At the height of the Civil War, the Union constructed an earthwork battery on the shore of the Columbia called the Fort at Point Adams. It was renamed Fort Stevens after the slain general and former Washington Territory Governor, Isaac Stevens. The fort was originally part of the Three-Fort Harbor Defenses of the Columbia River. Fort Stevens sat across the river’s mouth from Fort Columbia and Fort Canby on the Washington side.
The battery was built to defend against a possible British attack. It marked a period of high tension between the United States and Great Britain after years of territorial disputes in the region. At the time, there was a very real threat of Britain siding with the Confederate States to keep its economy flush with American cotton and tobacco.
The Civil War ended without incident at the fort, which remained a quiet military installation until the 1900s. In 1906, the now famous British Bark Peter Iredale ran aground on Clatsop Spit. She hit land so hard that three of her four masts snapped from the impact. The wreck became a tourist attraction overnight. The very next day the Oregon Journal reported that “in spite of the gale that was raging scores flocked to the scene of the disaster.”
It was not until World War II, however, that the fort saw any combat action. Out of the darkness, one night in 1942, the Imperial Japanese submarine I-25 had followed Allied fishing boats through the nearby offshore minefield. She fired 17 shells from her 14cm deck gun directly at the fort. This attack made Fort Stevens the only military installation in the continental U.S. to be attacked by the Axis during World War II. Fortunately, there were no casualties and only minimal damage was sustained in the attack. Japanese shells destroyed the backstop of the baseball field and downed several telephone cables.
Most rounds landed far afield in a nearby swamp. Much devastation was averted by the fort’s commander, who ordered lights out across the fort, and kept 12-inch mortars and 10-inch cannons from returning fire. The fort was effectively hidden from the submarine which could make out no targets without the fort’s lights or the muzzle flares from its guns.
The attack fueled a west coast invasion scare. Both the fort and the 1906 shipwreck were wreathed in barbed wire barricades until the end of the war. In 1947, Fort Stevens was decommissioned and transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps then transferred the site to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. Fort Stevens remains open to all as a 4,000-acre state park, and has been a hub for tourism for over a century.
More Fort Stevens Photos
Shadows dominate the corridors of the batteries at Fort Stevens. (Oregon State Archives, 2010) Enlarge Image
A cannon fires at Fort Stevens during a 1971 demonstration. (Oregon State Archives) Enlarge Image
The Columbia River flows behind a battery at Fort Stevens. (Oregon State Archives, 2015) Enlarge Image
The breech of an artillery gun ready for loading at Fort Stevens. (Oregon State Archives, 2015) Enlarge Image