Park Happenings: The Guns of Cape Disappointment, Part 2

This historic image of Gun One of Battery Harvey Allen shows the size and design of the disappearing rifles brought there in 1906. You can see the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse in the distance.

Visitors to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Cape Disappointment walk past Battery Harvey Allen before entering the museum. We are asked frequently about the battery and many people pose their questions about the historic structure in a similar way. They start off by pointing outside with a quizzical look on their face and then ask, "World War II; World War I?" They are often surprised when the staff replies that the battery was built before either of the world wars. Battery Harvey Allen and Battery Elijah O'Flyng are both 100 years old this year.

By 1874, when Fort Cape Disappointment was officially renamed Fort Canby, the original cannons placed on the cape were in barely operable condition. During the late 1800's, the United States' harbor defenses were somewhat abandoned with the focus on other forms of defenses and locations. When President Cleveland became aware of the condition of these coastal forts he formed the Endicott Board in 1885. This board was given the task of studying the conditions and needs for these forts and consequently making recommendations to improve them. The Endicott Board produced the Endicott Plan which resulted in the Endicott era characterized by its emphasis on guns; new guns, and lots of them.

The Endicott Plan designated almost $3 million in 1886 specifically for the mouth of the Columbia River. Much of this money would go to the construction of Fort Columbia, the third of the three forts at the river's entrance. The other forts, Fort Stevens and Fort Canby received funding to support extensive construction projects in order to modernize their guns and support structures. The Center and West Batteries, with their gigantic cannons, were replaced with new "disappearing guns." A helpful explanation of this new technology comes from "Seacoast Fortifications of the United States: An Introductory History" published by the Smithsonian Institute Press. Author Emanuel Lewis describes the disappearing carriages as "utilizing the energy of recoil to lower the gun within the emplacement, where it could remain for service and unloading, concealed and protected from enemy fire until raised for the next shot."

Two new batteries built during this period utilized the "disappearing" gun design. Battery Elijah O'Flyng was located on the site of the former Center Battery. O'Flyng was armed with two six-inch rifles on disappearing carriages. Battery Harvey Allen was built on a new location to the north-east of the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. Harvey Allen originally consisted of three six-inch rifles, also on disappearing carriages. These gun batteries were completed by 1906 and the rest of the new fort buildings were added in the next two years. According to a clipping from a newspaper dated May 4, 1905 that I found in a copy of the Sou'Wester, "The location is considered the best of any on the lower river, and military men are of the opinion that Canby will be made into a first-class location before the government is finally through with the task."

For the First World War, one of the guns of Battery Harvey Allen and all three guns of Battery Elijah O'Flyng were shipped to Europe for use on armed rail cars. The other two guns of Battery Harvey Allen composed the last six-inch battery of its kind to be manned, according to the Oregon Historical Society's "Harbor Defenses of the Columbia, 1864-1945." It was not inactivated until March of 1945. The arrival of World War I resulted in the loss of some guns at the cape but it also produced a new gun battery for Fort Canby.

The new battery built at Fort Canby in 1917 was of the mortar type. Presently known as the "Haunted Bunker" on the Coast Guard base, Battery Guenther was consisted of four 12-inch mortars. These guns were capable of shooting their 700-pound shells much further than the smaller six-inch guns. It should be noted that although Battery Guenther was built at the beginning of World War I, it wasn't considered operational until right before World War II due to persistent landslides. The hillside that Guenther was built near has very similar geologic characteristics as the bowl that the Interpretive Center parking lot is built on. Besides the construction of Battery Guenther, Fort Canby was a relatively quiet place during World War I.

After the war, the fort was manned by less than a half dozen men. There was one garrison troop, Battery E of the Third Coast Artillery that was assigned to the three forts between 1924 and 1939. During these quiet times between wars, I have to think, the cape's atmosphere was much the same as Cape Disappointment State Park feels like today in the off-season. Battery Harvey Allen is open to the public on the grounds outside of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. Battery Guenther and O'Flyng are both on the Coast Guard property and not available for the public to explore.

New LCIC Hours

The parking lot to the interpretive center remains closed and all visitors are asked to use the shuttle bus from the parking lot at the entrance to the park. Starting this Friday, March 17, the center will be open Thursdays through Mondays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Please call us if you have any questions.

Jon Schmidt is an Interpretive Specialist at Cape Disappointment State Park. To contact him, call the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at 642-3029 or e-mail lcic@parks.wa.gov.

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