Fort Lewis, Part 1: 1917-1927

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 1/16/2008
  • Essay 8455
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Fort Lewis, since 2010 part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, opened in 1917 as Camp Lewis on the Nisqually Plain in southern Pierce County. Part 1 of this two-part history tells the story of Camp Lewis from its origins to the establishment of the permanent Fort Lewis in 1927. In 1916 Pierce County civic leaders who had long promoted the development of a United States Army facility in the county won War Department support. Construction at the American Lake site began on June 15. On July 18, 1917, the camp was named in honor of Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and it opened on September 5, 1917. The Ninety-First Division arrived and after rigorous training at Camp Lewis, served with honor in France. As those men fought, the Thirteenth Division trained at Camp Lewis, but then World War I ended and the division dissolved. Camp Lewis demobilized soldiers and went into dramatic decline. County residents became concerned over lack of use and some argued that the county should take back the land. However, the camp recovered and in 1927 a large building program made the post permanent as Fort Lewis.

American Lake

The Nisqually Plain, an area of prairies, forested lands, hillocks, and lakes, lies about 12 miles southwest of Tacoma. American Lake sits in its northern portion and around this lake the Washington National Guard held maneuvers at the end of the nineteenth century and during the first years of the twentieth century.

In the fall of 1916, as battle raged in Europe, a professional and businessmen's military training camp was held at American Lake. This volunteer non-enlistment training program, organized by private civilians, encouraged citizen's readiness. Among its cadets was Stephen Appleby, a Tacoma bank cashier, and vice-president of the Northwest Business Men's Preparedness League. The League sought to attract an army post to Pierce County. Appleby, who had been a captain in the Minnesota National Guard, understood the military process. He learned that an army survey team would be looking for camp sites in the Puget Sound area, but the American Lake site was not on their itinerary. Appleby contacted the survey commander, Captain Richard Parks, and talked him into revising his September tour to include the American Lake camp. Colonel U. G. Alexander, the camp commander, headed up a welcoming committee to present the case for this camp selection.

Captain Parks was impressed and recommended the site to the commander of the army's Western Department, Major General J. Franklin Bell (1856-1919). General Bell then visited and, speaking before Tacoma business leaders, supported the building of an army camp here. 

Tacoma Goes to the Other Washington

A committee of Tacoma leaders traveled to Washington D.C., and met with Secretary of War Newton D. Baker (1871-1937). The committee presented the case for the camp and proposed donating about 70,000 acres to the government with the understanding that it would become a permanent military installation. The Secretary of War would select the site and Pierce County would purchase and donate the land. After review and consultation with President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) and Congress, Secretary Baker approved the proposed gift.

Next, Pierce County citizens had to approve a bond to pay the estimated $2 million purchase price. On January 7, 1917, the polls opened across Pierce County with 29,199 voting and of those 86 percent voted yes in favor of the purchase and donation of land to the federal government for a military camp. Based upon the October 1916 survey, Pierce County obtained 62,433 acres and donated them to the United States. 

Building Camp Lewis

The 1917 national military camp building program would be the largest public project since the Panama Canal. Secretary of War Baker approved the construction of 16 National Guard tent camps in the warmer southern areas. Another 16 camps for the National Army (drafted men), of wood-frame construction, would be built in various locations, including the American Lake Camp. 

Army engineers conducted a preliminary survey in April 1917 and found the best camp site on well-drained land with fine access to the rail lines to the south of American Lake.

The construction quartermaster, Captain David C. Stone, arrived May 26, 1917 (later Major General Stone served as Fort Lewis commander), to initiate construction. His main assistants were two civilians W. J. Roberts, engineer in charge of water, and planner Carl F. Pilat (1877-1933), the New York City planner. They would build the camp based upon Army Quartermaster Department layout and building plans. The layout was designed to fit the terrain and minimize land excavation. At Camp Lewis this would be a U-shape or horseshoe layout.

On June 15 Hurley-Mason of Tacoma received the cost-plus contract to build the camp. They immediately started construction and had the first two buildings ready on June 25-26. One became Captain Stone's headquarters and the other the Hurley-Mason administrative offices. Work crews, some 10,000 of them at the peak, laid water lines, installed sewers, and erected 1,757 major buildings with a capacity of 44,685 soldiers within the 2,500-acre cantonment. This would be the second largest camp of the 16 National Army camps. Construction costs reached approximately $7 million.

