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New book chronicles history of military forts built to protect Puget Sound from enemy ships

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

In typical teenage fashion, David Hansen wasn't thrilled at the prospect of accompanying his parents on a drive from Seattle to visit friends on Whidbey Island. Turns out, the trip changed his life.

Their outing included a jaunt to Fort Casey, where military cannons and mortars had been ensconced on a bluff looking west toward Port Townsend. Hansen had never been to Fort Casey, but as a teenager he figured he knew what to expect.

"I knew what forts were," he said. "I'd seen lots of John Wayne movies."

Instead, he saw some of the massive guns, and the complex of concrete walls, rooms and barriers designed to protect them while crews shelled enemy ships trying to slip into Puget Sound.

"These things were so unlike anything else I had ever seen," Hansen said. "I wanted to know more about them."

Smitten, he went on to study history at the University of Washington, then did graduate work at Preservation Institute Nantucket, in Florida. He became an historic preservation officer with the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, with a specialty in military architecture.

Now retired in Olympia, his book about Fort Casey and its kindred forts in Puget Sound was recently published by Washington State University Press.

"Battle Ready: The National Coast Defense System and the Fortification of Puget Sound, 1894-1925," explores their history, from the national perspective of coast defenses to the particulars of the Puget Sound forts, where their scope and technical sophistication managed to outshine construction and labor problems, as well as disputes about defense strategy.

"They represent the most complete and sophisticated system ever to defend the important harbors of the United States," Hansen writes.

Despite decades of planning, construction and service, the Puget Sound forts never exchanged fire with hostile forces. Fears of attacks from Great Britain or, later, Japan, never materialized.

So, were the forts worth the bother and expense?

"That's a question we can ask about any military expenditure," Hansen said. "We spend a lot of money on the military hoping we won't have to use it. It's like an insurance policy."

I suppose if you're going to invest in major projects that become outdated, it's best to build them in scenic locations. Several of the fortifications - notably Fort Casey on Whidbey Island; Fort Worden, across Admiralty Inlet at Port Townsend; and Fort Flagler, just south of Port Townsend - are now popular state parks that attract thousands of visitors every year.

Hansen said he wrote his book, in part, to satisfy the curiosity of people who, like him when he was young, become intrigued by the forts and want to learn more. Hansen said his book, with its numerous historic photographs, is the first to give the Puget forts serious attention.

Some of the details will appeal most to fans of military history, but memorable nuggets of general interest sparkle throughout.

For example, during the height of the forts' construction, from 1898 to 1905, about 300 men worked on the projects, many of them Italians. But keeping workers posed a challenge. The low pay, hard work and remote locations didn't tempt laborers, and many quit to try their luck in the Alaska Gold Rush.

There were ongoing debates about where to build and how to arm the forts, depending on theories about how and where an enemy might attack. One scenario afloat in the early 1900s envisioned Japanese forces landing west of Fort Warden and taking Port Townsend. With Fort Warden and Fort Flagler under enemy control, the thinking went, the Japanese would flood the peninsula with immigrants to bolster their stronghold and control the Asian-Pacific trade.

Another idea, reflecting fears a foe might try a side route through Deception Pass, was to demolish the steel arch bridge planned for the pass and drop the wreckage into the channel below to block enemy ships.

With hindsight, it can be easy to scoff at such fears and mislaid plans. Perhaps too easy.

"We tend to interpret the past on what we know now," Hansen said. "Sometimes it's hard to make that translation."

NEW BOOK

"Battle Ready; The National Coast Defense System and the Fortification of Puget Sound, 1894-1925," by David M. Hansen, is available from Washington State University Press. The large-format paperback retails for $32.95.

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