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Pierce County residents vote to purchase 70,000 acres that will become Camp Lewis on January 6, 1917.
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On January 6, 1917, Pierce County residents vote to bond themselves for $2 million dollars to purchase 70,000 acres of land on the Nisqually plains at American Lake. The land will then be turned over to the federal government free of charge for development into a military post. The facility is called Camp Lewis.
Camp Lewis was named to honor Captain Meriweather Lewis (1774-1809), co-leader of the Corps of Volunteers for Northwestern Discovery (Lewis and Clark) expedition.
Patriotism And Pragmatism
After the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania by German submarines on May 7, 1915, many Americans began to consider inevitable the United States' entry into what would become World War I. In the wake of the tragedy, Tacoma News Tribune publisher Frank S. Baker, banker Stephen Appleby, and realtor Jesse O. Thomas initiated a plan to secure a major military installation for Pierce County during a meeting with Secretary of War Newton D. Baker in Washington, D.C.
They reached an agreement that if Pierce County provided land, the federal government would temporarily assign troops there in the event of a war. Besides their patriotic impulses, Baker, Appleby, and Thomas knew that this arrangement would be an enormous economic and strategic asset for Pierce County.
President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) endorsed the plan, and on August 29, 1916, the United States Congress approved it.
Pierce County Certainly Shall
Frank Baker used the Tacoma News Tribune to whip up public support for the public land purchase. The vote in the special bond election on January 16, 1917, was 20,049 for the bond measure and only 4,115 against. The ballots read, "Shall Pierce County incur an indebtedness not exceeding $2,000,000 for the purpose of acquiring approximately 70,000 acres of land in Pierce County and conveying the same to the United States, said land to be used by the Government for mobilization, training, and supply station; said indebtedness to be evidenced by negotiable bonds of Pierce County, payable in not more than twenty years, with interest not exceeding 5 per centum per annum, payable annually?" (Bonney, p. 607).
The land selected as the site of the cantonment was at American Lake just south of Tacoma. The area had been used for state brigade encampments beginning in 1890 and had been used for large-scale joint maneuvers by the United States Army and the Oregon and Washington National Guards in 1904.
On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, thus entering into World War I. Three days later Companies E and F of the United States Engineers began surveying the donated land at American Lake, deciding where to locate various buildings. The need to begin construction was urgent and not all of the necessary land had been secured. Arrangements were made allowing the federal government to use the land anyway. It was not until November 1919 that Pierce County officially transferred title to the land to the United States government.
A Perfect Storm
In May 1917 Captain David S. Storm arrived with a staff to oversee construction. In June 1917 Tacoma's Hurley-Mason Company won the construction contract for the new facility. Hurley-Mason then purchased 25 million feet of lumber from local mills, paying $16.50 per thousand feet.
Captain Storm's construction crew was a civilian army: Some 10,000 local carpenters, plumbers, electricians, plasterers, and other laborers who swarmed over the site. Construction began on July 5, 1917. In only three months 1,757 plumbed, heated buildings complete with electric lighting were ready for occupation.
The construction crew collected $4,000 from among themselves to build a decorative main gate for the compound. The gate was made of fieldstone and rough-hewn logs and designed to resemble two connected blockhouses. This gate was moved out of the path of freeway construction during the 1950s. As of 2006 the relocated gate still stands on the Fort Lewis grounds.
Preparing For "Over There"
The first troops arrived at Camp Lewis in September 1917. Pierce County sent its first young soldiers to the camp on September 8, 1917. In November French Army officers arrived to help train American soldiers for the actual conditions they would face overseas. By late December some 40,000 troops were stationed at Camp Lewis, preparing to ship out for active duty on the battlefields of France.
On September 30, 1927, Camp Lewis became a permanent Army post and was re-designated as Fort Lewis.
Paul W. Harvey, Tacoma Headlines: An Account of Tacoma News and Newspapers from 1873 to 1962 (Tacoma: Tacoma News Tribune, 1962), p. 52; Harry Martin and Caroline Kellogg, Tacoma: A Pictorial History (Virginia Beach, VA: The Donning Company, 1981), p. 126; Alan H. Archambault, Fort Lewis (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2002); W. P. Bonney, History of Pierce County, Washington, Vol. II (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, 1927); "Fort Lewis," Fort Lewis Museum website accessed November 7, 2006 (http://www.lewis.army.mil/).
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