Park Happenings: The Guns of Cape Disappointment, Part 3

The empty gun pits of Battery 246 on McKenzie Head have now filled with water and become reflecting pools instead of a means of defense. JON SCHMIDT photo

The peaceful setting around the cape following World War I didn't last long. Even before the United States had officially entered World War II, the latest technology was being implemented at Fort Canby. Because of the developments of faster warships and the increasing use of airplanes for warfare, even the big guns of Battery Guenther were considered to be obsolete by the 1940s. To address the need for modern defense installations, the cape received its final gun battery during this time period.

Construction of Battery 247 was started in February 1943 on the top of McKenzie Head. This new battery consisted of two 6-inch, long range, rapid-fire rifles that were mounted on barbette carriages. A barbette carriage is unlike the disappearing carriages of Battery Harvey Allen and O'Flyng in that it is fixed and wasn't able to be lowered out of view while loading. To see an example of this type of gun and carriage you can visit Fort Columbia where the guns of Battery 246 have been restored to their original appearance. Battery 246 and 247 were built within a year and a half of each other. Battery 247 at Fort Canby was completed and activated in March 1945; its construction cost approximately $230,000. The guns of Battery 247 no longer accompany the rest of the structure and the gun pits have been unintentionally reduced to reflecting pools.

To address the new threat of faster boats with torpedo shooting capability, additional guns were added to the fort in the vicinity of Jetty A, located just southeast of the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. Two 90mm guns on fixed carriages as well as two others on a mobile carriage were added to Fort Canby's arsenal in this area very close to the river's entrance. Other improvements to the fort during this time included the utilization of the new radar technology and the addition of many new searchlight and observation stations. In terms of guns, machine gun pits riddled the cape and a few of these intentionally sheltered sites can still be found hiding in the brush today. There were many other defensive installations built during this time period but I've refrained from discussing them since they aren't guns and the guns have been my focus for this three-part series.

Fort Canby was declared to be surplus by the War Department in March of 1947. Shortly thereafter, all the guns of the old batteries were scrapped along with the rest of the fort's buildings. Today, besides the Coast Guard firing range mentioned in part one, the only big guns at Cape Disappointment can be found in the hands of hungry razor clam diggers equipped with their tubular clam guns. The batteries still stand today, their seven-foot concrete walls resisting the elements effectively for decades. At this time, Battery 247 on McKenzie Head is still open to the public to explore. It is unlit so bring a flashlight and take care. Battery Harvey Allen has seen some improvements in the last couple of years with the addition of some new lighting in half of it. You can look forward to new interpretive panels that are planned to be placed in and outside of the Harvey Allen. These panels will help tell the story of Fort Canby and the history of coastal defense forts at the mouth of the Columbia River.

I want to leave you with a quote from an article titled "The Army Vacates Old Fort Canby" written by Lucile McDonald for the Oct. 19, 1947, edition of the Seattle Times. With some sentimentality she describes how "soon the temporary barracks at Fort Canby will be sold and moved away; the solitary army sergeant who in recent months has taken care of the place has left ... once again hikers wander freely over the grounds, peering at the subterranean shell rooms and control stations" With this, I would encourage you to take a hike at Cape Disappointment State Park and explore the remnants of the old Fort Canby. Treat these historic resources with respect; they are monuments to the historic investment made by the United States government to guard our beautiful and bountiful Pacific Northwest.

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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