be a popular dance hangout for troops and townies. In the meantime, the fort expanded its on-site recreational services. Interviewed in 2004, Russell C. Weber of Sequim, a Fort Worden WWII veteran, reminisced, “When we first moved here, we were in pyramid tents at the south end of the parade ground right next to the bowling alley. We had a good time listening to the pins crash while we were trying to sleep.”
Just up from the bowling alley was the newly constructed PX (Post Exchange). Half the 100 foot by 40 foot building housed the PX, restaurant, and soda fountain, and the other half served as the general store. The soda fountain boasted of an eighty foot long “L” shaped counter that could seat 38 patrons. A hobby shop and library were also added and staffed to provide the increasing number of new arrivals with off duty activities available within the confines of the fort.
It would be six months before the initiative in the Pacific would shift from Japan to the U.S., reducing the fear of attack and allowing a relaxation of restrictions between the fort and the town. Today, Fort Worden is again a vital and accessible part of the Port Townsend and Jefferson County communities. Through the mission of the Public Development Authority (PDA), the fort continues to expand its welcome to nonprofit organizations, arts programs, campers, and visitors from around the country and the world. As a concrete and symbolic gesture of its welcoming and expansive nature, Fort Worden remains the only Washington State Park offering vehicle access to parking on the Fort’s campus without a Discover Pass, compliments of the PDA.
Located on Madrona Hill in Fort Worden, the brick tower resembling a rook from a giant chess set has a long and storied past. The story starts in 1883, when John B. Alexander who was rector of St. Paul Episcopal Church (corner of Tyler and Jefferson), purchased land on a bluff overlooking Point Wilson from Mary Fowler for $250, payable in gold. According to legend, he built the home for his Scottish bride to be, and in a style reminiscent of their native country.
The story continues that Alexander returned to Scotland to fetch his fiancé only to find that she had married another. Returning to Port Townsend, he resigned from the ministry in 1884, and accepted the position as her majesty’s (Queen Victoria) British Vice-Consul in Tacoma. He continued to live in his castle home which served as his consular residence until 1892, when he placed the property in the care of Oscar Klockers and moved permanently to Tacoma.
Alexander’s departure from Port Townsend was felt in the social circles as well as the business community. James G. McCurdy, banker and local historian who had business dealings with Alexander, described him as “a physically large man, a charming bachelor, and a social lion at afternoon teas.” McCurdy goes on to note he was a natty dresser with, “a heavy jet-black mustache. He acquired the popular nickname of “The Jack of Clubs” because of the huge cane he invariably carried and his unusual physique and manner of dress.”
Leaving his castle in the care of Klockers, who lived on Jefferson Street (the house still stands), the three story structure served as a rental property. The upper floor with its parapet-roof held a large water tank and the basement a deep cistern for the collection of rain water. Unfortunately, no record of who the tenants were has been found because the late great local historian James Hermanson, wrote. “It was during this time the only known tragedy took place. A man who had been living there drowned when he fell into the cistern in the building.”
The Castle changed hands again in 1894, when local banker Colonel Henry Landes acquired the title and held it until it was sold to the U.S. government for the fort construction project. After the buildings and barracks went up all around the castle, McCurdy mused, “…before there was any parade ground, or officers’ row, or cluster of barracks, or guns on the hill, the Castle dominated this locality. Now the other buildings have deprived the Castle of the solitary dignity it had earlier.”
In 1908, Alexander was bequeathed a legacy requiring his return to England to serve as guardian to his orphaned niece. He remained there until his passing in 1930 at King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England (Captain George Vancouver’s birthplace).
During the time the Castle was Army property it served as the original Post Exchange (PX) and later the Post’s tailor shop. Joseph Bruzas, a Russian immigrant, operated the shop until the fort’s decommissioning 1953. The Fort Worden newspaper, the “Salvo,” noted in its May 9, 1941, edition, once the British Consul residence, now “….in the east-wing room where Mr. Bruzas sews chevrons and measures waists, there is little indication today that here the fastidious Reverend Alexander used to wax his mustache and adjust his Norfolk jacket, but weathered and deglamorized, the Castle carries on in its humbler role amid the bustle of the modern Harbor Defenses of the great Puget Sound.”
No longer the humble little workshop, the Castle now provides overnight guests with comfortable surroundings, amazing views, and a sense of history that enlightens the experience of staying at Fort Worden.
