Pierce County boosters offer 70,000 acres of county land as site for major West Coast military installation on October 15, 1916.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 1/05/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11009

On October 15, 1916, the Pierce County Military Base Committee, a group of local boosters seeking to bring an army post to the Nisqually Plains near American Lake south of Tacoma, meets Secretary of War Newton D. Baker (1871-1937) and proposes that the county donate 70,000 acres to the federal government for army use. The offer culminates more than two decades of effort by Pierce County boosters and some army officers to bring a major army facility to the American Lake prairies, which have been used by National Guard and regular army troops for maneuvers and temporary encampments since 1890. Local advocates note that the prairies offer open space for maneuvering with well-drained soils that don't become a sea of mud in rains, and that the site is located on major rail and road routes and near the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. After Baker formally accepts the offer and Pierce County voters approve the purchase of the land, the army will open Camp Lewis on the donated land in 1917. The site will later become Fort Lewis and then Lewis Main of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Nisqually Plains Maneuvers

In June 1890 two Washington militia infantry regiments and a cavalry battalion conducted a mock war on the Nisqually Plains at American Lake, located south of Tacoma in Pierce County. The prairies near the lake offered open space for maneuvers. A site known as the Murray property on American Lake was leased for a tent camp. It had fresh water for drinking and American Lake for bathing. The encampment was named Camp Ferry in honor of Washington governor Elisha P. Ferry (1825-1895). The 1890 maneuvers were deemed a success, the site was considered ideal for training, and larger militia maneuvers began to be held there every other year.

Two members of Washington's U.S. congressional delegation, Senator Addison Foster (1837-1917) and Representative Francis W. Cushman (1867-1909), pushed for the War Department to purchase the American Lake Nisqually Plains maneuver area. In 1902, when the War Department searched for locations to create four training installations, boosters notified department officials of the American Lake site and its advantages, but other locations were selected. In 1903 the State of Washington purchased 220 acres of the Murray property as a permanent encampment location. That became Camp Murray, which as of 2015 remains the Washington National Guard headquarters. Also in 1903, Brigadier General Frederick Funston (1865-1917) recommended to the War Department that the federal government purchase the adjacent American Lake maneuver area given its excellent terrain and location. His recommendation was not followed.

The Militia Act, which Congress passed in 1903, codified the federalization of National Guard units and personnel and provided federal funding for summer encampments and maneuvers. Regular army units were funded to participate with the National Guard in these exercises. The federal funding and emphasis on improving the National Guard made possible large-scale American Lake maneuvers in 1904. Those two-week-long exercises included regular army units in mock battles with National Guard units from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. General Funston, a Medal of Honor recipient, commanded the 1904 encampment. Another Medal of Honor recipient and distinguished officer, Lieutenant General Arthur MacArthur (1845-1912), served as an observer. The maneuvers included 4,200 guardsmen and regular army troops. They had exercises in how to attack an entrenched position and how to defend one. There was also training in field maneuvers, convoys, and medical treatment. Following the maneuvers, army officers who had participated encouraged acquisition of the site for training. They noted the large area with prairie that served well for field operations. In addition the location had excellent railroad access, demonstrated by the orderly arrival of troops from various locations. Its proximity to Puget Sound ports and to Canada were additional pluses. The location could also easily be linked to Alaska and military facilities there.

In 1906 Secretary of War William Howard Taft (1857-1930), reporting on a survey to find a site for a major Pacific Northwest army post, indicated that the American Lake maneuver area was the best. He believed it could be obtained on reasonable terms. A brigade post there would allow the army to close small posts built during the Indian wars of the prior century. Fort Walla Walla and Fort Wright at Spokane were in the small-post category and could be disposed of. But Congressional funding for site-acquisition was not forthcoming. Instead, combined maneuvers with regular and National Guard troops continued. The 1908 maneuvers were substantially larger with more than 8,000 troops participating. Army engineers preceded the maneuvers, completing detailed maps. More than 30,000 acres was leased from property owners.

In 1912 the War Department again advocated the purchase of the American Lake maneuver grounds, calling for a brigade-size infantry post (4,500 troops) to be established there. The American Lake location was chosen over Fort Lawton in Seattle and Vancouver Barracks in Clark County since those posts both lacked maneuver space, although they were to be retained as permanent garrison posts. American Lake property owners were contacted regarding offers to sell property for the proposed army post, but their asking prices were too high so the War Department dropped the plan.

Boosting American Lake as an Army Camp

In 1915 a new program brought another training camp to American Lake. The first Businessmen's Camp that summer further demonstrated the value of the area for military operations. Attendees at the 26-day camp were businessmen in their late twenties and thirties who were members of the Northwest Men's Preparedness League. The league was a voluntary organization of men attending the camp as civilians to learn military skills. It was advertised as a patriotic way to prepare leaders for war. The organization's vice-president was Stephen Appleby (1869-1950), a graduate of Shattuck Academy in Minnesota, who soon became one of the main advocates for building a regular-army camp and training area at American Lake.

Appleby, a director of the National Bank of Tacoma, was chairman of the Pierce County Military Base Committee, a group of boosters seeking to bring an army post to the Nisqually Plains. It was Appleby who contacted Captain Richard Park (1883-1972) of the Army Corps of Engineers, who in the summer of 1916 was on a West Coast inspection tour seeking a location for a major army post. Park did not have American Lake on his itinerary so Appleby arranged a visit to the site. Captain Park in his report to the Secretary of War recommended the American Lake Nisqually Plains for the major West Coast army post. One week after Park had inspected the American Lake prairies, Major General J. Franklin Bell (1856-1919), commander of the Western Department, came to Seattle to inspect Fort Lawton. Appleby and the Military Base Committee arranged for him to look over the American Lake maneuver area. General Bell drove the roads and walked over the prairies and agreed with Captain Park's assessment. He told the committee that to get the post they should be prepared to donate 30,000 acres. Later he upped the figure to 110,000 acres, but after further discussion agreed to 70,000 acres.

