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!”