Fort Stevens, Oregon
Located at the mouth of the Columbia River
, Fort Stevens is one of two military fortifications that were named for the first Washington Territorial Governor, Brigadier General Isaac Ingalls Stevens who was killed September 1, 1862 in the Battle of Chantilly, Virginia. Initially named Fort at Point Adams, it was renamed in 1865 to honor General Stevens.
Along with the Post at Cape Disappointment (later renamed Fort Canby) on the Washington side of the river, it was constructed to protect the area from the threat of invasion by pro-confederate English forces from Canada. Although the fort was built during the height of the Civil War, it was not actually completed until one day prior to General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
The original nine-sided earthen fort was formed in the shape of a wide ravelin arrowhead with its salient point aimed towards the River. It was surrounded by a moat, and entry on the south side of the earthwork was via a drawbridge and through a sallyport. A 15-inch smoothbore Rodman cannon capable of firing a 400 pound shell over 5,000 yards was mounted at the prominent center point of the fort. Additional 10-inch smoothbore Rodmans and rifled Parrot guns were located on wooden platforms along the ramparts.
After the Civil War Fort Stevens maintained a defensive presence in the area and the cannons were occasionally test fired, but by the early 1880s the fort had begun to deteriorate. Most of the troops were transferred to the Vancouver, Washington barracks leaving only a small contingent in charge of the ordinance. The guns from the original earthwork fort were dismounted and sold in 1896.
During the 1880s many in the United States feared the nation was threatened by foreign naval powers: the Royal Navy of Great Britain in particular, but Chile, Brazil and China were also considered possible enemies. There was a general build-up of the American Navy and in 1885 a Board of Fortifications was appointed by President Grover Cleveland to study the state of America’s Coastal Defenses. The Board was headed by William Endicott, Secretary of War, and had representatives from both the Army and Navy and also included civilians. The report they presented in 1886 showed America’s defenses were out-dated and in poor repair.
As part of the extensive refortification of America’s Coastal and Harbor defenses, eight reinforced concrete gun batteries were built at Fort Stevens during the late 1890s and early 1900s, a period known as the Endicott Era.
Battery Lewis, named for Captain Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and Battery Walker, named for Colonel Leverett H. Walker, a former commander at Fort Stevens, each contained two 10-inch rifles on disappearing carriages facing the river.
Battery Mishler, named for Captain Lyman Mishler who was killed in action in 1862 during the Civil War, also contained 10-inch rifles on disappearing carriages. Unlike the other four guns in the West Battery its guns were enclosed in circular gun pits and were all-around field of fire guns, enabling them to cover both the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. The design was flawed, however, because when the guns were fired it created so much concussive force that it could cause severe internal injuries and even shatter bones if the crew did not take precautionary measures. In fact one of the Battery Mishler guns was responsible for the only military casualty during Fort Stevens’ history: one soldier was not quick enough and didn’t reach the enclaves in the wall in time and the gun’s recoil killed him.
Note: the six gun emplacements comprising Batteries Lewis, Walker and Mishler were originally called the West Battery, but were later renamed individually with each containing two gun emplacements.
Battery Clark, named for Captain William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, had two gun pits each containing four 12-inch mortars aimed at the mouth of the river. These mortars shot in an arc, using a 1,000-pound shell capable of penetrating the deck of a ship when it plunged down. Since each pair of the mortars required 30 men to load and fire, the gun pits became too crowded and dangerous so two of the guns from each pit were relocated to a battery at Fort Canby in Washington
Battery Pratt, named for Brevet Captain James P. Pratt, killed in 1864 during the Civil War, contained two gun emplacements with 6-inch rifles on disappearing carriages facing the mouth of the river.
Battery Freeman was named for Brevet Colonel Constant Freeman, Corps of Artillery, who served in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Battery Freeman was built inside the original earthen fort. It contained three gun pits, two containing 6-inch guns on Barbette carriages and one with a 3-inch gun on a masking parapet mount.
Battery Smur, named for 3rd Lieutenant Elias P. Smur who died during the war of 1812 had two gun pits, each with a 3-inch gun facing the river on a masking parapet mounts.
Battery Russell was named in honor of Brevet Major General David A. Russell, a former commander of Fort Yamhill, Oregon who was killed in action at the Battle of Opequon, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia in 1864. Battery Russell is located about three-quarters of a mile south of the other Endicott-era gun emplacements and faces the Pacific Ocean. It had two gun emplacements with 10-inch rifles mounted on disappearing carriages.
From the early 1900s until World War I a staff of about 20 regular army officers and 450 men safeguarded the mouth of the river. Fort Stevens was the main headquarters, sending contingents across the river to Fort Canby and also to Fort Columbia, which had been constructed during the Endicott era. The regular army staff was reinforced by National Guard personnel who conducted their annual training exercises at the three forts.
Soon after the United States entered World War I the National Guard was placed on active duty, swelling the Fort’s ranks to 127 officers and over 2,500 enlisted personnel. However at about this same time the two 6-inch guns from Battery Freeman were dismounted and sent across the river to protect Willapa Bay and the four 10-inch rifles from Lewis and Walker were dismounted and sent to the Watervliet Arsenal in New York to be shipped to Europe.
After the war ended and the troops were demobilized, the staffing levels at Fort Stevens decreased substantially. By 1921 a staff of fewer than 75 served mainly as caretakers of the three forts for more than a decade.
World events of the early 1930s undoubtedly caused America to reexamine her coastal defenses. The Nazi party’s rise to power and subsequent seizure of absolute control of Germany and the periodic fighting between the Japanese and Chinese which broke out in 1931 and eventually led to the second Sino-Japanese war in 1937 were cause enough for military strategists to urge increasing the number of troops assigned to coastal fortifications.