On October 15, 1916, the Pierce County Military Base Committee met with Secretary of War Newton Baker in Washington D.C. The boosters proposed that Pierce County donate 70,000 acres of land near American Lake for a permanent army mobilization, training, and supply station. Committee members at the meeting were Chairman Stephen Appleby; Frank S. Baker (1880-1960), publisher of the Tacoma Tribune; Elbert H. Baker (1854-1933), father of Frank Baker and publisher of the Cleveland Plain Dealer; and Jesse O. Thomas (1877-1967), a Tacoma real-estate businessman. They met initial resistance from Army Chief of Staff Major General Hugh Scott (1853-1934), but persisted. Representing the army at the meeting were General Bell of the Western Department; Captain John B. Murphy (1868-1927) of the Coast Artillery Corps, who had selected sites for the businessmen's camps on the West Coast and was well-versed on the American Lake site; and Captain Park, who had conducted the West Coast survey.

In December 1916, Secretary Baker wrote to Appleby formally accepting the Pierce County proposal. Baker indicated that in return for the 70,000 acres offered by Pierce County, the War Department would maintain "a permanent mobilization, training, and supply station" at American Lake ("70,000 Acres Offered ..."). The secretary also indicated that if the military ceased to use the land as a permanent station it would revert to Pierce County, and that he had taken the proposal to President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) who had endorsed the idea.

The Final Hurdles

With the War Department acceptance in hand, the Pierce County commissioners called for an election to approve a $2 million bond issue to pay for purchase of the 70,000 acres. If the funding was approved, Pierce County could use its power of condemnation to purchase the property whether or not the owners wished to sell. Passing the bond issue required a lot of politicking. Taxpayers had to be sold on the idea and boosters also had to appeal to affected landowners' patriotism to leave their farms and relocate. The Military Base Committee mounted an aggressive campaign to convince voters that the army installation would be a benefit.

Tacoma mayor Angelo V. Fawcett (1846-1928) established committees of local community leaders to spread the word that the army post would foster economic growth. A religious committee sought and obtained the support of local ministers who assured voters that the soldiers would not bring vice and crime to the community. General Bell came to Tacoma and gave a powerful speech at the Tacoma Theatre in favor of the land donation the night before the election. He had sharp comments for the opponents who feared the presence of unruly soldiers in the area. Bell said that soldiers were moral men and would not cause problems.

The election was held on Saturday, January 6, 1917, with a number of businesses delaying opening so employees could vote before coming to work. Some 86 percent of the votes cast were in favor. Tacoma voters supported the bond measure by an 8-to-1 margin, while the rest of the county voted for it by a 4-to-1 margin. Tacoma newspapers predicted that economic success would be coming to Tacoma.

There still existed some legal hurdles to be overcome before the county could condemn the land and turn it over to the federal government. Attorney J. T. S. Lyle (1878-1941) got two bills through the state legislature making the transfer legal. In March 1917 the condemnation process was started. The landowners in the cantonment area were quickly removed and construction on the American Lake camp launched in June 1917. The final acquired area was 62,423 acres that would become Camp Lewis.

Sources: Brian Gerard Casserly, "Securing the Sound: The Evolution of Civilian-Military Relations in the Puget Sound Area, 1891-1984," (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington, 2007); Alice Palmer Henderson, The Ninety-First: The First at Camp Lewis (Tacoma: John C. Barr Publishing, 1918); "Army Post Site," Tacoma Daily News, February 26, 1895, p. 4; "New National Guard," The Oregonian, March 7, 1903, p. 11; "Program at American Lake," Morning Olympian, July 8, 1904, p. 1; "Will Ask Congress to Purchase American Lake Site," Ibid., December 16, 1904, p. 1; "Taft Says American Lake Will Get Brigade Post," Olympia Daily Recorder, July 13, 1906, p. 1; "Bill for a Million for American Lake Army Post," Ibid., December 27, 1906, p. 1; "Plan for Big Army Post at American Lake," Ibid., December 17, 1912, p. 1; "Combat Problem Solved by Guard," The Seattle Times, June 8, 1914, p. 5; "Gen. J. Franklin Bell Holds Out Hopes for Business Men's Camp," Ibid., June 23, 1916, p. 11; "70,000 Acres Offered for Garrison Use," Ibid., December 4, 1916, pp. 1, 5; "Tacoma Eager for American Lake Army Post," Ibid., December 5, 1916, p. 2; "Tacoma Ministers Strongly in Favor of Big Army Post," Tacoma Daily Ledger, December 6, 1916, p. 1; "American Lake Not Vancouver's Rival," The Oregonian, December 6, 1916, p. 17; "General Bell Favors Post," Ibid., December 6, 1916, p. 17; "Baker Advocates Post For Division," Ibid., December 8, 1916, p. 2; "General Bell Raps Army Slanderers," Morning Olympian, January 7, 1917, p. 2; "Big Project Wins By Tremendous Majority," Ibid., January 7, 1917, p. 1; "Army Post Bills Pass Second Reading in House," Ibid., January 25, 1917, p. 4.

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