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Fort George Wright

HistoryLink.org Essay 9876 : Printer-Friendly Format

Fort George Wright was an army post in Spokane. Congress authorized its construction in 1896 and work began in 1897. The post was named for General George Wright (1803-1865), who had commanded the 9th Infantry Regiment during conflicts with interior Northwest Indians in the 1850s. Until World War II, the fort served as a platform from which troops could be dispatched by train to Pacific Northwest trouble spots. During the war, the post became an air force facility. In 1957 it was declared surplus. Since 1961 the former post has housed colleges. In 2011 it is home to Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute and Spokane Falls College. In 1976 the fort district was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Fort Wright Established

On September 24, 1891, Colonel William P. Carlin (1829-1903) established an army field camp near Spokane. Six companies with 20 officers and 292 enlisted men occupied the camp. General Elwell S. Otis (1838-1909), Department of the Columbia commander, visited in 1894. Given Spokane's railroad center and rapid access to a number of locations, Elwell recommended building a permanent fort in the area. The City of Spokane was interested in having an army presence, and in 1895 deeded 1,000 acres in the Twickenham Park area to the government. Included with the land were permanent water rights. In June 1896 the U.S. Congress authorized construction of a fort that would replace Fort Spokane, an outdated frontier post located fifty miles away. Construction started the following year. The first buildings, a stable and an ammunition storage facility, were completed in 1897. Senior officer quarters went up between 1899 and 1906. The initial plans called for 44 buildings including barracks, family housing, commander's home, hospital, bakery, Post Exchange, chapel, shops, and warehouses.

Fort Wright had a unique layout. It did not follow the standard quadrangle plan of barracks, administration, and family housing structures around a parade ground. The post had an "A" shape with officers' housing at the upper part and enlisted barracks at the lower. This created a large parade and drill field in the barracks area. The plan also took advantage of topography, fitting the fort on a bluff above the Spokane River. The location received favorable prevailing winds that cooled the quarters during the hot summers. Future army construction would follow these principles, so that during World War I camp layouts were influenced by terrain and prevailing winds.

The new fort became the headquarters for northwest Washington troops. In 1899 the first unit arrived: Company M, 24th Infantry Regiment, an African American unit of 100 men who had served in the Spanish American War and the Indian Wars. They did not receive a warm welcome and some in the community petitioned the War Department to have the company transferred out. However, the troops' good behavior and civic works improved the relationship. The post band played at local events and became very popular. Fort soldiers donated their time to construct the post cemetery in 1899. This cemetery survives as the Fort Wright cemetery, now managed by Fairchild Air Force Base. The 24th Infantry garrisoned the post until 1908.

Named to Honor General George Wright

The post was initially known as New Fort Spokane. In 1899, the army renamed it Fort Wright in honor of General George Wright. Wright graduated from West Point in 1822. He served in the 1844 Seminole War and then in the Mexican War (1846-1848), during which he saw combat and was wounded.

By 1855 Wright was a colonel in command of the 9th Infantry Regiment, which he headquartered at Fort Dalles, Oregon Territory. Wright and his troops played a major role in the Northwest Indian Wars between 1855 and 1858. In May 1858, in a battle near Rosalia, Washington, a coalition of Indians defeated an army force from Fort Walla Walla led by Lieutenant Colonel Edward Steptoe (1815-1865). In response, Wright organized a force of 600 men and engaged a confederation of Indians at Four Lakes (southwest of Spokane) on September 1, 1858, inflicting heavy casualties. In a concluding battle four days later on the Spokane Plains (near today's Fairchild Air Force Base), Wright's troops defeated the Indians. Wright rested his troops and then launched a pursuit. On September 8, the troops found a herd of 800 Native American horses near Liberty Lake and Wright ordered them shot. Colonel Wright summarily hung a number of Indians including Qualchan, son of Yakama chief Owhi (who was also taken prisoner and killed by the troops).

In October 1861 Wright was promoted to brigadier general and became commander of the Department of the Pacific in California. During the summer of 1865, General Wright received orders to command the Department of the Columbia at Fort Vancouver, Washington, and left San Francisco for this new assignment. On July 27, 1865, Wright, his wife Margaret (1806-1865), and an aide boarded the steamer S.S. Brother Jonathan. Off Crescent City, California, on July 30, 1865, the ship went down with 244 passengers and crew. Only 19 survived and this did not include the general or Margaret.

In 1908, to avoid confusion with another Fort Wright, the Spokane post became Fort George Wright. A monument to General Wright was installed on the parade grounds and still stands there in 2011. Over the years, some have questioned the fort's name, arguing that Wright's actions in his campaign against Washington Indian tribes were unacceptable.

Fort George Wright from 1908 to 1940

In 1908 two battalions of black soldiers from the 25th Infantry, totaling 600 men, arrived at the fort. During the summer of 1910, serious wildfires threatened the region. President William Howard Taft (1857-1930) authorized troops to fight the fires. The fort's 25th Infantry soldiers fought fires in Idaho and Montana. Despite their lack of training and experience in firefighting, they greatly assisted civilian efforts. Between 1910 and 1913, officials considered closing the fort. In 1913 there were eight companies with 425 men at the installation. The 25th Infantry departed on December 31, 1913, for duty in Hawaii, leaving the fort largely abandoned. A small force remained to operate the post as a federal confinement center. The center's operation became an issue when a prisoner was scheduled for execution. In 1917 opponents argued that the execution would be illegal because the state then had no death penalty, but a court ruled that the center was a federal facility not subject to state laws. On April 19, 1917, Edward Mayberry, an Indian convicted of murdering a Colville Indian woman, was hanged.