Following World War I, Fort Worden, like the rest of the nation’s military installations, experienced a rapid and extensive draw down of troops. By 1926, the fort was officially placed in caretaker status with fewer than 400 officers and enlisted personnel stationed on site. The big guns that were brought down from Artillery Hill when the United States entered the war in 1918, and shipped to the Front did not return. Although there were still some operational disappearing gun batteries and mortar parks remaining on Artillery Hill, the mission of the fort had changed. Advancements in aviation and naval warship ordnance technology made the country’s late-19th century coastal fortifications obsolete. It was clear to the Army that the defense of Puget Sound’s harbors, cities, and shipyards was not going to be well served by cannons alone. In 1920, the Army, in its search for a more modern role for Fort Worden, assigned the 24th Battery Balloon Company to the post and began building a balloon hangar. The high winds proved too difficult to launch and retrieve the observation balloon, so the 24th Company was reassigned, but since the hangar was already under construction, the project continued, although the building was never used to house an observation balloon.
There was a glimmer of hope for new life at the fort when visiting officer, Lieutenant Arthur Easterbrook, son of Army Chaplain Colonel Edmund Easterbrook (see April, 2018 article), announced the possibility of new arrivals. According to the January 8, 1920 Leader edition, Easterbrook heard that…” the 91st Aerial Squadron, composed of 24 sea and land planes plus 300 officers and mechanics would be assigned duty on Puget Sound this summer.” The planes and crews never arrived and a few weeks later the fort’s regiment was stunned by the news that fourteen of its sergeants received orders to report to Camp Lewis in Tacoma to serve as instructors. Losing such a significant number of NCO’s (non-commissioned officers), considered the heart and soul of the regiment further enhanced the rumors that the fort had no future.
Later that same month, in an effort to boost morale, Army chief of staff, and revered leader of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) General John Pershing, made a quick up sound trip from Seattle to inspect Fort Worden’s remaining troops. The general, along with an entourage of 70 officers and staff, arrived at the fort dock aboard the steamer “Kitsap II,” and motorcaded up the hill to the Parade Ground to review a provisional battalion of troops made up from the three forts Worden, Flagler, and Casey. The community was invited to attend but were required to congregate on the embankment in front of the houses on Officers Row. The Leader reported, when the General noticed the children encroaching onto the lawn and O Row Street (now named Pershing Avenue) to get a better look, “…the general waved his hand, graciously inviting the youngsters to cross the sacred ground provided by military regulations.” Following a quick lunch at the Officers Mess, the General of the Armies returned down sound on the 3pm sailing.
The decade following World War I, left Fort Worden, as one visitor observed, “devoid of spectacular features.” Today, managed by the Fort Worden Public Development Authority in cooperation with the park’s sixteen partners, Fort Worden is a thriving recreational and educational conference center offering a myriad of “spectacular features” in housing, camping, meals, and entertainment.
Soldiers and their families stationed at Fort Worden during the Great Depression of the 1930’s fared better than many. The economic collapse that left 15 million Americans out of work impacted the military as well. Like many of the military installations in the country, Fort Worden was reduced to caretaker status. For soldiers still on active duty, the daily routine was a mix of Army ritual including close order drill, marching, and hours of “chalk board” gunnery training. Active firing of the guns for target practice was expensive and therefore infrequently scheduled. Like civilian families, it was necessary for Army families to find ways to supplement their income and make do with what was on hand.
What Fort Worden had on hand was flat land with good soil. Mrs. Marguerite McIlroy Douglas, the daughter of Warrant Officer Fred W. McIlroy, recalled the family garden they kept when they were stationed at the fort. In 1934, her father was assigned as Quartermaster and moved into a duplex on NCO (Noncommissioned Officer) Row. In her interview, she states, ‘…all the families had gardens. When you left the house, you would go to the gardens up by the mule stables. My dad had a wonderful garden…I’m sure it was an economical thing…in the basement, there was a large area lined with shelves and my mother canned everything imaginable. She also sold the fish that she and dad would catch. They would get up at two in the morning and go down and put their little boat in the water and fish for a couple of hours.” Interestingly, her father would return to Fort Worden nearly twenty years later as a Lieutenant Colonel, and serve as the post’s last Commanding Officer with its closure in 1953.
