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Bookmonger: Book sets sights on Puget Sound’s WWII fortifications

In this undated photo, a coast defense battery crew goes through training at Fort Casey, located across Admiralty Inlet from Port Townsend.
In this undated photo, a coast defense battery crew goes through training at Fort Casey, located across Admiralty Inlet from Port Townsend. COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

I spent some time at Fort Worden earlier this summer, and while there I marveled at the creative but respectful repurposing of historic buildings at the site.

The actual fortifications — massive concrete installations that at one time housed the coast artillery and formed part of Puget Sound’s “Triangle of Fire” — have been disarmed and left as “curious derelicts” to explore as part of the Washington State Parks system.

Now “Battle Ready,” a new book from WSU Press, tells the story of Fort Worden and the other military sites that made Puget Sound one of the United States’ most heavily guarded waterways at the turn of the last century.

David Hansen, who once served as Historic Preservation Officer for Washington State and whose specialty is military architecture, presents this extensively researched but accessible history of the development of our state’s seacoast defense system between 1885 and 1924.

In scrutinizing the development of Forts Worden, Casey, Flagler, Ward and Whitman, Hansen discusses the national context for this defensive array as well as the state and local activism that helped bring it to Puget Sound.

The author illuminates how, once the need for fortifying the region was agreed upon, the fortification systems had to change as methods of warfare evolved. The Army Corps of Engineers had to scramble to solve ever-changing design requirements as naval warship capabilities improved.

Meanwhile, those who were overseeing the actual construction of the forts had to contend with various challenges: the weather and rugged terrain, delays in delivery of supplies, and a labor pool that was averse to the backbreaking work and low pay, untrained in (or indifferent to) the proper operation of the construction equipment, and easily distracted by the promise of gold in the Far North.

Nonetheless, these complex and ingeniously engineered installations did get built, and although they never were significantly challenged by an invading force, they remained as a deterrent throughout a quarter of a century.

Hansen’s presentation, designed for a general audience, is interesting and thorough.

The generous 10½” by 9” dimensions of the book allow for good viewing of nearly four dozen historical photographs. Detailed images of the construction process capture horse-drawn carts, locomotives atop narrow-gauge railways, and veritable beehives of worker activity. Later photographs show men performing maintenance, at work in plotting rooms, and loading and firing ammunition.

For all of the photos and official records Hansen had access to, he laments that not many personal accounts of the time remain – writings that might provide more insight into daily life at the forts, and more context for how activities at the forts here fit into the larger picture of the history of the army and of military fortification.

While we can appreciate this careful scholar’s frustration, we also should celebrate that we have “Battle Ready” to help us understand more fully the monumental effort that went into the construction of these forts, and that most of these sites have been preserved as parks that we can still explore.

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