Wood frame construction was used throughout the camp. The barracks buildings were two-story, with a mess hall and kitchen on the first floor. Double-hung windows were installed in the barracks and officer's quarters. In the barracks heat came from coal stoves, whereas the officer's quarters were steam heated with boilers in each building. Latrine and shower buildings were placed in-between the barracks. The hospital structures reflected better quality materials and steam heat from a central plant. 

On July 10 the first barracks were completed and workers moved into them. In short order additional barracks opened. As workers rushed to finish the camp, on July 18, 1917, the War Department in General Order No. 95 named the emerging installation Camp Lewis. This honored Captain Meriwether Lewis, the commander of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition. By mid-August some 7,000 workers had completed 500 buildings. Construction had progressed so well that some barracks areas could accept troops by August 27. A contingent of officers arrived the next day and temporarily resided in enlisted barracks. 

The Wild West Division

By September 1, 1917, Camp Lewis was 90 per cent complete and ready for conscripted men to become soldiers in the 91st Division. Already at the camp were thousands of officers and men, a regular army truck company transporting building materials, and two volunteer ambulance companies. The camp's official opening day was set for September 5, to be marked by the arrival of draftees from King County. The day before they were to report to the camp, Seattle gave the local draftees a patriotic send-off with a parade, concert, and dance. The opening of Camp Lewis, the army's major West Coast training facility, was a significant historic day for the entire state. Plans called for one of the King County conscripts to be the first to enter the camp gate and be given special recognition. However, Arthur W. Goff (1888-1950), a draftee from eastern Oregon, mistakenly reported directly to Camp Lewis instead of to his local draft board. Goff arrived hours ahead of the Seattle conscripts and became the first draftee to enter Camp Lewis. By November 11, 1917, the camp population had reached 45,000.

Camp Lewis had been built at the lowest per capita cost, $142 per assigned soldier, compared to the highest, Battle Creek, Michigan at $182. Camp Lee, Virginia, was the next lowest cost at $146.

Major General Henry A. Greene and his officers and cadre had a huge task, to shape citizen-soldiers into a fighting force. His troops came from the Western states and Alaska. On their uniforms they wore a green fir-tree insignia. The division became known as the "Wild West Division." The camp streets would be named for the Western states, the Alaska territory and geographical place names within them.

The proud Hurley-Mason workers donated money to construct an impressive gate to span the road to division headquarters. Soon known as the Liberty Gate, the structure was built of fieldstone towers topped by squared logs to resemble Northwest block houses. On the sides were sentry stations for foot travel. This gate would stand at the post entrance for 40 years and then be moved to its present location with the construction of the highway that became Interstate 5. 

Taking Nisqually Reservation Lands

The 70,000 acres that the non-Indian politicians and voters of Pierce County had offered to the U.S. Army included 3,353 acres of Nisqually Indian allotments, comprising about two thirds of the Nisqually Reservation. The reservation lands were located away from the cantonment on the western edge of the larger camp site. The Nisqually tribal lands were valuable properties containing river-bottom land and excellent grazing prairies. Since these lands were not in the immediate construction project they were not part of the initial 62,433 acres that Pierce County obtained and donated to the federal government.

When the cantonment opened in September 1917, the first training areas and firing ranges were located close to the constructed cantonment, but by late October troops were conducting maneuvers on the Nisqually lands. Conflict developed as Nisqually farms were damaged by troops in training. In December 1917, Brigadier General James A. Irons (1857-1921), acting commander of Camp Lewis, announced that Camp Lewis needed the Nisqually tribal lands for an artillery range. Army officials considered the range crucial in the proper training for the war in Europe.

In order to acquire the Nisqually reservation lands for the army base, on February 4, 1918, the Pierce County Condemnation Board started condemnation proceedings against the Nisqually landowners. However, this action was challenged on the grounds that Pierce County had no authority over these treaty-reserved lands, which the Indian owners asserted could only be alienated or removed by actions of the United States Congress. However, on April 4, 1918, Pierce County Superior Court Judge W. O. Chapman (1859-1939), overseeing the condemnation proceedings, ruled that legal precedents made condemnation of the reservation lands legal. An Indian Board appraised the land at $93,760, while the county assessed it at $70,662. On April 18 the parties compromised on $75,840.