The fort’s land also had recreational purposes. For a brief time, the parade ground served as the post’s golf course. Several Leader articles from the 1930’s give front page, above the fold, coverage to golf tournaments between the city and fort golf teams. The March 20, 1930, Leader edition reported the post’s recreation officer, Lieutenant Reuter, was inviting all municipal players to come and acquaint themselves with the course. The lieutenant boasted, “The sand greens are better than ever before…new tees have been built and the course is in fine shape for the match.” The exact whereabouts of the course is still being researched. According to 95 year old local resident Jack Caldwell, who spent his boyhood summers playing with the NCO Row kids at the fort, there were three oil and sand greens used for putting surfaces and six tees to make up the 18-hole course. He recalls one green located by the baseball backstop at the northeast corner of the parade ground, another at the southeast corner across the street from the Commanding Officer’s house, and the third where the Rhododendron garden is today. With the parade ground 400 yards in length and 160 yards wide, the layout was likely considered a pitch and putt course.
Although the course is gone, fort land for recreational purposes remains. In addition to the parade ground ballfields and tennis courts, the dedicated lawn games area along NCO Row offers croquet, bocce ball, horseshoes, and crowd gathering petanque tournaments. No longer in caretaker status, today Fort Worden offers year round recreational and educational opportunities for all.
On a sunny Tuesday morning 80 years ago on the 30th of May, troops from Battery G, and the fort’s regimental band mustered in front of the Fort Worden movie theater in preparation for the annual Memorial Day service. The detail, comprising nearly 200 soldiers, stepped off precisely at 11:25am and marched west down the road (now named Eisenhower Avenue) toward the post cemetery. Tucked away in the southwest corner of the fort, encompassing a little over an acre, the hallowed ground initially served as the final resting place for veterans of the Civil War and Spanish American War. According to the June 1, 1939 Leader, Captain Louis T. Vickers, of the 14th Coast Artillery, and Chaplain F. B. Bonner, lead the solemn ceremony with speeches and prayer concluding with the national salute of 21 guns in remembrance of the fallen. In the early days of the fort, the memorial services were for the garrison alone. Later, locals were invited onto the post to take part in the annual remembrance ceremony.
Officially, Memorial Day is only a 50 year old Federal holiday, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Traditionally, the day of remembrance began a hundred years earlier when Civil War General John Logan used his influence as the head of the newly established Civil War Union veterans’ national organization, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), to honor those lost during the war. Logan issued an order to the membership that May 30, 1868, as the day “for strewing with flowers the graves of comrades who died in the defense of their country…and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
The public response was overwhelming but many of the burial sites were rudimentary plots situated on the former battlefields scattered throughout the South. Following the Civil War, the government had the difficult task of reinterring the remains of over 300,000 soldiers from the shallow battlefield graves to newly created formal military cemeteries on Army posts throughout the country. Fort Worden’s was established in June, 1902, and when the fort was decommissioned in 1953, the cemetery remained under the purview of the Army.
Today, managed by Tacoma’s Army and Air Force Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), the cemetery is one of the few located outside a military installation, meaning a gate access request is not required to visit the grave sites. Currently, the cemetery holds the graves of 442 military personnel, and civilians, as well as two unknown veterans. The cemetery remains open for inurnments only.
Since its designation as a Federal holiday, Memorial Day is now observed on the last Monday in May, this year it’s May 27th. Although the soldiers are gone, the American Legion Marvin Shields Memorial Post #26, continues the annual tradition of paying homage to those veterans who have passed on. The Legion has organized a wreath laying ceremony for the all local cemeteries starting with Fort Worden at 10am. The public is invited to join the procession and is welcome to meet at the Reveille Café in the Commons prior to the 10am observances.
Eighty years ago, weddings in Port Townsend had to come to grips with new Army regulations. Fort Worden had come out of its twenty year slumber that followed WWI, and the post was returning to life. Anti-aircraft guns were replacing the big guns on Artillery Hill and new recruits, both regular Army and National Guard, were filling the new barracks and houses as fast as they could be built.
In 1939, Port Townsend’s population was just under 4,700 citizens. By the time the United States entered WWII in December, 1941, the ranks of Fort Worden had greatly expanded and would reach over 4,000 officers and troops before war’s end.
The young soldiers came from all over the nation to live and train in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. However, it didn’t take them long to realize that due to the large ratio of men to women it was going to be challenging to meet and, hopefully, court a local woman.
