On October 12, 1918, a ceremony is held at Camp Lewis in Pierce County to celebrate the raising of the world's largest flag, measuring 60 by 90 feet and weighing 257 pounds, on the world's tallest flagpole, a 314-foot-tall Douglas fir pole. No record is set, however, because the weight of the flag breaks the pole into three pieces the moment it is unfurled. Undaunted, the Tacoma and Pierce County boosters who have sponsored the record-flag attempt reconstruct a smaller, sturdier pole from the pieces of the original, and hold a second dedication on November 12, 1918. This time the pole holds, but the flag shreds in two as soon as it is raised, and is later replaced with a smaller flag. The Camp Lewis attempt is one in a long line of efforts to fly ever-bigger flags on ever-taller poles. A quarter century earlier, the Washington State Building at the World's Columbian Exposition featured what was said to be the largest American flag and tallest flagpole, and by the twenty-first century, flagpoles around the world will exceed 500 feet.
Largest Flag at the Fair
On May 1, 1893, the World's Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago, and the Washington building was a popular stop. This was an opportunity for Washington to stand out among the states. Washington's exhibit featured a 238-foot-tall fir-tree flagpole flying a massive American flag that measured 60 feet by 20. At the time they were described as the largest American flag known and the tallest flagpole. Following the Chicago world's fair, Washington boosters promoted the state's towering Douglas fir trees internationally as tall flagpoles. It was hoped that the tall, straight firs could be sold around the world for this purpose.
Oregon also joined in the competition for the tallest flagpole. In the spring of 1914 the residents of Astoria donated the tallest flagpole erected at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. The forests around Astoria were searched for the perfect tree. A Douglas fir was selected, felled, and floated down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. A tug boat towed it down the coast to San Francisco. Just as the tug neared San Francisco Bay a terrific storm hit and the flagpole broke loose. Two days later it was found and recovered. The 251-foot tree was taken to the exposition grounds and sunk 10 feet into a concrete block. Astoria residents made a flag 40 feet long that was raised at the exposition opening.
Huge Flag for Camp Lewis
On September 8, 1917, several months after the U.S. entered World War I, the Tacoma Daily Ledger launched a fundraising drive to purchase the world's largest flag. The flag was to be flown at the U.S. Army's Camp Lewis, which had opened near Tacoma only a few days before. The new military facility (which would evolve to become Fort Lewis and then Joint Base Lewis-McChord) was the pride of Tacoma and Pierce County, whose voters had passed a bond measure funding the donation of 60,000 acres of land for the army camp. While the Ledger's fundraising efforts for the giant flag were underway, Camp Jackson in South Carolina erected a 135-foot steel flagpole at its headquarters building on November 1, 1917, which Camp Jackson officials claimed to be the tallest in the nation at the time. Camp Lewis's steel flagpole was then 75 feet tall. The East Coast competition spurred Puget Sound residents to donate to the Camp Lewis flag campaign.
The successful newspaper fund drive enabled the purchase of a massive flag made by the American Flag Company of New York. It was 60 feet long and 90 feet wide. Each of the 13 stripes was 4 feet, 9 inches wide. The 48 stars were each 2 feet, 7 inches point-to-point. The huge flag weighed 257 pounds. The flag was completed in early January 1918 with plans to raise it that spring. It was to be the largest flag to fly freely. There were larger flags that hung from buildings or structures. The Parker Amusement Company had a 150-by-75-foot flag. In New York City's Grand Central Station rotunda a 120-by-80-foot flag hung.
The Daily Ledger campaign had one more step, and that was to locate a tall, straight fir tree for the flagpole. Prominent lumberman Lynn H. Miller (1877-1936) of the International Spar Company, based on Harbor Island in Seattle, sent loggers out into western Washington forests to find the tree. International Spar had experience with long trees since it provided masts and booms to shipyards in the United States and England. It took some time to find the right tree. The 346-foot tree was taken to the company's plant and shaped into a flagpole that would be 314 feet tall. The pole was cut and strengthened with two splices. It was anchored in a 9-ton concrete block.
Two Dedications, but No Record
The flag-raising finally took place on Liberty Day, October 12, 1918. Liberty Day was a holiday to recall the discovery of America. The flag dedication was not a major event since Camp Lewis was in quarantine because the worldwide Spanish Influenza epidemic had recently reached western Washington and the camp. At the ceremony the flag was hoisted up the tall flagpole. As the flag unfurled a loud crack was heard. The flagpole broke into three pieces under the weight of the massive flag and fell to the ground.