With the price set, the Nisqually tribal members had only two weeks to vacate their lands. Patriotic spirit and the desire to keep within the bonded budget left the Nisqually landowners with unfair appraisals. Most were unable to find comparable land with their settlement payments and and as a result Nisqually families ended up scattered around the state. In recognition of the unfair payment, the United States Congress in 1921 appropriated $65,000 as compensation to the Nisqually families who lost their land to Camp Lewis and the war effort.

Training at Camp Lewis 

The Ninety-First Division seriously trained in anticipation of possible service in Europe. Recruits learned close drill, military traditions, bayonet and hand-to-hand combat, they went to the rifle and machine gun ranges, engaged in mock battles in trenches on the Camp Lewis training areas, and experienced gas attacks in special rooms.

While training hard, the soldiers had some free time. The YMCA erected 10 recreation huts, each providing reading rooms, letter-writing desks, and classrooms. The YWCA provided a hostess house with writing desks and entertainment. A fireplace in the sitting room made it a warm and cheery place (this building later served as the officer's club until demolished in 1971). The Liberty Library near the YWCA hostess house, opened on November 28, with 6,000 donated books. Six months later the collection had grown to about 50,000 volumes. A Red Cross convalescent house opened on February 23, 1919. This beautiful structure provided facilities so relatives could visit with recovering soldiers at the nearby hospital (today this is the Family Resource Center). 

The army believed sports contributed to a soldier's well-being and helped prepare them for battle. Boxing was very popular with former world lightweight champion Willie Ritchie (1891-1975) (real name Gerhardt Steffen) as a camp boxing instructor. Ninety-First Division units formed baseball and football teams and the camp put together football and baseball teams that included professional players who had been drafted or joined. In 1919 the camp football team played a Marine team in the Rose Bowl, with the Marines winning 19 to 7. Camp Lewis troops also participated in other community activities. Troops put on a "Wild West Show," a rodeo at the Remount Station in November 1917. In December 1917 one hundred signers from the camp performed at the Tacoma Tree of Light Celebration.

Progressive Camp Lewis

During World War I, the Progressive Movement had a powerful influence. The war mobilization created an opportunity to make men "more moral." President Woodrow Wilson created a Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA) charged with in-camp and community recreation. The CTCA mandate included the repression of alcohol and vice and instead promote healthy recreation.

General Greene and the CTCA worried over Seattle's "diverse and open dens of vice," where his troops might spend off-duty hours. The general made Seattle off-limits in the fall of 1917 and did not lift the ban until early 1918.

As an alternative, the general formed the Camp Lewis Amusement Company to design and build a recreation center with theatres, restaurants, billiard's hall, ice cream parlor, tailors, and a bank. Located across the Pacific Highway from the camp, it would be named in his honor, Greene Park. To accommodate relatives visiting soldiers, a Salvation Army hut provided sleeping rooms. When the demand for accommodations outpaced the hut, the (about) 150-room Salvation Area hotel, the Red Shield Inn, opened on December 7, 1919. 

The Red Shield Inn is the only surviving feature of Greene Park and today serves as the Fort Lewis Museum. During the 1920s, as the Camp Lewis population declined, Greene Park declined as well, with a number of businesses burning down or closing. 

Serving in World War I

After some nine months of training at Fort Lewis, the Ninety-First Division, 27,000 strong, shipped out June 21 to June 24, 1918, to a port of embarkation and sailed for Europe in July. General Greene did not lead the division in battle. Major General William Johnston assumed command. The division's first combat came with the Meuse-Argonne offensive that was launched September 25. The offensive broke through the German lines with the Ninety-First performing exceptionally well. On October 4 the division stood down and 12 days later fought in Belgium in the Battle of Flanders, one of the final battles of the war.

The Ninety-First Division had an outstanding record, capturing 2,300 German prisoners, 400 machine guns, and a large number of field guns and tanks. This came with a loss of 1,100 killed in action or missing. Five division soldiers earned America's highest honor, the Medal of Honor. A University of Washington graduate and Seattle resident, First Lieutenant Deming Bronson (1894-1957), earned the Medal of Honor for leading several attacks while seriously wounded.

