Triangle of Fire - The Harbor Defenses of Puget Sound (1897-1953)

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 11/11/2005
  • Essay 7524
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Admiralty Inlet was considered so strategic to the defense of Puget Sound at the turn of the century that three forts were built at the entrance with huge guns creating a "Triangle of Fire" that could theoretically thwart any invasion attempt by sea. Fort Worden, on the Quimper Peninsula at the extreme northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, sits on a bluff near Port Townsend, anchoring the northwest side of the triangle. Fort Casey, on Whidbey Island, sits on Admiralty Head almost directly across Admiralty Inlet from Fort Worden. Fort Flagler anchors the southwest side from a bluff on Marrowstone Island. Two additional fortifications, at Fort Ward and Middle Point, were strategically located at the entrance to Rich Passage to protect the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at Bremerton. Fort Whitman, located on Goat Island in Skagit Bay was positioned to guard Deception Pass and Saratoga Pass, the back entrance into Puget Sound. Together, these fortifications constituted the Harbor Defenses of Puget Sound. All six former U.S. Army forts are now owned by the State of Washington and have become state parks.

The Defense of Puget Sound

On November 30, 1846, President James Knox Polk (1795-1849) appointed a joint commission of Army and Naval Officers to identify sites from San Diego to Puget Sound, appropriate for defense fortifications.  But Puget Sound in Oregon Territory was considered too remote and not worth the cost of constructing defenses.  In 1855, the Indian Wars precipitated the Army appointing two officers, Captain George Stoneman and First Lieutenant W. H. C. Whiting, to investigate defenses for the Puget Sound region.  This resulted in the establishment of new forts in Port Townsend and Bellingham to protect local settlements, but were not connected with the defense of Puget Sound. 

Another study by the War Department in 1860 recommended a single line of fortifications from Foulweather Bluff, northwest of Hansville on the Kitsap Peninsula, to Double Bluff on Whidbey Island, with a fortified island built in the middle of Admiralty Inlet.  Due to the Civil War (1860-1865), the Army took no immediate action, but on September 22, 1866, President Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) issued an executive order setting aside land for military reservations on Puget Sound.  In 1872, a board of Army engineers was sent to the Pacific Northwest to identify permanent sites for fortifications.  The engineers agreed with the earlier recommendations to establish forts on Foulweather Bluff and Double Bluff, but eliminated building a fortified island because of excessive costs. 

The plan did not advance beyond the discussion stage until the establishment of the Puget Sound Naval Station in Bremerton in 1891.  Now there was an important facility of military value to protect and in 1896, the Army engineers returned to Puget Sound to plan a defense against a waterborne attack.  They selected sites for three fortifications on promontories at the entrance to Admiralty Inlet: Point Wilson, Admiralty Head, and Marrowstone Island, which lies south of Port Townsend.  On June 6, 1896, Congress authorized the Secretary of War to fortify these three points and build large gun emplacements to protect Puget Sound.  The cost of construction and armament of the Puget Sound Defenses was estimated at $7 million, a boon to the severely depressed economies of Jefferson County and  Port Townsend, still suffering from the effects of the Panic of 1893.

Building the defense fortifications proceeded slowly until the Spanish-American War (1898).  There was no actual construction work until after the battleship USS Maine blew up and sank in Havana Harbor on February 16, 1898, with the loss of 252 officers and men.  Then the work was accelerated to protect the Puget Sound Naval Station from the Spanish Fleet. 

Construction materials for the forts were purchased largely from local sources.  Lumber came from mills in Port Townsend, Port Hadlock, and Port Gamble; sand and gravel came from nearby pits.  Good cement, in short supply in the United States, was imported from Antwerp, Belgium, in 400-pound barrels.  The guns and carriages were shipped from armories to Tacoma by rail and from there to the forts by barge.  The engineers built large construction docks, with special features to cope with tides, near the sites, with tramways and small steam locomotives to haul equipment and supplies by rail car from the beaches to the bluff tops.

