Back to Veterans

90 Years of Service at American Lake VA

Email Article Print Article Share on Facebook Share on Reddit Share on StumbleUpon

When President Warren G. Harding signed the Second Langley Bill in May, 1922, he appropriated $17 million for the construction of neuropsychiatric and tuberculosis hospitals.

That piece of legislation led to the funding for the construction of the American Lake Veterans Hospital.

Work on the American Lake facility - built to care for World War I veterans - began in January 1923 as the 94th Veterans Hospital in this country.

Under a revocable license, the Secretary of the Army had authorized the Veteran Bureau's (changed to the Veterans Administration in 1930) use of 377 acres of the 87,000 acres of Fort Lewis property on the western end of American Lake.

The Hurley-Mason Company was awarded the $1.4 million contract for the work. 

A dozen buildings of Spanish American architecture were built.  Still in use today, many of these buildings are now listed on the National Register of Historical Buildings.

The facility officially opened on February 6, 1924 with the mission of neuropsychiatric treatment.  On March 15, 1924, the first 50 patients were transferred to the hospital from the Western State Hospital at Fort Steilacoom.

In September of 1924, Congressman Albert Johnson, a former managing editor for the Tacoma News, visited the campus. 

Years later Johnson, who had served in World War I, returned as a patient.  One day he reputedly remarked to a librarian that while in Congress he had served on the committee that selected the chairs in the hospital.

He went to say that he wished he had selected more comfortable ones.

Ah, Congressional remorse for the treatment of service members.

Like some hospitals, the American Lake facility had large gardens, orchards and pastures, which allowed for a degree of self-sufficiency.

"They used to raise a lot of sheep and chickens here," David Nellis, a retired gardener of 37 years, said.  "They traded for beef from Western State Hospital."

Perhaps one of the last living links to the past, Nellis possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the use of the buildings and how they've changed over the years.

"The golf course over there used to be the pasture for the sheep," he added.

He also related stories about how crows would get drunk on fermented mulberries.

"Crows would get so drunk they could get only one wing to flap at a time, and when he did get airborne he flew to the top of a building and crashed into the roof and then slide down and got caught on a gutter."

Patients at the hospital got a huge kick out of watching the crows.

During World War II, physicians on duty at American Lake Veterans Hospital were commissioned as officer in the Army Medical Corps.  Soldiers convalescing from wounds served as attendants.

After World War II, new programs of treatment were introduced, while established programs were intensified and expanded to care for the influx of veterans.  Bed capacity grew to 925 beds.

During the 1960s and 1970s, an ambulatory surgical services, a 76-bed nursing home unit, a blind rehabilitation services, a substance abuse treatment program, and a 60-bed homeless domiciliary were added to expand the scope of care.

Reminiscent of the Veterans Bureau's early mission to help veteran return to society, during the 1980s and 1990s a vocational rehabilitation program, a residential care program, and a post traumatic stress treatment program were added.

On the eve of the 21st century building renovations across the campus began as well as the expansion of the primary care services and women's health clinic.

As the VA Medical Center on American Lake readies to celebrate its 90th anniversary, it is good to remember the words of President Franklin Roosevelt: 

"You see before you today a monument ... a very definite representation of the national policy of your Government that its disabled and sick veterans shall be accorded the best treatment which medical and surgical science can possibly supply."

comments powered by Disqus