Liberty Arch Monument gate at Camp Lewis is completed on January 26, 1918.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 1/03/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9250

On January 26, 1918, the workers who have built Camp Lewis (which will later become Fort Lewis and then Joint Base Lewis McChord) in Pierce County complete a lasting monument -- an arched, stone-and-wood main gate to the camp, designed by noted Spokane architect Kirtland Cutter (1860-1939). The workers have raised money for materials and donated their time to erect it. The gate features two stone columns topped with timber bastions, with a cross member completing the arch. Its design recalls early Pacific Northwest blockhouses. In 1957, construction of Interstate 5 will force the relocation and rebuilding of the historic structure at a site near the base's Meriwether Lewis monument.

A Gate Built By Workers

The Camp Lewis gateway, now known as the Fort Lewis main gate, was built by the construction workers who had erected the camp. It would serve as a monument recognizing the impressive camp construction. In the 90 years since its completion, the gate, located just off Interstate 5, has become a Fort Lewis landmark, and thousands of postcards and images have publicized the structure. 

The Hurley-Mason Construction Company of Tacoma employed 10,000 workers to build Camp Lewis in record time. They started construction on June 25, 1917, and by September 3 had the camp ready for 91st Division troops. When the project was nearly completed, Lieutenant Colonel David L. Stone (1876-1959), the constructing quartermaster who directed camp construction, turned his attention to beautification. He proposed painting the wood buildings, but this was not approved. Also, Stone had a leading Tacoma architect, Ambrose J. Russell (1857-1938), design a grand entrance with two 20-foot-tall concrete pylons. From this gate, a tree-lined Lewis Drive would lead to the headquarters building, 3,000 feet to the south. 

J. M. Kent (1871-1943), Hurley-Mason's assistant general superintendent, concerned that the army would not build the Russell design, proposed to company leaders that they build an even more impressive archway as a permanent commemoration of their successful effort. Discussions led to a decision to build an archway or gate at the main entrance, at Pacific Highway (today Interstate 5) that would span Lewis Drive, with a view through the gate to the headquarters building.

A competition was held to select a designer. Twelve architects submitted conceptual drawings. The outstanding Spokane architect Kirtland Kelsey Cutter won the competition. Cutter had a few years earlier designed a stone and timber gate at the Davenport House in Spokane. His Camp Lewis gate would be a similar Arts and Crafts design, with fieldstone pillars and timber bastions on top. Each bastion was 12-foot square and with the pillars reached 30 feet in height. A timber arch spanned the 24-foot-wide road. The gate design resembled the Pacific Northwest blockhouse forts of earlier days.

The Hurley-Mason workers donated 25 cents a stone to cover the cost of materials. The workers' contributions totaled $4,000, and they also provided free labor to build it. Construction started in September 1917 and was completed the following January.

Cypress Trees and Granite Stones

On February 25, 1922, Brigadier General Charles H. Muir (1860-1933), Fourth Division and Camp Lewis commander, planted two Lawson cypress trees, one at each of the stone towers. General Muir spoke wishfully that their spreading branches typify the spread of permanent improvements to come to Camp Lewis. At the, time Muir was aggressively seeking funding for such work.

At another main gate ceremony, on May 11, 1923, three granite stones were dedicated. The Washington State Historical Society donated the stones to honor three gallant and decorated generals who would command Fort Lewis: Brigadier General Muir (later he received his second star as Major General); General Robert Alexander (1863-1941); and Brigadier (later Major General) Joseph D. Leitch (1864-1938). All three would aggressively campaign for permanent camp improvements. These monuments, each shaded by an oak tree, stood at the gate’s northeast corner.

Major General Muir had graduated near the top of his West Point class and became one of the army’s best sharpshooters. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism on July 2, 1898, in Cuba after exposing himself to heavy enemy fire to take out an enemy artillery position. In World War I he led a division and earned the Distinguished Service Medal. He commanded Camp Lewis and the Third Division from August 1920 to November 1922.

Brigadier General Leitch, an 1889 West Point graduate, earned the Silver Star for his heroic actions in Cuba, and in the World War I he received a Distinguished Service Cross. In March 1921 he came to Camp Lewis as Chief of Staff for the Third Division and remained until October 1924. In September 1927 he returned to Fort Lewis as post commander. When he reached mandatory retirement age in March 1928, he retired to San Francisco, but made frequent trips to visit Fort Lewis. 