After the War

With the departure of the Ninety-First Division, the Thirteenth Division was organized at Camp Lewis with General Irons commanding. Its men were training in trench warfare when the Armistice ending the war was signed on November 11, 1918. Camp Lewis changed gears and converted to a separation center. At the Armistice, the camp population stood at 8,000 and a discharge system was established to release 300 per day. Additional soldiers returned to the camp from overseas beginning in January 1919 and brought the camp population to 13,800 with 500 per day discharged. 

Recreation became important as separating soldiers had fewer training duties and to keep morale high diversions became necessary. Greene Park remained busy and camp sports program stayed active. A number of drafted professional baseball players in the camp participated in unit and the post team. In 1918 the Northwest professional league recognized the Camp Lewis team abilities and invited it to join the league, but military obligations prevented its participation.

On February 6, 1919, Secretary of War Baker authorized sending troops to Seattle in response to the 60,000 strong workers strike. The strike had begun with shipyard workers striking as their wages were cut and layoffs due to reduced shipbuilding following the war. In early February other unions joined the strike in sympathy. This included the Electrical Workers, who operated the city electrical system, saying they would shut down the electric lights. The strikers did close down essential services on February 6, and no lights or streetcars were in operation. Camp Lewis commander, Major General John L. Hayden, led 800 troops to Seattle, ready for any emergency. The strike was settled without violence with strikers returning to work on February 12.

An Era of Decline

General of the Armies and Army Chief of Staff, John J. Pershing (1860-1948), inspected Camp Lewis on January 21, 1920, as part of a national tour of army facilities. He found the camp to be in a deteriorated state. Pershing noted that the buildings had not been maintained; they were rotting away and falling to pieces for want of maintenance. The troops had accomplished whatever repairs had been made, but they lacked tools and materials. 

The separation center went out of business in 1920, leaving elements of the Fourth Division, some 1,112 men to occupy a deteriorated cantonment. Some abandoned barracks and hospital buildings were converted to homes, which provided substandard living. The army budget entered a very lean time, with maintenance suffering. A number of fires destroyed buildings and further contributed to the poor appearance.

While the camp declined, a few events captured the attention of Tacoma residents. The airship Shenandoah docked at the camp mooring mast on October 18, 1924, as 15,000 citizens watched. Charles A. Lindbergh (1902-1974), the famous aviator, buzzed the parade grounds on September 13, 1927, in his plane Spirit of St. Louis. He had come to the Pacific Northwest during a national tour.

Efforts at Improvement

At least one area of the camp witnessed some improvement in 1920 with the relocation of 500 horses from Camp Dodge, Iowa. This required the restoration of the abandoned Remount Station. Sports served to somewhat compensate for poor living conditions. In 1921 Camp Lewis organized eight polo teams. Playing at the Camp Lewis Polo Field the teams introduced polo to the Seattle and Tacoma area.

Efforts to improve the camp's appearance included the post commander General Charles H. Muir (1860-1933) planting Lawson Cypress trees at the gate. A Tacoma resident, Harold Manning, had organized a tree campaign to supply trees to beautify the camp. General Muir also placed monuments to former commanders at the gate and planted additional trees along the road to the headquarters.

Tacoma citizens unhappy with Camp Lewis's limited use organized for action. For example the Tacoma Rotary Club called for the government to station more troops or return the property. In a pamphlet they note that Pierce County residents pay $187,000 a year to pay off the 20-year bond, and lose another $100,000 in property taxes. The pamphlet describes the camp as "almost uninhabitable" and fewer than 1,000 men stationed there. Buildings were falling down; the large Liberty Theatre near the gate had been condemned for fear of falling in on the men. The Rotary Club called for the government to use the camp or return it, claiming that the Secretary of War had promised in 1916 that a minimum troop level of 15,000 would be maintained.

Camp Lewis had by 1925 a large excess in buildings and most buildings were falling to pieces. One answer to the poor conditions was to sell unneeded buildings. On June 6 a total of 847 buildings east of 6th Street were sold to a Chicago salvage company for $37,750. This was more than half the camp structures. Not included in this sale was the horse Remount Station in the vicinity of 18th to 20th streets, east of 6th, that would survive into World War II. The main cantonment area also remained. 