Just prior to America’s entry into World War II there was a large increase in Fort Stevens’ garrison and by the end of 1942 over 2,800 were stationed at the fort. Only four of the Endicott era gun batteries still contained armament, albeit obsolete weapons from the turn of the century: Battery Mishler, Battery Russell, Battery Clark and Battery Pratt. Battery Freeman and the remnants of the original earthen fort were razed to create a parade ground.
Late on the night of June 21, 1942, less than seven months after Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war, Fort Stevens was bombarded by artillery fire from the Japanese submarine I-25 which had avoided mine fields by following fishing boats. Surfacing at the mouth of the Columbia River, the submarine fired a total of seventeen 140-mm rounds from its deck guns.
The commander of the I-25, Meiji Tagami, mistakenly believed he was shelling a Naval Submarine base at Tongue Point (Tongue Point is located about 10 miles upriver and although approved the base had not yet been built). At Battery Russell, Captain Jack Wood, peered through a position finder at the gun flashes from the sea and believed they were being fired from ten or eleven miles away which would have been just outside the range of the battery’s guns.
Captain Wood and the men stationed at Battery Russell wanted to fire back, but the eventual decision was made by the Senior Duty Officer for that night, Major Robert Huston, who believed that the submarine was out of range and that returning fire would only give away the precise location of Battery Russell. The shelling at Fort Stevens came within 300 feet of Battery Russell, leaving shell fragments scattered around and creating large craters on the ocean shore in front of the battery. One shell also landed close to a home on DeLaura Beach road about four miles south of the Fort, terrifying the residents.
The I-25 was only one of a group of submarines which had been sent to the Pacific coast by Rear Admiral Yamazaki in response to a bomber attack by sixteen B-25s launched from the U.S.S. Hornet in April, 1942. The day before the attack on Fort Stevens the I-25 had torpedoed and shelled a freighter off of Cape Flattery, Oregon and another sub, the I-26, had shelled the Estevan Point lighthouse on Vancouver Island. Other Japanese attacks on the northwest included incendiary balloon bombs and an air raid attack designed to create massive forest fires. However, until September 11, 2001, the attack on Fort Stevens was the first and only time a military fortification within the contiguous United States had been attacked by a foreign power since the War of 1812.
During the War years Fort Stevens remained vigilant and added two new gun batteries:
Battery AMTB 6 - Clatsop Spit was a reinforced concrete Anti-Motor Torpedo Boat Battery that was completed in 1943. Located about 1,000 yards northwest of the Columbia River South Jetty on land accreted after the jetty was built, it contained two 90mm guns on fixed mounts and two 90mm guns on M1A1 mobile mounts. The guns had an effective range of about 4.5 miles.
Battery 245 located just west of Battery Mishler was a new design in reinforced concrete gun batteries, planned to replace the outdated ones of the Endicott era. It contained two 6-inch rifled guns mounted on shielded M4 Barbette carriages. Unlike the earlier batteries at Fort Stevens in which the guns were mounted atop the batteries with munitions stored below, Battery 245’s guns were mounted separately, one on either side of the gas-proof concrete bunker which housed the ammunition magazines, generator and plotting rooms. Although construction on Battery 245 began in 1942, it was not in service until October 1944, less than one year before the end of the war. The guns were capable of firing armor-piercing projectiles weighing 105 pounds, and had a range of over 15 miles.
After the war ended Fort Stevens was decommissioned and all the munitions were removed by the end of 1947. During the early 1950s the U.S. Air Force established an Air Force Station to provide long-range radar surveillance. The radar sets were mounted on top of Battery Mishler, which had been cemented over after its guns were scrapped. The radar equipment was removed in 1952 and relocated to Naselle, Washington.
Although the Wartime Command center building served as local offices for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, between 1952 and the late 1960s the fort was essentially abandoned. The Officers’ Quarters and other residential buildings had been sold to private individuals.
Due to its location apart from the other gun batteries, Battery Russell had become part of the Fort Stevens State Park day use area in the 1950s. The core fort area that was the park’s namesake was starting to become derelict when in 1971 Oregon State Parks, then a Division of the Highway Department, leased the property from the federal government.
In the mid-1970s a massive cleanup effort began. Park employees along with a crew hired under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) began clearing three decades worth of duff, brush and Scotch Broom from atop the gun batteries.
Today the Fort Stevens Historic Site is a popular tourist attraction. The War Games Building has been converted to a museum, providing interpretive displays from the Civil War through World War II eras. A replica of the earthwork fort was constructed in the original location; it doesn’t have guns on the ramparts, however there are replica Rodman cannons in front of the concrete sallyport. During the summer season volunteers offer a tour of the facility on a 2-1/2 ton army truck (known as a “Deuce and a half”) and a variety of living history programs are presented, culminating in the annual Civil War Reenctment on Labor Day weekend.
Resources / Additional Reading
Fort Stevens State Park Trail Guide and Historic Sites (pdf file)
FortWiki Article on Fort Stevens, Oregon
The artillery at Fort Stevens which were mounted on "disappearing" carriages would recoil back and down into the battery gun pits from the force of being fired. More information about this type of gun carriage can be found here and a detailed history of cannons can be found here on Wikipedia.
June 21, 1942 Bombardment of Fort Stevens:
- Oregon Secretary of State Archives
- The Shelling of Ft. Stevens by Dale Fehringer
- Wikipedia Article
Coastal Defense Study Group (link has many declassified photos and plans ca 1937-45, links to statistics and minutiae, etc.)
National Register of Historic Places 1971 Nomination Form (pdf file)
Friends of Old Fort Stevens website
The Fort Stevens in Washington, DC
Info about American - Anglo relations in the 1800s and early 1900s, Fareed Zakaria, World Policy Journal, 1997
Wikipedia article on the Second Sino-Japanese War