Fort Worden History

Fort Worden: Rebirth Through Decay History

Fort Worden and other seacoast defense fortifications seem imperative when the time period and strategic location of Puget Sound is taken into account. In the mid-1800’s most military conquests were carried out by vessels. Ports were the first places of attack. Protection for major ports was prudent and downright militarily obvious, however military leaders failed to seriously pursue any type of permanent defense. The strife and frustration felt by the commanders charged with protecting the coastline continued for decades before their pleas for seacoast fortifications were realized.

“Pugitt’s Sound…of the highest military importance to the United States”

The first American mutterings of Puget Sound’s military importance came as early as 1837, 61 years after the birth of America and 52 years prior to the state of Washington being admitted into the Union. Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville, the namesake of the Bonneville Dam and the Bonneville Salt Flats, took a leave of absence in 1831 from the Army to survey the Rockies for military purposes, as well as to pursue his dream of fur trading. In an 1837 report, Bonneville wrote “If the United States claim…at least as far as 49 degrees of north latitude, running due west from Lake of the Woods on the above parallel we shall take in ‘Pugitt’s Sound.’ In a military point of view, it is of the highest importance to the United States.” Puget Sound’s military value was officially known.

Bonneville’s enthusiasm didn’t do much to excite the military brass. Between 1849 and 1867 a commission appointed by President Polk, a board of engineers and a Brigadier General with a legendary and international reputation for the development of seacoast defense fortifications examined the coastline from San Diego up to Puget Sound for the construction of coastal defense fortifications. All three explorations either evaluated or named Port Townsend and the Strait of Juan de Fuca in their reports, but all three were either overlooked, or the importance of their findings met with little interest. The board of engineers made the most impact on the issue, as evidenced by President Andrew Johnson’s executive order. On September 22, 1866, he set aside twenty military reservations in the Puget Sound area, including 502 acres at Point Wilson, the Northeastern-most tip of Port Townsend. All this work was seemingly for naught, as in 1875 harbor defense appropriations were eliminated.

The tide began to turn in 1885 when President Grover Cleveland, directed by Congress, appointed a special board headed by the Secretary of War William C. Endicott to study coastal defenses. The years following the Civil War saw a great evolution in naval and military technology. Modernizations increased the urgency and need of a defense along the coastline. The Endicott Board came to recommend a massive seacoast defense system that was projected to cost $126 million dollars and cover 26 locations. Puget Sound was omitted, being regarded as insignificant.

All hope seemed lost for the 502 acres on Point Wilson until the completion of the Navy Yard, Puget Sound at Port Orchard, Bremerton, Washington in 1896. During this era the Navy Yard was extremely important and sensitive to the military- immediate fortification was needed.

Military engineers scoured 1500 miles of coastline along Puget Sound, and once they reached Admiralty Inlet, their interest was piqued. To reach Bremerton from the Pacific Ocean, as well as the large ports of Seattle and Tacoma, vessels must pass between Point Wilson and Admiralty Head. Admiralty Inlet is also the first point where the channel is completely within U.S. territorial waters. Point Wilson was determined to be an excellent harbor possessing superior anchorage and strategic location and, along with the previously mentioned reservation by Executive order, became the perfect location for fortification.

The birth of the Triangle of Fire

Point Wilson and its strategic qualities were not alone in the engineer’s decision to recommend a seacoast defense near Port Townsend. Fort Worden, named after John Lorimer Worden, Commander of the ironclad battleship Monitor during the Civil War and later awarded the rank of Rear Admiral (see page D-1), was originally conceived as one point in the “Triangle of Fire”. The combination of Fort Worden on the tip of Quimper Peninsula, Fort Casey directly adjacent across Admiralty Bay to the East on Whidbey Island, and Fort Flagler to the South on Marrowstone Island made it theoretically impossible for intruders to reach the Sound by way of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The proposed Fort Worden’s strategic location cannot be overlooked. From on top of (soon-to-be-named) Artillery Hill observers had a 270-degree view and could track nautical travel through the Strait of San Juan de Fuca and Admiralty Inlet, as well as see 31 miles northwest to Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Batteries atop the hill would be able to defend the coast against large battleships, while batteries positioned on the beach could pick off smaller boats as well as guard against enemy landings. Port Townsend offered entertainment to off-duty soldiers, and the port city of Seattle was a relatively short distance away. It seemed the acreage at Point Wilson had everything.