The fortifications were equipped with batteries of 6-inch, 10-inch, and 12-inch "disappearing guns," so called because they disappeared behind the walls of their emplacements during reloading, protecting the gun and crew from enemy bombardment.  In its day, the disappearing gun was the height of military technology. It was made obsolete only by long-range guns on battleships and the development of air power. The forts also used barbette carriages, which held the gun at the edge of the parapet at all times, a system that exposed the crew and provided less protection for gun and crew.  The smaller 3-inch and 5-inch guns were mounted on pedestals that permitted the gun to be pivoted easily, making them a valuable defense against fast and maneuverable torpedo boats.

Fort Flagler

Marrowstone Island was the first site developed.  In 1866, by executive order, a section of land, 640 acres, had been reserved for military purposes.  In late 1896 by Eugene Ricksecker, Army Corps of Engineers surveyed the site for the fortification.  In 1897, the government purchased more land from individual owners to build additional gun emplacements.  The contract for the construction of gun emplacements was awarded on June 22, 1897, to the Pacific Bridge Company, Portland, Oregon. 

The fort was occupied by Battery B, Third Coastal Artillery prior to completion and it was designated the temporary headquarters of the Harbor Defense Command of Puget Sound.  The detachment, consisting of three officers and 86 enlisted men, was commanded by Captain John D. C. Hoskins.  Construction of 12 buildings, including offices, mess hall, and barracks, was completed in June 1899.  Named in honor of Brigadier General Daniel Webster Flagler (1835-1899), Fort Flagler was the first to be officially activated on July 27, 1899.  The first armaments consisted of three gun emplacements: Batteries Rawlins, Revere, and Wilhelm, each with two guns.  Between 1900 and 1906, six additional gun emplacements were added: Batteries Bankhead, Calwell, Gratton, Lee, Downs, and Wansboro.  When completed, Fort Flagler had 26 artillery pieces overlooking Admiralty Inlet: two 12-inch barbette guns, four 10-inch barbette guns, six 6-inch disappearing guns, two 5-inch pedestal guns, four 3-inch pedestal guns and eight 12-inch mortars.

During World War I (1917-1919), the U.S. Army used Fort Flagler as a training center for soldiers.  Twelve the fort’s artillery pieces were removed and sent to Europe where they were converted into field or railway artillery.  After the war, the fort was used as a training camp for the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps and the Washington National Guard.  Many of the buildings at Fort Flagler were torn down in 1936 because of dryrot, but they were rebuilt during World War II (1941-1945) and the Korean War (1951-1953), when the Army used the fort for amphibious warfare training and maneuvers.  Some of the gun emplacements were modified to accommodate anti-aircraft guns.  Fort Flagler was officially deactivated on June 30, 1953, ending 54 years of military jurisdiction.

In April 1954, the Department of Defense declared Fort Flagler government surplus, transferring the property to the General Services Administration (GSA) for disposal.  The 784-acre fort with 107 buildings was put up for sale, and purchased in five parcels, between 1957 and 1962, by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission for $36,473, for use a state park.  Washington State Parks has made buildings at Fort Flagler State Park available as conference facilities and recreation housing, and developed full-service camping and recreational facilities at the beach. In addition to 12.5 miles of roads, there are 5 miles of trails, and 3.6 miles of beachfront to explore.  In 1963, Fort Flagler State Park obtained two historic 3-inch guns from Fort Wint in Subic Bay in the Philippine Islands, which have been mounted for display in Battery Wansboro.  In May 2005, a fully restored historic 120 mm anti-aircraft gun, found rusting away at the Snohomish Armory, was put on permanent display at the Fort Flagler Museum.  The gun had been used in the 1955 movie To Hell and Back, filmed at the Yakima Firing Center and staring Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy.

On May 3, 1976, Fort Flagler was officially designated as an historic place by the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and listed on the Washington Heritage Register (listing No. 054).  This same year, the National Park Service listed Fort Flagler on the National Register as a Historic District (listing No. 76001882), which includes the Marrowstone Light Station.