It was decided to create a second flagpole with sturdier splices using the pieces of the first pole. The stronger and shorter flagpole was erected by experienced riggers from Tacoma's Foundation Shipyard. Before they would erect the pole, the riggers demanded that a gold piece be placed under the flagpole to prevent hoodoo. Hurriedly, Lynn Miller located a five-dollar gold piece and placed it at the base of the pole. The new pole was shorter at 214 feet with 14 feet of it countersunk into a concrete block. It had two splices with heavy reinforcing brackets at each splice. Guy wires ran from the pole to concrete blocks at the base. It was topped with a 20-point star on a four-foot diameter iron ball.
A second dedication ceremony was held on November 12, 1918. It was an impressive event attended by some 4,000 soldiers. Dr. E. H. Todd (1863-1951), President of the College of Puget Sound, was the main speaker. He spoke of the flag representing patriotism and pride. Presenting the flag was 4-year-old Lynn Miller Jr. (1914-1984), son of lumberman Lynn H. Miller. He was dressed in a military uniform. The flag was raised and unfurled in the gentle breeze. This time the flagpole stood strong, but a loud ripping sound was heard as the flag shredded into two pieces. The crowd was stunned. Major General Joseph D. Leitch (1864-1938), the Camp Lewis commander, gave his acceptance speech as if everything was fine. The flagpole remained in use for several years with a more manageable flag, before being replaced by a flagpole at the permanent Fort Lewis headquarters building.
After World War I the competition for the largest flag and tallest pole continued. That competition was great in the Northwest with its abundance of tall Douglas fir trees. In 1923 Astoria residents erected the tallest flagpole at 220 feet, but it was soon hit by lightning and destroyed. In 1926 soldiers at Camp Bonneville near Vancouver, Washington, employed a 205-foot-tall fir tree as a flagpole. The Hill Military Academy on Rocky Butte in northeast Portland erected a 177-foot-tall flagpole in 1931. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers had camps in the Pacific Northwest forests. They also competed in the tall-flagpole competition. In 1935 the Lewis and Clark CCC camp near Centralia erected the tallest flagpole of any camp in the nation, a fir tree 146 high.
During every national crisis or war the display of flags becomes important as a patriotic gesture. Massive flags were brought out for War Bond drives during World War II. The two largest flags on the Pacific Coast, the second-largest in the nation, were hung from the Frederick and Nelson Department Store building at Fifth and Pine in downtown Seattle. Each flag was 66 by 100 feet. The stripes were five feet wide. The world's largest flag was hung from a Detroit building. Throughout history in the competition for the largest flag there was an important distinction and that was whether the flag was flown or hung from a building or structure.
In more recent times the competition has become international and the focus has turned to the tallest pole. In November 2014 Saudi Arabia had the tallest flagpole at 557 feet. It beat out the Dushanbe, Tajikistan, flagpole of 541 feet. For a number of years North Korea boasted the tallest at Kijong-dong, standing 525 feet. While these super-tall examples are called flagpoles they are not free-standing poles but steel towers. In the United States, Acuity Insurance in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, has the tallest flag, a 60-by-120-foot flag on a 400-foot pole. At various times since World War II Washington has witnessed super-size flag displays. In September 2014 the Tacoma Screw Company dedicated the tallest flagpole in the Northwest, a 180-foot-tall steel pole with a 40-by-80-foot flag. Visible from Highway 16 it was intended to remind everyone of the sacrifices made to protect democracy.
Historic Flagpole Base 100 Years Later
On April 29, 2015, while widening a road on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, workers for the Doyon Construction Company ran into a very large concrete block. Fourteen feet deep and weighing 50 tons, the block was identified as the base for the record-setting Camp Lewis flagpole almost erected nearly a century earlier. Investigation determined that it was originally the base for the 314-foot flagpole that did not survive its dedication ceremony, and was then modified for the second and shorter flagpole.
The massive concrete block had to be removed as leaving it in place would prevent installation of a storm drainage system. Plans called for it to be moved to a nearby location, where its top would be left exposed and an interpretative sign would tell the story of Pierce County and Camp Lewis efforts to achieve world records in flagpole height and flag size.