All-in-all, the Chief of Engineers recommended five 12-inch guns, eighteen 10-inch guns, eight 8-inch guns, 96 12” mortars, and three 4.72-inch quick fire guns to fully defend Puget Sound. This recommendation was submitted on June 27, 1895, and was calculated to cost $2,451,735. To give some context, in 1895 one pound of bacon cost eleven cents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A year later, June of 1896, the Secretary of War was authorized by Congress to fortify the three points for the protection of Puget Sound.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were responsible for the construction of the seacoast defense systems, which included concrete gun emplacements with underground magazines and concrete and earth parapets that were designed to blend into the natural environment. The batteries built around this time became known as Endicott-period batteries, and were considered state-of-the-art technology. The guns installed weighed up to 243 tons (including the complete gun, carriage and breach block) and could fire projectiles twice as heavy and three times as far as their pre-Civil War counterparts. Disappearing guns could be raised over the walls for firing, then lowered out of sight by the force of the blast.

Construction on Fort Worden was delayed to July 1887, three months prior to Rear Admiral John Lorimer Worden’s death. The delay was due to the private ownership of the land and required the government to pursue condemnation proceedings in order to clear the title. Once the red tape was cut, logging began. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers erected a wharf for the deluge of materials to be received at Point Wilson. In addition to the 502 acres, additional titles were acquired between 1897 and 1902, adding 317 acres to the Fort Worden campus at an additional cost of $18,787.30.

Worden Takes Shape

On September 9, 1898, the Clan McPherson docked at the engineer’s wharf on Point Wilson, ending its long journey from Antwerp, Belgium. It carried 1,060 barrels of Portland cement for Fort Worden, along with 2,000 barrels for Fort Casey and 5,850 for Fort Flagler. Each barrel weighed 400 pounds. Sand was taken from the beach at Point Wilson and washed with freshwater to remove the salt; gravel was collected by steam shovels from nearby pits and screened to ensure quality. To combine these ingredients, a concrete mixing plant was constructed atop Artillery Hill (see page D-4), and was linked to the engineer’s wharf by a winched inclined tramway (see page D-2). The screening of the gravel, washing of the sand, and the finest Portland cement ensured the highest quality concrete possible. The total amount of cement is unclear, but estimates are that Fort Worden used thousands to tens of thousands of barrels of unmixed cement.

If Fort Worden utilized 8,000 barrels of cement, which is a realistic amount, the total amount of concrete used can be roughly estimated. A 94 lb bag of cement contains one cubic foot of bulk material, and following the recommended ingredient amounts for a ¾” maximum coarse aggregate as stated by the Portland Cement Association of 1 part Portland cement, 2.5 parts sand, 2.5 parts aggregate and 0.5 parts water, 4.3 cubic feet of concrete is produced. 8,000 barrels each weighing 400 lbs apiece equals 3,200,000 lbs of cement. This would equal roughly 146,380 cubic feet of concrete used at Fort Worden.

Construction was business-as-usual until February 16, 1898, when the USS Maine was destroyed and sunk in Havana Harbor.  Following the disaster, efforts on the seacoast fortifications were rapidly increased. The Puget Sound Naval Shipyard needed protection from the Spanish Fleet.

Excavation and construction of the concrete batteries, minus installation of the artillery pieces, took 200 men nearly three years. The characteristically wet weather of Northern Washington turned the grassy knolls, hill and parade grounds of Fort Worden into fields of mud, greatly slowing progress. The batteries were painstakingly constructed; concrete was laid in continuous pours to assure proper curing, to prevent settling and to increase battery strength. The battery’s underground storage magazines were fortified to be waterproof as well as bombproof.