Washington State, in an attempt to dampen soldier and civilian ardor, quickly passed a law requiring all marriage license applicants to wait three days before issuance of the license. Known as the “gin marriage” law, the Leader cracked wise about the new regulation. In its July 6, 1939, edition the paper poked fun at justices of the peace, Messrs. Vose and Meeker. When interviewed, both complained of the loss of revenue they were enduring because the wait period took away the opportunity of performing an on-the-spot marriage ceremony. “Gosh it’s tough,” complained Justice Meeker. “….I’ve been paid as high as $5 for performing a nice little marriage – but that’s all gone now.”
Fort Worden echoed the Leader’s news and sentiment. The Fort’s scribe, J.W. Hulbert, submitted an article to the Leader announcing, per War Department regulations, “….Dan Cupid is going to have tougher sledding…a general tightening up of policy which tends to discourage the marriage of enlisted personnel in the lower ranks.” He gamely attempts to justify the logic of the action by noting; “…it is expected that the efficiency of the Army will be martially benefitted eventually by this change in policy.”
It would be difficult to measure what affects, if any, the marriage boom had on the military’s prowess during the war, but there’s no question the marriages of that time continue to have a significant impact on our community today. The Leader recorded forty-three marriage licenses issued in 1939. The applicants are a “who’s who” of Port Townsend, with family names like Arey, Minish, Kjellin, and Younce, still familiar in town today.
Although soldiers no longer queue at the courthouse seeking marriage license applications, Fort Worden has become the premier location for weddings and special occasion events on the Olympic Peninsula. The fort currently hosts over twenty weddings a year, including an intimate experience aptly named, “Elopements at the Fort!”
Fort Worden’s balloon hanger began as a boondoggle and wound up a windfall. Following World War I, it was evident to Army brass that Puget Sound’s “Triangle of Fire,” was no longer the imposing technological marvel it was touted to be. During the Great War, the development of balloons and aircraft greatly diminished the role of artillery as a seacoast defensive strategy.
In his fine art photography volume, “Fort Worden: Rebirth through Decay,” photographer and author Peter St. George records the arrival of the 24th Balloon Company on May 11, 1920. He notes the troops, ‘….carried out test flights and parachute jumps from 7,000 feet and took on missions measuring atmospheric conditions and photographing surrounding forts for terrain analysis.” Tests results were encouraging. Additional balloon companies were assigned to the fort and a balloon hanger was completed a year later.
Evidently no one bothered to stick a wet finger in the air and test for wind. Soon after the completion of the hanger, it was discovered “that wind conditions were not conducive to balloon flight.” In the 98 years since its construction, the hanger has housed Rhododendron Festival floats, and served as the fort’s search light maintenance center, a playground for the soldiers’ kids, and a stage set for the motion picture “An Officer and a Gentleman.” It was even shot at.
In an interview, Mr. Lee Metcalf, who served in the 248th Coast Artillery at Fort Worden in 1939 and 1940, described how walking guard post could sometimes be both hazardous and embarrassing. Changing of the guard took place at the Guard House (now Taps at the Guardhouse) across the street from the balloon hanger. Mr. Metcalf recounted that during the change, “…those who had .45 caliber pistols would stand on the front porch, point them toward the hanger and unload. Apparently a lot of them didn’t know how to unload properly and they would squeeze one off, and it would bang off the hanger. It was a big laugh and there were a lot of dings in that building.”
By World War II, the hanger’s most popular purpose was to serve as a music hall for the big dance bands that epitomized the 1940’s. In addition to the fort’s own, and very popular 248th Coast Artillery Band, many of the nationally known big name bands performed in the hanger.
A pinnacle performance took place in the summer of ‘41, when Ray Noble and his band came to the fort. The August 14, 1941, Leader reported, “The greatest name band ever to visit Port Townsend thrilled 1,500 soldiers and a large crowd of civilians.” Over 2,000 people filled the old hanger to enjoy Noble’s hit songs including, “The Very Thought of You,” and Good Night Sweetheart.”
The balloon hanger that never was continues to host great entertainers. Now known as McCurdy Pavilion and Littlefield Green, the performance venue is Centrum’s home for many of its annual music events, and coming soon Seattle Theater Group’s summer extravaganza “THING!”