Camp Lewis Becomes Fort Lewis

The deteriorated state of military posts across the nation received widespread attention in the mid-1920s with newspaper and magazine articles describing the poor conditions. In February 1925 the House and Senate held hearings on the state of military bases. Testimony described the barracks and family housing as dangerous and unsafe. A debate followed concerning how to improve conditions. In March 1926 Secretary of War Dwight F. Davis (1879-1945) submitted a bill to Congress that would fund base construction by selling surplus facilities. The bill, directed that the proceeds from War Department sales of property and buildings shall go into a construction fund for the construction of barracks, hospitals, family housing, and general post improvements.

Camp Lewis, then headquarters to the Third Division, did well in the initial construction program. The post received the largest share of any post of the August and December appropriations. Funding was received for barracks, a hospital, and officers and noncommissioned officer's housing.

The new construction would be permanent buildings in well-planned communities. Leading architects and city planners were involved in the building plans and post layouts. The buildings would be pleasant to live in and attractive. With respect to layout the planners were directed to provide effective arrangements that cut infrastructure costs. War Department General Orders No. 15, on September 30, 1927, renamed the camp Fort Lewis since construction would make it a permanent post. Fort Lewis would serve the nation in future wars and national defense to the present and into the future. 

To go to Part 2, click "Next Feature"


Alan H. Archambault, Fort Lewis: Images of America (Chicago: Arcadia Press, 2002); W. P. Bonney, History of Pierce County, Vol II (Chicago: Pioneer Publishing Company, 1927); Nancy K. Bristow, Making Men Moral: Social Engineering during the Great War (New York: University Press, 1996); Belmore Browne, Camp Lewis (Tacoma: Commercial Bindery and Printing Company, 1918); D. Colt Denfeld, "World War I Mobilization Camps" Journal of America's Military Past (Winter 2002); Alice Palmer Henderson, The Ninety-First: the First At Camp Lewis (Tacoma: John Bair Publishing, 1918); Carl F. Pilat. "Camp Lewis American Lake, Wash," The Architectural Record, No. 43 (January 1918); Erik B. Villard, "A History of Camp Lewis," (2004) draft manuscript, U.S. Army Center of Military History; "Cantonments Ready All But Camp Meade," The New York Times, September 2, 1917, p. 10; "Kris Kingle In Khaki," The New York Times, December 16, 1917, p. Drama X7; "Pershing's Route On Inspection Trip," The New York Times, November 27, 1919, p. 18; "The Wild West Division," The New York Times, June 20, 1919, p. 42; "Restore Remount Soon At Camp Lewis," Tacoma News Tribune, August 10, 1920, and "Camp Lewis To Sell Buildings," Tacoma News Tribune, June 6, 1925, Clipping file, Tacoma Public Library, Tacoma, Washington; "Tacoma Citizens Want Camp Lewis," The New York Times, October 30, 1923; "Begins Rebuilding Army Structures," The New York Times, August 19, 1926, Automobiles Section, p. 22; the Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Deming Bronson Receives the Medal of Honor on November 19, 1929" (By David Wilma), (accessed January 10, 2008); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "First conscripts enter U.S. Army's Camp Lewis on September 5, 1917" (by Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.), (accessed October 5, 2016). See also Jane T. Merritt, "Fort Lewis: Evolution of a Landscape," Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History Vol. 5, No. 4 (Winter 1991), 27-32; Cecelia Svinth Carpenter, Maria Victoria Pascualy, and Trisha Hunter, Images of America: Nisqually Indian Tribe (Charleston: Arcadia Press, 2008); Cecelia Svinth Carpenter, Stolen Lands: The Story of the Dispossessed Nisquallies (Tacoma: Tahoma Research Service, 2007); Robert H. Ruby, John A. Brown, and Gary C. Collins, A Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Northwest (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014); "Nisqually Indians Throng Courtroom," Tacoma Times, April 17, 1918, p. 8; "Indians' Claims Are Aided," The Seattle Times, February 3, 1921, p. 9; "Bus War at Camp Brings in New Company," Ibid., December 7, 1917, p. 22.
Note: This essay was revised on October 5, 2016, and corrected and expanded on February 16, 2017.

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