March of 1900 marked the end of battery construction and the beginning of armament installation. The following month a barge arrived at Fort Worden carrying sixteen artillery pieces shipped from the armory in Columbus, Ohio by way of Tacoma. In order to transport the large artillery pieces from the dock to the bluff at the base of Artillery Hill, a special heavy-duty tramway was constructed. A group of specialists arrived from the East coast and mounted the guns at their assigned positions. After two years of preparations molding the landscape and erecting the batteries, the artillery pieces were ready for test-firing in March of 1901.

Boots on the Ground

On May 3, 1902, 87 soldiers from the 126th Coast Artillery Company disembarked the SS Majestic, stepping onto the engineer’s wharf at Point Wilson. Fort Worden was now officially activated. The 126th were specialists in coast defense artillery, and were considered one of the most technologically advanced units in the American armed services. Barracks had not yet been completed and the soldiers were quartered in tents at the top of Artillery Hill. While the twenty three permanent buildings underwent construction, the artillery company performed drills and test-fired the most technologically advanced pieces of artillery of the time. Worden was the last fort in the Triangle of Fire to be built, and in 1903 a communications system was installed to connect forts Flagler, Casey and Worden by cable.

Along with the construction of the permanent buildings in the summer of 1903, a power house was built to supply electricity to the fort at a cost of $60,000. However, Fort Worden was quite dark at night until 1907 when lights were finally installed. To heat the buildings, hot water and steam was utilized. Potable water was brought into Port Townsend in a pipe made of wooden staves from Snow Creek, a river 20 miles southwest of Port Townsend. It entered the impounding system in town, then flowed off to the Fort’s reservoirs.

Fort Worden was much more than just a military fort; it was a planned living community designed to be aesthetically pleasing and conducive to a healthy, well-balanced life for all those stationed. The Fort possessed streets and sidewalks as well as underground utilities and by 1929, streetlights. Officer’s houses and other buildings were designed by the U.S. Army Quartermaster Department and reflected early 20th century style, a mixture of Late Victorian and Edwardian style and furnishings: grand wrap-around porches, sleek wooden floors, pressed tin ceilings, ornate furniture, among other things. For recreation, Fort Worden had facilities for volleyball, tennis, baseball, softball, handball, badminton, choir and fishing, a theatre and a two-lane bowling alley and a nine-hole golf course located on the edge of the parade grounds. The military tried everything to ensure that troop life at Fort Worden was anything but vapid and boring.

Fort Flagler was the first Puget Sound fort to be activated and was the original headquarters of the Puget Sound Harbor Defense. In 1904 these responsibilities were transferred to Fort Worden, and by fall of 1905 work on the main batteries was completed (Batteries Ash, Brannon, Powell, Quarles, Randol and Vicars). Fort Worden was fully staffed with four Coast Artillery Companies. The Harbor Defense System, costing nearly $7.5 million, was complete and operational.

Between 1905 and 1910 Batteries Benson, Kinzie, Putnam, Quarles, Stoddard, and Tolles were completed, giving Fort Worden 41 total artillery pieces: two 5-inch pedestal guns, two 10-inch disappearing guns, two 12-inch disappearing guns, two 12-inch barbette guns, four 3-inch pedestal guns, five 10-inch barbette guns, eight 6-inch disappearing guns and sixteen 12-inch mortars. Along with the weaponry, Fort Worden had barracks, administration buildings, officers’ quarters, a guard house, a hospital, kitchen and mess halls, a signal station, and bakery. All-in-all, military technicians spent ten years at Fort Worden before they moved on to their next assignment, from 1898-1907. By 1911, 600 troops came to enjoy the hard work the technicians had put in.

The Great War

The onset of World War I increased soldier traffic to Fort Worden, as it was used as a training ground prior to soldiers being sent to Europe. New buildings and barracks were constructed throughout the war to house this personnel influx; a few thousand soldiers had made their way to Fort Worden for artillery training. America’s involvement in 1917 demanded artillery and 16 of Worden’s 41 artillery pieces were shipped to battlefields across Europe.