Fort Casey (and Fort Ebey)

The section of land set aside for a military reservation on Whidbey Island was around Admiralty Head.  In 1897, the government purchased an additional 123 acres of land from Dr. John C. Kellogg for $7,200 to build extra gun emplacements.  The contract to construct the gun emplacements was awarded to Maney, Goerig and Rydstrom Construction Company of Everett and work started in August 1897.  The lighthouse on Admiralty Head was sitting approximately where the Army wanted to install a 10-inch gun battery, so they moved it several hundred feet north of its original location and later built a beautiful new lighthouse, able to withstand the concussion from the fort’s big guns.  The imposing fortification was named Fort Casey in July 1899 in honor of Brigadier General Thomas Lincoln Casey (1831-1896), a former commander of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Fort Casey was activated in 1901 with a small temporary garrison.  The permanent garrison arrived in June 1902, and was made from two Coast Artillery companies from Fort Flagler and two from Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.  Later, a Coast Artillery company from Hawaii arrived, completing the fort’s complement.  While the barracks were being constructed, the new garrison bivouacked in tents.  Construction of the permanent buildings, which included three enlisted barracks, six officers’ quarters, a hospital, administration building, post exchange, commissary, bakery, fire house, stables, gymnasium, and central power house, was completed in 1903 and General Frederick Funston, commander of the Department of the Columbia came to the fort for the final inspection. 

The test firing of the new big guns commenced on May 5, 1903, and Fort Casey was pronounced ready for action. The first armaments consisted of six gun emplacements: Batteries Worth, Moore, Kingsbury, Seymour, Schenck, and Turman. Between 1904 and 1907, four additional gun emplacements were added: Batteries Moore, Trevor, Van Horn, and Valleau.  When completed, Fort Casey had 34 artillery pieces sitting atop Admiralty Head approximately 100 feet above sea level: six 10-inch disappearing guns, six 6-inch disappearing guns, two 5-inch pedestal guns, four 3-inch pedestal guns and sixteen 12-inch mortars.

Fort Casey was used as training facility during World War I (1917-1919), readying soldiers for combat in Europe. Thirteen of the fort’s 34 artillery pieces were dismantled and shipped to European battlefields.  After the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, the remaining artillery batteries were dismantled and the fort was placed on a caretaker status.  The grounds were used for training the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps and the Washington National Guard.  During World War II (1941-1945) the Army reactivated Fort Casey as an induction center and troop training facility, and the fort’s gun emplacements were rearmed with anti-aircraft guns. 

The Harbor Defense Command also built Fort Ebey at Pigeon Point, north of Fort Casey near Coopeville.  This property was acquired by Washington state in 1968 and became Fort Ebey State Park, a 645-acre campground with three miles of saltwater shoreline, in 1981.

Following the war, Fort Casey stood vacant and fell into disrepair, a victim of vandalism and neglect.  On June 30, 1953, Fort Casey was officially deactivated.  The Department of Defense declared the facility government surplus, transferring the property to GSA for disposal.  In 1955, Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission acquired 100 acres of Fort Casey’s battery area for use as a state park and historical monument.  Seattle Pacific University purchased 87 acres, which included most of the fort’s administrative buildings and housing, to create the Camp Casey Conference Center.  The present Fort Casey State Park, which includes the Keystone Spit area, was acquired between 1955 and 1988 in three parcels, at a total cost of $300,000.  In 1963, Washington State Parks obtained two 10-inch “disappearing guns” and two 3-inch guns from Fort Wint in the Philippine Islands.  The historic guns, part of the harbor defenses of Subic Bay, were mounted for display in Batteries Trevor and Worth.

On December 12, 1973, the National Park Service listed Central Whidbey Island (also known as Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve) on the National Register as a Historic District (listing No. 73001869).  The Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation also listed the district on the Washington Heritage Register (listing No. 004).  In 1980, Fort Ebey and Fort Casey State Parks, including the Admiralty Head Lighthouse, were incorporated into the listings. 

Today, the Central Whidbey Island Historic District, stretching roughly six miles on either side of Coupeville, and encompassing approximately 25 square miles, is one of the largest historic districts in the country, and has nearly 100 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Fort Worden

Construction work on the fortifications above Point Wilson was delayed until July 1887.  The property was privately owned and the government had to clear title to the land through condemnation proceedings.  The Army Corps of Engineers took charge of building the construction dock, warehouses, and a tramway to haul concrete for the gun emplacements from the dock to the mixing plant.  To meet construction needs, the Army laid a pipeline from Port Townsend and pumped water into large storage tanks inside the fort.  The arrival of wet winter weather turned the construction area into a sea of mud and slowed progress on the batteries.  It took 200 men almost three years to complete the excavation and concrete work for the gun emplacements.