The 4th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Division, arrived in 1919 to reopen Fort Wright. During the 1920s, on average, about 350 enlisted men were stationed at the post. In the 1930s the fort functioned as a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) regional headquarters. CCC units in the region worked in the forests and built recreational facilities. In 1936, another depression-era program, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), constructed a Post Exchange building and other projects at the fort. In December 1940 the 4th Infantry was reassigned to Alaska, where it fought in the capture of Attu Island in May 1943.

Fort Wright in World War II

With the departure of the 4th Infantry, the post stood vacant. The Army Air Corps needed space, and it took over the fort in January 1941. The Northwest Air District and then the Army Second Air Force established headquarters there. Other uses included a military police school, army reserve basic training, counter-intelligence training, and a Soviet Lend Lease pilot ground school. In March 1944 a major Army Air Force convalescent hospital was established at Fort Wright.

Throughout its history, small Fort Wright excelled beyond expectations. Early post bands were very popular in the Spokane area. Rifle teams from the post won many competitions. In the 1942-1943 season, the Second Air Force Superbombers football team won all but one game -- and that was a tie with Washington State. The Superbombers played in the 1943 Sun Bowl and defeated Hardin-Simmons College. The standout player for the game was Lieutenant Hal Van Every (1918-2007), a former Green Bay Packer. A number of outstanding former Washington and Washington State players were on the air force team.

In 1946, Washington State College established a branch at the fort. During November 1946 the 15th Air Force arrived at the post. Fairchild Air Force Base used the post, which was renamed George Wright Air Force Base in May 1949, for unit facilities and family housing.

Abandoned Post to College Campuses

The government declared George Wright Air Force Base surplus in 1957, and units there relocated to more modern facilities at nearby Geiger Field and Fairchild Air Force Base. There were studies and debate concerning new uses for the post, while the fort remained vacant and deteriorated. In 1961 the Holy Names College, Society of the Names of Jesus and Mary, applied to the federal government and received 85 acres of the former base. This included 55 buildings and most of the main historic cantonment. The buildings were cleaned and repaired, and the facility opened as Fort Wright College of Holy Names. At the time it was the only women's college in the state.

During the 1960s, Spokane Falls Community College and Spokane Lutheran School moved onto the former fort grounds. By 1985 Fort Wright College was experiencing declining enrollments and considerable maintenance expenses. The college left and in 1986 a summer program for Japanese students to learn English came to the campus. This expanded to become a United States branch campus of Japan's Mukogawa Women's University, which opened at the former fort in 1990. The branch was named the Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute. The campus offered English instruction and American history courses. Since taking over, the institute has rehabilitated the historic buildings and constructed new ones, including a 20,000-square-foot library in 1994.

Fort George Wright Historic District

In 1976, the Fort George Wright Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Since 1976, a few historic buildings have been lost, including double barracks, a hospital building, and the Post Exchange structure. The historic district contains a number of original fort structures -- neo-colonial Georgian red-brick buildings on tree-lined streets -- including the administration building, hospital steward's house, fire station, commissary, bakery, ordnance building, ammunition magazine, and quartermaster office, along with single officer quarters, duplex officer quarters, barracks, and noncommissioned officer quarters.

The buildings are currently in use by the Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute. The one-time administration building now serves as the attractive Music Building. The historic district is a well-preserved collection of military architecture dating from 1898 to 1910. Most of the newer construction is similar in style or is screened by trees and vegetation. Architects designing the Lutheran Elementary school had it fit with the district style and used brick from a demolished mule barn at the fort. The hospital steward's house, built in 1898, stands as the oldest surviving building. Its red brick siding, white trim, and slate roof reflect the district style. It is possible to visit the fort site, but it is now an active private college and potential visitors must request access through the college.

Sources:
Sister Mary Dunton and Patsy M. Garrett, "Fort George Wright Historic District, National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form," January 27, 1976, City-County of Spokane Historic Preservation Office website accessed December 20, 2011 (http://properties.historicspokane.org/_pdf/districts/national/district-national-22.pdf); Bette E. Meyer, Fort George Wright: Not Only Where the Band Played (Fairfield: Ye Galleon Press, 1994); Carl P. Schlicke, General George Wright: Guardian of the Pacific Coast (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988); "College Gets Part of Fort George Wright," The Seattle Daily Times, July 1, 1960, p. 5; "Troops Named For Far North," Ibid., September 4, 1940, p. 8; "Staff Chief Named For Air Service," The Oregonian, December 6, 1940, p. 1; "Sun Bowl 1943," My Favorite Bowls website accessed July 5, 2011 (http://www.mmbolding.com/bowls/Sun_1943.htm); "History," Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute website accessed June 22, 2011 (http://www.mfwi.edu/history.htm).


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Fort George Wright Historic District, Spokane
Courtesy City-County of Spokane Historic Preservation Office


George Wright (1803-1865), Colonel, U.S. Army
Courtesy U.S. Military Academy Archives


Fort George Wright, Spokane, ca. 1918
Photo by Charles A. Libby Sr., Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. UW10979)


Post Exchange, Fort Wright, Spokane, 1940s
Postcard


Greetings from Fort George Wright, Spokane, 1940s
Postcard


 
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