At the onset of the Great War, the U.S. War Department ordered the Harbor Defense Command to build seven regiments to be sent to France to fight under General John J. Pershing. Two of the units, the 48th and 49th Artillery Regiments, were made up of 1400 noncommissioned officers and enlisted men from Forts Worden, Flagler and Casey, as well as other posts in the North Pacific Coast Artillery District.

The command trained the units in the firing of 8” guns, and before long the troops set sail for war. The Artillery Regiments arrived in Brest, France on October 15, 1918. Following Brest, they traveled up the western coastline to LeHavre, when Armistice was reached. After the cease-fire the 48th and 49th boarded a train headed south to Pauillac where they were reviewed by Pershing. On March 1st, 1919, the regiment embarked for America. Fighting had evaded them.

Following the war the Puget Sound Defense network was greatly reduced. A WWI high of 4500 troops for all Puget Sound gun batteries was reduced to 50 officers and 884 enlisted men. The 102 Puget Sound guns now numbered 66. While they shrunk, Puget Sound’s defenses were not eliminated. Command functions became centralized at Fort Worden.

A Shift of Strategy

The development of balloons and aircraft came to represent the majority of Puget Sound’s seacoast defense, greatly diminishing the importance of the Coast Artillery. May 11, 1920, the 24th Balloon Company arrived at Fort Worden and carried out test flights, parachute jumps from heights of 7000 ft, and took on missions of observing the strait for long-range targets, measuring atmospheric conditions at 2000ft and photographing the surrounding forts for terrain analysis. The test results were deemed by military brass to characterize the area as appropriate for additional balloon companies, and in May of 1921 a balloon hangar was built at Fort Worden, symbolizing the shift in seacoast defense strategy. The balloon company’s stay was brief as it was soon discovered that wind conditions were not conducive to balloon flight.

Coastal defense strategy may have evolved following WWI, sending activity away from the Puget Sound region, but European political revolutions sent trickles of life back to the area. 1920 was a very tumultuous year for peace loving nations: the Russia Red Army defeated anti-Bolshevik forces confirming the country’s status as communist, Italy was trending towards the rule of Mussolini and his Fascist party, and the Kaiser was recently ousted in Germany and political unrest was rampant, creating a vacuum and fertile political landscape for Nazism. Due to this unrest, in January of 1920 General John J. Pershing arrived at Fort Worden to examine the all-but abandoned batteries, and by March the War Department increased Washington National Guard personnel numbers. It was anticipated that the forts of Puget Sound would be at full strength by the end of the year.

Major General Frank W. Coe, Chief of the Coast Artillery made his way to Fort Worden later in 1920 to inspect the armaments. His conclusions were that the harbor defense required strengthening, as naval technology had significantly evolved in the 20 or so years since the Fort’s founding. A prime example was Japan’s battle cruiser Nagato, which boasted massive 16” guns. At his order, 2000 tons of gun carriages were shipped from Forts Worden and Casey to Seattle to be sold as scrap metal.

None of Europe’s political drama of the early 1920’s seemed to affect the United States or its Pacific coastline, and by 1921 Forts Casey and Flagler, as well as Whitman and Ward were placed on caretaker status. Fort Worden remained active, and in 1922 it was selected as one of three National Guard training camps for guardsmen from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.


Fort Worden remained in a holding pattern throughout the next decade and a half, serving mainly as a training facility. As WWII swept over Europe, the military brass of the United States maintained their neutral status. The only reflection of possible uneasiness was the manning in 1940 of the three largest batteries as well as the mortar batteries at Fort Worden: Benson, Kinzie, Tolles, Brannan and Powell.

The morning of December 7, 1941, propelled America into war and the defense of the Western coastline became a priority. The Western Defense Command closed off the Pacific Coast, anxious for possible naval or air attacks from axis powers. Watchtowers, searchlights and barbed-wire barricades were constructed on the beaches, observation posts manned for aerial intelligence, machine gun pits and fox holes were dug, and patrols organized for beach and land defenses. Construction began on temporary buildings to house the influx of soldiers brought to Fort Worden for training. Anti-Motor-Torpedo-Boat defenses utilizing 90mm and 37mm guns were installed at the fort as well as Hudson Point, the location of the present-day Port Townsend Marina.