In March 1900, the fort was finally ready to begin the work of installing the initial armament.  Sixteen artillery pieces, shipped from the armory at Columbus, Ohio, arrived from the rail terminus at Tacoma by barge.  A special heavy-duty tramway was constructed to haul the heavy artillery pieces from the dock area to top of the bluff.  In March 1901 the guns were moved to their assigned positions and mounted in the batteries, ready for test firing.

Named in honor of Admiral John Lorimer Worden (1818-1897), captain of the ironclad vessel USS Monitor, Fort Worden was activated in 1902.  The 126th Coast Artillery Company, consisting of 87 soldiers, commanded by Captain Manus McCloskey, was the first detachment assigned to Fort Worden.  They arrived from Seattle on board the steamer SS Majestic on May 3, 1902, and were quartered in tents pending the completion of the barracks.  Twenty-three permanent buildings were under construction at a cost of $59,450.  Meanwhile, the artillery company drilled and test-fired the new guns.  A communication system, connecting the three forts by cable, was installed in 1903.

On September 4, 1904, headquarters of the Harbor Defense Command of Puget Sound was transferred from Fort Flagler to Fort Worden along with the 6th Artillery Band.  Once work on the main batteries and army post had been completed, more troops were assigned there.  By the fall of 1905, Fort Worden was fully staffed with four Coast Artillery companies, and the harbor defense system, costing approximately $7.5 million, was considered complete and operational.  The initial armaments consisted of six gun emplacements: Batteries Ash, Powell, Brannon, Quarles, Randol, and Vicars.  Between 1905 and 1910, six additional gun emplacements were added: Batteries Tolles, Stoddard, Benson, Putnam, Walker, and Kinzie. When completed, Fort Worden had 41 artillery pieces, completing the famous “Triangle of Fire”: two 12-inch disappearing guns, two 12-inch barbette guns, two 10-inch disappearing guns, five 10-inch barbette guns, eight 6-inch disappearing guns, two 5-inch pedestal guns, four 3-inch pedestal guns, and sixteen 12-inch mortars.

During World War I, the complement at Fort Worden was greatly expanded as soldiers arrived for training prior to being sent to European battlefields.  To keep up with the demand, construction of new barracks and buildings continued throughout the war.  Thirty-six of the fort’s 41 artillery pieces were dismantled and shipped to European battlefields.  After the war, the fort’s staffing was reduced to 50 officers and 884 enlisted men.  Aircraft and balloons began to claim an important role in Puget Sound’s defensive strategy, diminishing the roll of the Coast Artillery.  In the 1920s, a balloon hangar was built at Fort Worden at a cost of $85,000.  Some of the batteries were modernized and made “bomb-proof.”

During World War II (1941-1945), Fort Worden remained the headquarters of the Harbor Defense Command, now jointly operated by the Army and the Navy. The fort was home to the 14th Coast Artillery Regiment of the U.S. Army, the 248th Regiment of the Washington National Guard, the 2nd Amphibious Engineers, and miscellaneous Navy personnel.  The Army operated radar sites and coordinated Canadian and U.S. defensive activities in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound.  The Navy, responsible for the detection and identification of all vessels entering and leaving Puget Sound, monitored new underwater sonar and sensing devices.  Most of the gun emplacements were modified for anti-aircraft guns, which replaced the outdated artillery pieces.  Fort Worden personnel also manned batteries and fire control towers at the Cape George Military Reservation, six miles southwest of Port Townsend on the Strait of Juan de Fuca at the entrance to Discovery Bay.

After World War II, the Coast Artillery units at Fort Worden were disbanded and the batteries dismantled.  It remained active as an administrative unit until June 30, 1953, when the Harbor Defense Command was deactivated and the fort officially closed, ending 51 years of military jurisdiction.  On July 1, 1957, the State of Washington purchased Fort Worden from the GSA for $127,533 for use as a diagnostic and treatment center for troubled youths.

