History Next to the Sea: Fort Casey Historical Park on Whidbey Island

By Lara Dunning

Lighthouses conjure up romantic images of lights illuminating surly seas for sea captains. Seaside forts speak of a different history with artillery guns and soldiers watching for enemy ships. Where can both of these be experienced in the same day? Fort Casey Historical Park on Whidbey Island.

Docent Dick Malone_WEB

Admiralty Head Lighthouse

“Build ‘em stout, and make ‘em last,” was the motto of popular German lighthouse architect Carl Leick. Not only did he want his structures to last, he wanted them to be beautiful as well. Admiralty Head Lighthouse is a perfect example. The two story residence and 30- foot tower was laid with 18- inch thick brick walls and covered with white stucco. Understated Victorian embellishments like peaked window frames and two arched porch columns adds a touch of charm.

Now a museum, it’s a reminder of the early days of navigation.

On my visit, Dick Malone, a docent at Admiralty Head Lighthouse and Fort Casey, takes me outside and points to the fort’s grassy southern point.

FC Campgrounds 4_WEB

 

“The original lighthouse was built in 1860 at Admiralty Head’s true geographic point. In 1903, when construction was underway at Fort Casey, it was moved up here,” he says.

The original lighthouse, called Red Bluff Lighthouse, was the first wooden lighthouse built in Washington Territory. Light from its stationary Fresnel lens could be seen for 16 miles. Admiralty Head Lighthouse sits atop a 100 foot bluff and its light was seen for 17 miles.

Rotating lense_WEB

 

Inside the museum I get a close up view of two Fresnel lenses: a Fourth Order fixed and a Fourth Order rotating bull’s-eye lens. I also learn about settler growth on the island during the 1850s and see pictures of Red Bluff Lighthouse and the construction and completion of Admiralty Head Lighthouse.

Most importantly, the one thing everyone wants to do―walk up the spiral staircase and take-in the 360 degree view.

Fort Casey

From the lantern house it’s easy to see why the government decided to create a coastal defense system, known as the “Triangle of Fire,” along Admiralty Inlet. Three miles west, next to Port Townsend is Fort Worden. Northwest of that, on Marrowstone Island, is Fort Flager. Like it was over a century ago, all ships heading south to Seattle or Bremerton must cruise through Admiralty Inlet.

Camp Casey Beach_WEB

To better understand the fort I go on a free 45 minute guided battalion tour, which is scheduled on summer weekends.

Malone tells our group, “Construction began in 1897 and forts like these took ten years to complete.”

That means ten years of moving dirt, pouring concrete, mounting artillery guns and finally―training.

Why the concern? At the turn of the century the ultimate weapon was the battleship. Cruising at 20 knots it had a fully stocked armory and 12 inches of “belt armor” to protect it. With its 100 guns the “Triangle of Fire” was positioned to defend against battleships entering Admiralty Inlet on their way to the Naval Shipyard in Bremerton.

Artillery at Fort Casey ranged from 3” rapid fire guns, 10” D.C. rifles and 12” mortars. The original guns were salvaged, but in the 1960s two 10” D.C. rifles from the Philippines were installed. One has battle scars from Japanese fire.

Fort Casey Grounds 3_WEB

Highlights of the tour are a visit to the “Powder Room” where remnants of copper gathered water to keep the gunpowder dry from the “Pacific Northwet,” a live demonstration (volunteers encouraged) of how the 617 lb. shells were moved up to loading area above and a trip into the unlit subterranean communication room called the Switchboard. It’s said that a ghost of a British solider roams its dark passages―we didn’t see him that day.

In 1956, Washington State Parks Department purchased the southern portion of Admiralty Point, which included the gun emplacements and Admiralty Head Lighthouse. The park includes 35 campsites, many along Keystone Spit with water views, as well as, 1.8 miles of hiking trails, a boat launch, hot showers and scuba diver restrooms. All of which makes it easy to spend the day exploring Fort Casey Historical Park and let its history take hold of your imagination.