A former military post is slowly being restored to Seattle as the city continues moving forward with a plan to redevelop an unused piece of land in historic Fort Lawton.
Surrounding that piece of land is Discovery Park, the largest park in Seattle, known for great views and miles of hiking trails. The entirety of the park, from the West Point Lighthouse to most of Magnolia Bluff, was part of Fort Lawton.
During the 1890s, Seattle and Tacoma were competing for an Army post to boost the economy during a downturn, according to HistoryLink. The location on Magnolia Bluff received a recommendation from a general in 1895.
“For many reasons Magnolia Bluff appears to be one of the most important defensive positions on the Sound. It is easy of access, has quick communication with other strategic positions and with natural centers of population, is near a flourishing city, and has those natural advantages insuring convenience of approach and health of garrison which all military posts should possess,” wrote Gen. Elwell Otis, as reported in a July 21, 1900, Seattle Daily Times story.
But for the fort to be built, the city had to acquire nearly 700 acres and give it to the federal government at no cost.
Construction began in 1898, and the Army took control of the first buildings in 1899.
A short while later, on Feb. 23, 1900, the fort was named in honor of Maj. Gen. Henry Ware Lawton.
The first troops, from a coastal artillery company, arrived the morning of July 26, 1901, after leaving Portland the night before.
As the grounds were built and expanded, various infantry troops, Army engineers and the Civilian Conservation Corps occupied the fort until World War II.
Brig. Gen. John C.H. Lee announced on May 28, 1941, that Fort Lawton would be an embarkation port where thousands of troops would be quartered before being transferred overseas.
Italian and German prisoners were also kept at the fort. In 1944, an Italian prisoner, Guglielmo Olivotto, was found hanging after a riot that occurred during the night between black soldiers and the Italian prisoners. Twenty-eight of the U.S. soldiers were convicted in the incident. In 2007, they were exonerated after the top Army review board found the trial was “fundamentally unfair.”
In 1945, Albert Marquardt, a German prisoner of war, died at the Fort Lawton hospital after drinking lacquer thinner. His death was ruled accidental, according to HistoryLink.
Military control of the land would continue until the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon signed a bill that would allow the surplus federal land to be transferred to cities for free if it was used for parks. The bill known as “the Fort Lawton bill” was introduced by Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, D-Wash.
Many groups became interested in the fort land, including King County and other military branches. The United Indians of All Tribes Foundation also claimed the land that the city was developing into a green space. The foundation demonstrated at the fort for months until the city and the foundation reached an agreement, according to a Nov. 16, 1971, Seattle Times story.
On Oct. 28, 1973, Discovery Park officially opened to the public. The Times reported that hundreds attended the dedication ceremony, including Jackson, Mayor Wes Uhlman and former Mayor J.D. Braman.
More of the Fort Lawton land became surplus, and a conflict arose over preserving historic fort buildings. The Fort Lawton Landmark District was created. It encompasses the parade grounds, historic homes and other buildings currently in the park.
A plan to create affordable housing in another unused section of Fort Lawton land was recently cleared by the Seattle City Council.