Directly following the attack on Pearl Harbor the U.S. Navy was charged with the installation of underwater surveillance facilities as well as the identification of any vessels present in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. These new responsibilities led to the creation of the joint Harbor Entrance Control Post (HECP) and Harbor Defense Command Post (HDPC) at Fort Worden, which was manned 24 hours a day. These water operations were a concerted effort between the Army and Navy, the former manning the HDPC while the latter manned the HECP. Present at the facility was a Canadian major on full-time assignment, his American counterpart stationed at the Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt on Vancouver Island. A partnership with Canada stipulated by an agreement in December 1941 included Victoria and Esquimalt in the protective zone, and friendly ships were guaranteed protection in the Olympic Peninsula as well as the harbors of Victoria. The two nations shared submarine cable communication across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and both were prepared to engage any hostile ships.

The war became all too real as night set in on June 21, 1942. The information is best conveyed in a memorandum written by General James H. Cunningham:

…an enemy submarine, staying 2,000 yards beyond the maximum range of any seacoast armament, shelled the Harbor Defenses of Columbia River during the night. Nine rounds of 5-inch caliber were fired between 1120-1140 p.m. Although most of the projectiles landed south of Ft. Stevens, one projectile fell 300 yards in front of Battery Russell and another within 40 yards of a concrete pill box on the south boundary of the coast. There were no casualties in this, the only bombardment since 1812 by hostile craft of a fortification in continental United States. The submarine remained out of range and fire was not returned.

The Japanese submarine attack on the United States mainland, 200 miles south of Fort Worden, along with the Japanese’s invasion of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands that same month prompted the U.S. military to place an even higher priority on the seacoast defenses. Batteries and buildings were quickly camouflaged, dummy batteries set up in abandoned emplacements, drab, inconspicuous paint covered buildings, and natural concealment techniques were employed. The troop numbers stationed at Fort Worden increased drastically. Nearly 4,500 troops were stationed at Fort Worden in 1943, a stark contrast from the 600 men who called the fort home in 1940.

America was prepared, but following the attack on Fort Stevens fighting became concentrated in the European and Asian Pacific theaters. The threat of a Pacific Northwest invasion had mostly passed. Fort Worden continued to train and house troops destined for battle overseas.

On April 30, 1945, the Battle of Berlin forced Adolf Hitler to end his life, and eight days later Victory in Europe Day was declared. The war had finally ended.

The end of WWII also marked the end of major military activity at Fort Worden, the pieces of artillery being removed in 1946. The only uptick of activity came in September of 1950, when a battalion of 400 arrived to begin training in response to North Korea’s attack on their southern neighbor. Worden’s Coast Artillery units were disbanded, the batteries dismantled, and the fort was relegated to an administrative unit until June 30, 1953, when the Harbor Defense Command was deactivated. War Department Order Number 52 came over the line on June 22, 1955: Fort Worden, under command of the general of the Sixth army, was decommissioned. After 53 years of operation, the fort perched on Point Wilson was officially closed. An angry shot was never fired.


In 1957, the Fort was granted new life as a treatment center for troubled youth. Fort Worden Juvenile Diagnostic and Treatment Center provided schooling, vocational training and counseling to juvenile delinquents. Also in 1957, the Army installed the Seattle Nike Missile Defense System atop Battery Benson, but was abandoned in 1961 due to similar radars in Birch and Neah Bay. In 1969 Worden moved further away from its original identity as the last military personnel, a skeleton crew of U.S. Navy Reservists, moved on to other posts.

When the diagnostic center closed in 1971, the Fort was left empty. Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission acquired the unused land and, in 1973, opened a park and conference center that remains open today. Only the Fort Worden cemetery, under the jurisdiction of the Fort Lewis Mortuary Officer, remains in military hands.

In 1982, the Academy Award winning movie “An Officer and a Gentleman”, starring Richard Gere, was filmed nearly entirely on location at Fort Worden.