The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission acquired most of Fort Worden on September 30, 1971, when the state closed the juvenile treatment center.  The 433.53-acre Fort Worden State Park and Conference Center was opened and dedicated on August 18, 1973.  Since that time, the Washington State Parks has made the fort's buildings available as conference facilities and recreation housing, and developed full-service camping and recreational facilities at the beach.  In 1981, the movie An Officer and a Gentleman, staring Richard Gere, Debra Winger, and Louis Gossett Jr. was filmed there. The park also includes the Puget Sound Coast Artillery Museum, and a balloon hangar that was used for airships.  Including the light station at Point Wilson, Fort Worden State Park has more than two miles of shoreline on Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  On March 15, 1974, the National Park Service listed Fort Worden on the National Register as a Historic District (listing No. 7400194), and a designated National Historic Landmark.

Other Harbor Defense Fortifications

Although not a part of the “Triangle of Fire,” there were three other forts constructed around the turn of the twentieth century that completed the Harbor Defenses of Puget Sound: Fort Whitman, Fort Ward, and Middle Point Military Reservation.  Fort Whitman, activated in 1909, was located on the northwest end of Goat Island near LaConner in Skagit Bay, and positioned to guard Deception Pass and Saratoga Pass, the back entrance into Puget Sound.  There are mounts for three guns in Battery Harrison, along with associated rooms and tunnels similar to those found at Fort Worden and Fort Casey State Parks.  Goat Island is now part of the Skagit Wildlife Area.

The Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton was protected by fortification located at two sites facing each other across Rich Passage in Kitsap County.  The batteries at Fort Ward, at Beans Point on Bainbridge Island, and at Middle Point, a part of Fort Ward, near Manchester, were activated in 1903.  Fort Ward had four gun emplacements: Batteries Nash, Warner, Thornburgh, and Vinton.  The fort’s armament consisted of one 8-inch gun, one 5-inch gun, and two 3-inch guns.  Middle Point had only one gun emplacement, Battery Mitchell, built for two 3-inch pedestal guns, but they were never installed. Middle Point’s main purpose was to serve as the fire control center for remotely fired “torpedoes” (mines) in the event of an invasion.  After World War I, Fort Ward was placed in caretaker status and in the 1920s, all the guns were removed.

The Army transferred Fort Ward, including Middle Point, to the Navy in 1938.  During World War II, the Navy used Fort Ward as a radio station and training school for communications personnel and controlled submarine nets that stretched across Rich Passage. The Middle Point Military Reservation was converted into the Manchester Naval Supply Depot.  Fort Ward was decommissioned in 1958, purchased by Washington State Parks in 1960, and became Fort Ward State Park, a 137-acre marine park.  Middle Point became part of Manchester State Park, a 111-acre camping park; the Navy still owns the remainder of the reservation.  On January 12, 1978, Fort Ward, including Middle Point, was officially designated as an historic site by the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and listed on the Washington Heritage Register (listing No. DT00008).  This same year, the National Park Service listed Fort Ward on the National Register as a Historic District (listing No. 78002759).   The Fort Ward Historic District was expanded in 1996 to include sections built by the Navy during World War II (listing No. 96000415).

Sources: James Hermanson, Rural Jefferson County: Its Heritage and Maritime History (Port Townsend: James S. Hermanson, 2002); Marge and Ted Mueller, Washington State Parks: A Complete Recreation Guide (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1999); Karen Russell and Jeanne Bean, Marrowstone (Port Townsend: Port Townsend Publishing Co., 1978); Joseph M. Bailey, “Military Establishments,” With Pride in Heritage: History of Jefferson County ed. by the Jefferson County Historical Society (Port Townsend: Jefferson County Historical Society, 1966); Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington’s Past: A Road Guide to History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Point Wilson Lighthouse," "Marrowstone Point Light Station," and "Admiralty Head Lighthouse” (by Daryl C. McClary) (accessed September 2005); “Puget Sound’s ‘Triangle of Fire’” American Forts Network website accessed September 2005 (; “Fort Casey, Fort Flagler, Fort Worden and Fort Ward” Washington State Parks website accessed September 2005 (; “Historic Places in Washington,” State of Washington, Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation website accessed September 2005 (; “National Register of Historical Places; Washington; Kitsap County, Island County and Jefferson County,” National Register of Historical Places website accessed September 2005 ( “National Register of Historical Places,” National Park Service website accessed September 2005 (; “Fort Worden -- The Park,” Fort Worden State Park website accessed September 2005 (

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