The third stone honors General Robert Alexander, a remarkable officer who entered the army as a private in 1886 and reached the rank of Major General. He was wounded in the Philippine Insurrection, and during the battle in France in October 1918 he earned the Distinguished Service Cross for gallant work under enemy fire. A 1919 movie, “The Lost Battalion,” a true story, recounted his World War I command of the 77th Division and the action that provided the motion picture title. A 2001 remake of the movie appeared on A&E television channel. General Alexander commanded Camp Lewis from 1925 to 1927, and he turned the first shovel of ground when construction started at the fort to replace the 1917 wooden structures with permanent brick buildings.  

General Alexander retired at the mandatory age in 1927. The general and his wife, Mollie Thomas Alexander (1871-1953), moved to the Walker Apartments in Tacoma (405 6th Avenue) and then to an American Lake home. They frequently entertained, and the retired general spoke at patriotic events. He also became active in state politics, campaigning for prohibition repeal. 

Tacoma business owner and Chamber of Commerce member Harold Manning (1886-1962) led a drive to raise money for planting trees at the camp. The money was used to purchase oak trees that were planted along the street from the gate to the headquarters building, some 3,000 feet in distance. Manning had a strong interest in landscaping and would serve as supervisor of grounds at Camp Murray, Washington, following World War II. 

Further decoration at the gate included low stone walls with posts containing camp unit plaques: 3rd Division, 6th Engineers, 3rd Division Trains, 4th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Ammo Train, 3rd Medical Regiment, 7th Infantry, 30th Infantry, 91st Aero Squadron (observation), 78th Field Artillery, and 10th Field Artillery. 

Rebuilding a Post Treasure

In 1955 the Washington Department of Transportation prepared plans for a four-mile section of Interstate Highway (I-5) through Fort Lewis. The new northbound lanes would require the gate’s demolition. Colonel Benjamin R. Bush (1912-1985), Fort Lewis post engineer, ordered a feasibility study to find a method to preserve the gate, which had become a post treasure. The study team proposed building a replica gate on Division Drive, about two miles north.

The three granite monuments would be moved to the new location, but the memorial Lawson cypress and oak trees had to be destroyed. Oaks were planted at the new site at the relocated granite monuments, and the low stone fence with its plaques was rebuilt at the new gate. Two late-eighteenth-century Spanish 24-pounder cannons (which fired a solid round weighing 24 pounds) went to the new gate. These cannons had been part of the Manila, Philippines, defenses and were brought to the United States just before World War II. They were among a number shipped to this country for use as ornamentation. The cannons went to Benicia Arsenal, California, and about 12 of them ended up in Washington posts, such as Fort Worden, Fort Lawton, and Fort Lewis. 

The original gate closed on February 8, 1957. Woodworth and Company of Tacoma disassembled the original gate and built the new one. The gate’s demolition had special significance for at least one Fort Lewis soldier. Master Sergeant William A. Shelton (1925-1981) received from Woodworth workers a souvenir stone from the original gate. His father, Robert E. Shelton, had been a Hurley-Mason worker who contributed to the gate and helped build it. 

The replica gate included new concrete walls in the two towers. Stone facing similar to the original was laid. The original bastions went on top of the stone-faced towers. The timber arch was moved as one piece and installed. The original Hurley-Mason plaque was reinstalled and reads:

Presented to the UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT by the workingmen who built this cantonment, November 1917.

An Enduring Symbol

The recognition of the gate as a significant part of the Fort Lewis post it has earned it eligibility for recognition in the National Register of Historic Places. Nearby construction has been limited and accomplished in a manner that respects the gate's historic status.

In January 1964 a 15-foot-high Main Gate Map Board with stone framing went up nearby. Its compatible design fit into the historic gate complex. In 1973 bricklaying and carpentry students from a post vocational-training program built a stone-faced public toilet near the gate. As part of a beautification project, completed in January 1974, Company B, 864th Engineer Battalion, added another 60 feet of stone walls on each side of Division Road to match the stone walls at the gate itself.  

Traffic increases and greater security needs required a new main gate. This facility went up near the historic gate. Now the historic structure stands in a park setting near the Meriwether Lewis monument, just off Interstate 5.      


Sources: Synthia Santos, Fort Lewis Historian, "Fort Lewis Memorials and Landmarks,"  Fort Lewis Museum, 2009; "The Liberty Gateway," Pacific Builder and Engineer, December 21, 1917, Vol. 22, No. 51, p. 33; "Maj. Gen. Muir With Silver Shovel Turns Earth for Memorial," Tacoma News Tribune, February 25, 1922, p. 1; "Camp Lewis Commander Made Major General," Tacoma News Tribune, June 14, 1927, p. 1; "Harold Manning, Ex-Deputy Dies," Tacoma News Tribune, November 29, 1962, p. D-5; "Historic Gate Succumbs to Progress," The Ranger, February 10, 1957, p. 1.
Note: This essay was updated on January 5, 2015.

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