Today Fort Worden is visited by over a million tourists annually and is the second most-visited state park in Washington. It is listed as a Historic District by the National Historic Register, as well as a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Not only is it a recreational paradise for hiker, joggers, mountain bikers and RV’ers; it functions as a conference center and is the home of Copper Canyon Press, an independent poetry publisher, as well as the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. A youth hostel run by Hosteling USA is also found in Fort Worden, as well as the Puget Sound Coastal Artillery Museum. The latter possesses a limited yet dedicated number of volunteers who keep the batteries of Fort Worden clean and keep Artillery Hill mowed and pruned to reflect the days when the Fort was fully functional.



     “Commanding Officer’s Quarters Tour.” Commanding Officer’s Quarters. Jefferson Country Historical Society. Web. 25 July 2011.

Gregory, V.J. Keepers at the Gate. Port Townsend: Port Townsend, 1976. Print.

McClary, Daryl C. Triangle of Fire – The Harbor Defenses of Puget Sound (1897-1953). Rep. no. 7524. History Link, 11 Nov. 2005. Web. 28 May 2011.

The Puget Sound Coast Artillery Museum at Fort Worden State Park. Fort Worden Guide II. Port Townsend: SOS Printing, 2010. Print.


Peter St. George © 2011-2016

10 thoughts on “Fort Worden History

  1. As a History buff I enjoyed the article. I have one question though. Under the heading THE GREAT WAR, in the 3rd paragraph, how can the Artillery Regiments arrive in France in October 1918 and then embark for America on March 1st, 1918?

    Shouldn’t “March 1st, 1918” be changed to read “March 1st, 1919?

  2. I was stationed at
    fort worden wa 1951 1952. A nice clean post with a view of the sound . People were very
    nice to the service men. The Legion Post gave us Guest member Cards. I still Have mine
    after 60 years.

  3. April 30 ’45 was V.E. Day…the war in the Pacific, which was much more pertinent for this fort, went on until the official surrender was signed on Sept. 2, 1945

  4. Hi!
    I want to thank you for even mentioning the part of Fort Worden’s history of the juvenile delinquent center. Both my parents worked there from when it opened until it closed. Our family lived on the grounds the whole time in one of the little houses there. A group of the kids who lived there with their working parents had (such as myself) had the greatest play yards. A few of us call ourselves “the Fort Worden Brats”. roundWhen the center closed, it was devastating to my family. For being rated third in the nation for turning troubled kids around, it was a sad day.

  5. Why was the finding of the old train never mentioned? If I recall the trian was found down by the beach and is still on the grounds of the park, I still remember hitting the iron wheel with my shovel as we found it on its side.

  6. Is there anyone I could send a copy of a picture of the 485th Co., C.A.C., Fort Worden, Wash. June27,1922…. R.G. Gosney

  7. My uncle from Seattle was one of the first to join in 1917 and trained at Ft Worden. An order came down to go overseas and the Commander intercepted it and changed the unit called by one digit or so and they stayed there until another order came down but, as noted, they did not arrive until the end of the war. Pete

  8. I grew up spending my summers living with my grandparents at the top of the hill on ft worden. I am looking for any information about my grandparents being caretakers of the old barracks around 1965. Such good memories…mary

  9. I do not remember very much about the war years. I do remember going into the Japanese submarine that a clever ship’s captain lured into getting stuck in a sandbar (when the tide went out there was the sub, stuck. The crew surrendered and Dad put them in the stockade at Ft. Warden. I remember the parachute that came down and Mom grabbed Robbie and me just as the incendiary it was delivering burst into flame. I remember all the ladies grabbing the children and rushing into the bomb shelter (but it was a group of US aircraft off course and passing over Warden). My High School history teacher said he guarded wooden guns during the war, I told dad and he invited their family to supper…. My teacher was in the same room with guards for the real gun placements and all the way to 1958 he was not aware the some of his associates were actually guarding real guns! (Guys with security responsibility were responsible in those days for sure!)

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