The extent to which the Federal Government has, as a tradition, valued the commercial and strategic significance of the Columbia River is manifested in the array of crumbling battlements which still straddle the great river's mouth. The idea of guarding the Columbia is not a twentieth-century one. Rather, the earliest origins of the fortifications came by way of President Abraham Lincoln's great fear--before and during the Civil War--of Confederate and British ships raiding ports along both the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. In fact, prior to this "big push" to bring a Federal presence to the Northwest, the area, soon to be called Fort Stevens, was ear-marked for use, by the Washington, D.C., in 1850. Ground was finally broken on Fort Stevens in 1863, and the creation of an earthwork was finished in 1865. Ironically enough, the fort's first guns were not mounted until two months after the Rebellion had been quelled. Nevertheless, the completion of the Fort Stevens earthworks, and the addition of redoubts at Columbia and Canby, essentially closed-out a first phase of construction for what would become the HDC.

The advent of the Spanish-American War (1898) and the First World War (1914-1918) brought on a second phase of change for forts Stevens, Columbia and Canby. One of the more interesting additions to the network came in the form of mines. These were a controlled type which would become an integral part of the Columbia's defenses "from the first laying of mine cable in the summer of 1898, during the Spanish War until the removal of ground mines in the closing months of World War II," (Hanft, pg. 181). Up until the latter days of 1942, the network's mines were of a buoyant sort which were anchored to remain at a prescribed depth. After this date, they were replaced by grounded mines which rested at the bottom of the river, (Hanft, pg. 181). At least in the case of the Second World War, the mines were detonated, from Fort Columbia, by switches which were linked to the devices by electrical wiring (twelve groups of thirteen mines), (C. Thayer). This period also rang in both the construction and retrenchment of a new gun line at Fort Stevens, made up of batteries Clark, Mishler, Lewis (deactivated in 1920), Walker (deactivated in 1920), Russell, Pratt (designed to protect mine fields; active through WWII), Freeman (deactivated in 1920), and Smur (deactivated in 1920), at Fort Columbia, made up of Ord (deactivated in 1917), Murphy, and Crenshaw (deactivated in 1920), and at Fort Canby, made up of Allen, Guenther, and O'Flyng (deactivated in 1918). Fitted within the fortifications, for at least some time, was any assortment of 6-inch, 8-inch, and 10-inch rifles, and 12-inch mortars.

Hanft refers to the HDC's Interwar period (1919-1939) as "The Gentle Years," (Hanft, pg. 241). He also views this span of time as being made up of three parts: deceleration (many weapons had been removed between 1917 and 1920), maintenance of existing facilities, and reconfiguration in preparation for any war to come, (Hanft, pg. 241). With troop strength cut as a result of the Great War's end, it was in late-1921 that those who remained on-post, at the HDC, were placed on caretaking status (primarily for the maintenance of guns, mines, and fire-control stations). This tenor of dormency lasted until the mid-1930s, when, with world-wide conflict on the horizon, troop numbers were steadily increased to where they reach their eventual zenith of 2,800 in late-1942 (primarily comprised of area National Guard units).

It is arguable that the Second World War is the HDC's defining era. Certainly, the network's highest level of alert, as well as its involvement in a potential exchange of fire with a Japanese submarine, make WWII, at the HDC, a period of great interest. During the War, the HDC boasted an impressive array of armaments. We have spoken of the mining of the inner Columbia, but perhaps the most alluring aspect of the World War II HDC, was the ten-inch "disappearing" rifle. Although aged (installed at the beginning of the century), the rifles, when competently manned, could do modern-day damage. The derivation of their interesting name comes from their ability to, in essence, "disappear"--the rifle's recoil drove it backward to an automatic locking-point where the weapon could then be cleaned and reloaded out of the view of enemy ships, (Webber, pg. 48-49). One other defensive measure, used by the HDC, was the Sperry searchlight. Even by modern standards, the power of the searchlight is astonishing. It had the ability, according to a veteran searchlight operator, out of Fort Canby, to illuminate a ship at six to eight miles, (C. Thayer, W. Wilson). Moreover, as radar was mainly available for just air defense, the searchlights were vital in the event of sea operations, (Webber, pg. 51-52).

The 10-inch rifle, remote-controlled mines, and searchlights all highlighted the strong defense that the HDC could present. However, as the War lingered, and Allied victory appeared more and more of a certainty, the HDC went into a steady stand-down. Accordingly, troop numbers dropped-off until 1 November 1946, when the War Department Seacoast Defense Armament Board recommended that the HDC be eliminated and the armament and property be disposed of, (Lindstrom, pg. 11). Outside of Fort Stevens' brief tenure as an U.S. Air Force installation, the lands of the HDC quickly became demilitarized, made primarily public, and now stand as the home of forts Stevens, Canby, and Columbia State Parks.


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Last updated: Jan. 8, 2000.
James C. Scott (e-mail).