Shipley On Fort Lawton

May 26th, 2010 @ 12:04 am by Cliffe | Sorted Miscellaneous |
It’s been a few months since we had Shipley on…. anything — but I’m very glad to report that he’s back. This time around it’s Shipley (blog here) on Fort Lawton. Take it away, Jonathan:
Major General Henry Ware Lawton was shot. It was December 19, 1899 in the Philippines. The General was at a forward position, directing American soldiers at the Battle of San Mateo. Also known as the Battle of Paye, during the Philippine-American War, it was Lawton and his troops versus 200 Filipino riflemen under General Licerio Geronimo. Lawton was heading the 1st Division and was a well-respected soldier. He had fought in the Civil War as a Union soldier. He led a force, during the Indian Wards, to capture the illustrious Geronimo, the famed Apache chief. He fought in Cuba during the Spanish American War and was now, at the twilight of the 19th century, in the midst of action in the Philippines, quelling Filipino insurgents. He died on the battle field (the highest ranking American commander to die in the conflict), felled by a sniper’s bullet. His body was returned home and he was interred in Arlington National Cemetery. Months later, in February 1900, War Department General Orders Number 20 named a post high on the bluffs of Seattle’s Magnolia District, Fort Lawton. The fort, 110 years old now, rema ins in his honor.

Ten years before Lawton’s death, Seattle’s economy was struggling. Many of the towns in the area were depressed and city leaders thought a military post might bolster the economy. At the very least, the military would help curb the lawlessness, vagabonds, miscreants and undesirable elements of the burgeoning city. Seattle was competing with Tacoma for the post. Tacoma sought fortifications at Point Defiance. Seattle sought Magnolia. They were to build a coastal defense against the Spanish Navy. Brigadier General Elwell Otis was the one who made the decision, choosing Seattle. It was growing more quickly then Tacoma and the fort would be a good defense for the nearby Naval shipyards in Bremerton. A bill was introduced to the Senate. It passed. The Secretary of War gave 704 acres for its construction.

Surveys were made. Materials were purchased. In June 1898 construction began. Before long, barracks were built, captain’s quarters, quarters for lieutenants and Noncommissioned officers. Bachelor Officer’s Quarters were built, as was a warehouse for the Quartermaster. Wood-framed buildings, the Army took possession of the first completed units the month Lawton fell dead.

In the hot of July, 1901, the first troops arrived. Seattle welcomed 1st Lieutenant Mervyn Buckey and the 32nd Coast Artillery Corps, Company C. The 106th came soon after to man the coast. No coastal weapons, however, were ever installed. The fort remained an infantry post until 1921.

The fort did little for the economy, even less in regards to coastal defense. There were scant buildings and only a few hundred soldiers at the fort at any given time. And still no coastal weapons. During WWI, the troops provided guard duty at the Port of Seattle, little else. During the 1920s and 30s, the Civilian Conservation Corps moved in. They worked on Seattle’s city parks.

During WWII, an inventory of the buildings was done and it was discovered there hadn’t been much change or growth since its original inception. Permanent structures included a rifle range, nine houses, eight barracks, a hospital, stables, headquarters and a handful of temporary structures. Th war, however, brought soldiers. Lots of them. A hive of activity, Fort Lawton became a Port of Embarkation. They processed 793,000 soldiers for embarkation. They processed 618,000 returnees. They shipped 5,000 Italian detainees to Hawaii and the fort became a prisoner-of-war camp for 1,100 German POWs. The port closed as an embarkation station on October 1, 1949.

As Tacoma’s Fort Lewis continued to grow in size and importance, Fort Lawton dwindled. The Korean Conflict gave the fort some activity but slowly the fort lost its military might as buildings became neglected and soldiers were assigned elsewhere. During the 1960s there was the inklings of turning the fort into a park. And so it was. In October 1970 President Richard Nixon signed “the Fort Lawton bill,” opening the way for a park to take over the area.

Discovery Park was born in 1973, 74 years after Lawton died on a battlefield thousands of miles away.
Discovery Park Opening Day Dedication by Senator Jackson, Mayor Brahman, and Mayor Uhlman. October 28, 1973. Image courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives.

3 Responses to “Shipley On Fort Lawton”

  1. Marty Dawg says:

    Ft Lawton was also the headquarters for coordinating the Coast Artillery installations at Forts Casey, Flagler, Worden, and Ward, as well as batteries west of Pt Angeles near Joyce, and on Goat Island, near La Conner. German POWs were also held at Lawton, easily evidenced by the grave of Feldwebel Albert Marquardt in the post cemetery. Ft Lawton’s Italian POW camp was more famous(or infamous) for the death of an Italian POW, which lead to the subsequent courts martial dozens of Black GI’s, and the conviction of 23 of them.

  2. Wow, “defense against the Spanish navy”. What a strange idea, seeing buildings that were built with the idea of the might of Spain in mind. Despite that embarassing business in the English Channel, the Spanish navy was an imposing force for centuries. It seems a little goofy now…Magnolia? The Spanish navy? Really?

    Marty Dawg, reader Louis, who was born at Fort Lawton, has fleshed out the story you mention of the slain Italian POW and the trial in a recent post here:

  3. Louis says:

    Yes, immediately after I was born, they said, “Ok, that´s it! No more! Close it up!”

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