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Military Base Reuse in Seattle

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Many parks in Puget Sound, both small and large, exist today because of their development, use, and preservation as parks from former use as military bases. These include Fort Worden State Park Conference Center near Port Townsend, Fort Steilacoom near Tacoma, Strawberry Hill Park on Bainbridge Island, Discovery, Lake Union, and Magnuson parks, and Burke-Gilman Playground in Seattle. As world military conflicts have come and gone, so has the growth and decline of military facilities. The declaration by the U.S. Army of Seattle's Fort Lawton as surplus in the mid-1960s set the stage for a new tool that would allow cities to gain parklands at little or no cost. Senator Henry Jackson (D-WA), drafted legislation that provided the basis for the current-day National Park Service, Federal Lands to Parks Program. This program permitted surplus federal lands to be made available to local authorities at little or no cost for park and recreation uses.

Beginning in the 1980's, the Department of Defense initiated five Base Realignment and Closure Commissions, also known as BRACs. These commissions reviewed military goals, facilities and future plans all over the world. Their recommendations resulted in the closure of almost 100 major installations, 55 major realignments of people or equipment, and 235 minor actions. BRACs presented the City of Seattle with two opportunities for gaining parklands: Naval Station Puget Sound (western portion of Warren G. Magnuson Park); and Naval Reserve Center, Seattle (Lake Union Park).

Military Development in Puget Sound

The geography of Puget Sound meant that most military developments were oriented toward coastal defenses. Early Euro-American settlement in the mid-1800s brought limited development of upland forts near Puget Sound, and adjacent to major rivers such as the Nisqually and Columbia. Major installations included Fort Vancouver and Fort Steilacoom, both developed in 1849.

After Washington became a state in 1889, settlement increased rapidly. By the 1890s, local governments around Puget Sound saw the siting of military bases as a stimulus to regional economic development. Both Fort Lawton, near Seattle, and Fort Lewis, near Tacoma, were started when local groups assembled land from private property owners and deeded it without cost to the federal government. At the same time the government also saw the need for a west coast naval facility and established the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in 1891.

World War I did not bring additional military facilities to the region, but it was an economic boon for Puget Sound shipyards. It is estimated that more than 25 percent of the U. S. Shipping Board fleet was constructed in the region. After the 1918 armistice, the U.S. economy went into a severe depression as the nation shifted from a wartime to a peacetime economy.

World War II brought about the development of a number of new military facilities in the region such as McChord Field in 1939, but not to the extent found in other parts of the United States. The construction of factories for aircraft and naval vessel production fueled both population and economic growth. Seattle ranked as one of the top three sites in war contracts per capita, and Washington state ranked as one of the top two states for war contracts per capita. Airplane and ship contracts in 1943-1944 were valued at three times the total of all manufacturing in the state in 1939. During the war, Puget Sound was the site of dozens of military bases, among them Paine Field, Naval Air Station Seattle, Fort Lawton, Keyport Torpedo Station, and Bangor Naval Ammunition Depot.

It was reported that during the war there was great demand for recreational programs for military personnel and their families. In response, Seattle Parks and Recreation expanded programs and created a staff of recreational professionals. The military also used Seattle parks as temporary wartime facilities. Anti-aircraft guns were placed in Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill, the GAR Cemetery on Capitol Hill, and other locations.

Until the Korean War in the 1950s, both Fort Lawton and NAS Seattle saw little activity and there were calls by community leaders for decommissioning them. The start of the Cold War brought the construction of new missile batteries at Fort Lawton and at 11 other locations around the region. The Nike air defense program was intended to protect industrial, financial and transportation facilities in Seattle and other large metropolitan areas. The first battery was commissioned in late 1955 and the last was closed in 1974.

It is documented that neither Fort Lawton nor NAS Seattle met the economic development desires of Seattle's early business community. No single factor was identified, but political and technical factors may have played a role. During and immediately after World War II, military technology, particularly aircraft technology, had progressed to the point where existing flight facilities were too small to accommodate takeoffs and landings. During the war there were reports that communities surrounding NAS Seattle complained about aircraft noise and the use of flight activities of aircraft with live munitions.

By the early 1970s the Army and the Navy proposed major closures, and by mid-decade large portions of Discovery Park and Warren G. Magnuson Park had become parkland. Smaller parcels in each park were transferred periodically to Seattle Parks during the 1980's and 1990's through the Federal Lands to Parks program. Over the last 20 years, Seattle Parks and Recreation has worked to redevelop each site into a large regional park, each with unique characteristics to bring to the city and its citizens.

Updated February 26, 2007
Learn more about
Parks with Military History

Discovery Park History: Fort Lawton, West Point Lighthouse, and West Point Treatment Plant

Lake Union Park History: Naval Reserve Center, Seattle

Warren G. Magnuson Park History: Naval Air Station, Seattle

Lake Union Armory
Lake Union Armory

Warren G. Magnuson Park
Magnuson Park
World Flight Monument

West Point Lighthouse
at Discovery Park
Photo by Sean Hoyt

Officers' Quarters
at Discovery Park
Photo Transportation
by Herbert Whitman

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