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Keep terms or give it back

A camp caught in the middle

Wooden quarters like these were ripe for arsonists and accidents ??" over 250 fires spread across the base in the 1920s. U.S. Army photo

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Following World War I, two events of consequence affected Camp Lewis. First, the vast majority of jubilant doughboys hurried home from Europe and immediately separated from the military. Second, the green timber, which had been rapidly hammered together to form the base in 1917, began to deteriorate.  Soon there were few soldiers left to stare out broken windows onto empty streets littered with debris.  As the roaring 20s began, Camp Lewis' future looked mighty bleak.

The fight

The original agreement that governed the land deal was open-ended in Secretary Of War Baker's promise.  Part of it stated, "... as long as the appropriations made by Congress ... demands upon the mobile forces (permit), I will establish (at Camp Lewis) a division of mobile troops."  Notice, Baker said he would only keep a division here when it was necessary.  After the war, the military was hallow - they didn't have a division to put here.

Tacoma newspapers, civic clubs and local government officials, however, weren't pleased that the land they gave wasn't being used to its potential.  The part of the agreement they remembered was "... if the U.S. should ever cease to use the tract as a site for a permanent mobilization, training and supply station, title to the land would revert to Pierce County."

In April 1922, headlines in Tacoma and Seattle read: "War Department plans virtual abandonment of Camp Lewis."  While Secretary of War John Weeks down played the stories, he wasn't able to brush aside that the base wasn't being used.  During the first half of the decade, as many as a couple thousand to as few as several hundred troops were stationed here.  On September 23, 1921, the War Department put the headquarters of the Third Division at Camp Lewis, a few hundred troops, with the rest of the division units spread across the western states.  It made little impact economically in the community.

Worse than the low troop population was the physical state of the camp.  In 1922, Tacoma Times reporter Clark Squire wrote that the camp's roads, water and sewer systems were breaking down.  He said the theater was condemned for fear the roof would collapse, and windows everywhere were shattered.  While Congress wasn't keen on spending money on military camps, Camp Lewis' Commanding General Maj. Gen. Robert Alexander estimated that it would cost $4 million to rebuild the camp.  He called Lewis a "ghost post."  Most training at the time consisted of ROTC, the National Guard and the Citizen's Military Training camp program.

A post is born

In 1925, auctioneers sold half of the base's buildings, 847 in all.  At that same time, there were 250 fires that burned nearly a million dollars of property.  One thousand officers and enlisted lived on the base, and a Congressional committee came inches to closing the base.  

It was the fact that the land would revert back to the county, however, that saved it. And in 1927, construction began on permanent brick buildings still in use today.  The red brick quadrangle barracks on main post which today houses I Corps, DPCA and other units and agencies, along with the Main Post Chapel, housing for officers and Broadmoor and Greenwood housing areas rose from the dust of the old Camp Lewis.  Then, on September 30, 1927, Camp Lewis was changed to Fort Lewis, becoming a permanent military post.  After so many years of decay, the post was on the upswing.  

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