A hundred years ago, Whidbey Island's Fort Casey bustled with activity. Guns thundered during target practice, breaking nearby windows. Light beamed from Admiralty Head lighthouse, guiding ships through Puget Sound. Now the decommissioned fort's enormous guns and mysterious empty rooms, the historic lighthouse, and the quiet beaches below make Fort Casey State Park a favorite family getaway.
Established in 1897, Fort Casey formed part of the Triangle of Fire, a trio of forts that defended the Puget Sound region against invasion. Its original armaments included 10-inch guns, 12-inch mortars that could fire a shot seven miles, and smaller guns for closer defense. But changing technology made these defenses obsolete. The fort's guns were shipped to the European front or melted down for scrap metal during World War II. After the fort became a park in 1956, replacement guns were imported from the Philippines. The 10-inch "disappearing" guns on the fort's upper level give visitors an idea of Fort Casey's once-formidable firepower. One gun juts into the air, aiming across Puget Sound; the other squats in loading position. It's easy to see why each enormous gun required a 15-man crew to load its 619-pound shell and 40 pounds of gunpowder.
A doorway located beneath the retracted gun leads to the ammunition storage area. With a flashlight you can examine the bare concrete and sharp-angled corners of the empty shot and powder rooms, where chalky stalactites drip from rusty ceiling beams. Only one original feature remains: the circular speaking tubes through which gunners upstairs once ordered ammunition. To try them, station one person by the speaking tube next to the shot and powder room doorway, and one person upstairs at the three tubes located near the retracted gun. You'll be surprised at how well this low-tech system still works.
Fort Casey's long concrete buildings, riddled with dark rooms and steep staircases, offer many more exciting discoveries for explorers. Narrow walkways lead to towers where battery commanders fine-tuned the calculations for aiming the guns. Observing stations, half-buried in the hill above the fort, provide a wide view of Puget Sound - the view troops once surveyed to track approaching targets. A gun battery near the observation stations displays 3-inch rapid-fire guns. On the other side of the fort, near the lighthouse, another battery's underground rooms are a great place to try out echoes.
The Admiralty Head lighthouse, built in 1903, is also open for exploration. (A previous lighthouse, built in 1860, was demolished during Fort Casey's construction.) The old dining room has exhibits from Fort Casey's history, including photos and artillery shells. The old kitchen houses the gift shop, as well as an original coal-fired hot-water heater. Visitors can even climb the tower, ascending a spiral staircase and steep ladder-like steps to see the view that lighthouse keepers once enjoyed. The windowed lantern room is a reconstruction; after the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1922, the lantern was transferred to a different lighthouse and the lamp and lens were removed. Now two antique Fresnel lenses downstairs show how the equipment worked. These complicated arrays of prisms focused light in a horizontal beam, concentrating the power of the lighthouse lamp to shine across the sea.
After leaving the lighthouse, walk down to the beach. When Fort Casey was constructed in the 1890s, this waterfront bristled with trestles, railways, cables and bridges used to haul people and materials. Now explorers can build their own forts out of driftwood, or climb the bleached logs piled along the beach. Where guns once thundered overhead, visitors relax to the roar of waves, the cry of seagulls and an occasional ferryboat horn. It's the perfect way to finish exploring Fort Casey State Park.
Loralee Leavitt loves writing and exploring with her family.
Daily, 8 a.m.-dusk
Admiralty Head Lighthouse: June-August; daily, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Group tours of the fort or lighthouse can be scheduled in advance by calling 360-240-5584 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org (donations appreciated).
Take the Whidbey Island ferry from Mukilteo. Take Highway 525, following signs to the Keystone Ferry terminal. Pass the ferry parking lot, and take the first entrance to the left.
A flashlight, snacks, Frisbee, balls and kites.
When you arrive
Pick up a map at the lighthouse or the Fort Casey kiosk, or see the map mounted on the information board.
Watch young children carefully on the fort's upper levels, as there are few railings.
Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens: The gardens offer rhododendrons, woodlands and nature trails.
Greenbank Farm: The farm includes antiques, wine and cheese shops; a café; and a swing set.
Coupeville: The second-oldest town in Washington features historic buildings, shopping and a whale skeleton.
Deception Pass State Park: The park's beaches provide stunning views of the channel separating Whidbey Island from the mainland.
See also: Islandweb.org
Originally published in the July, 2008 print edition of ParentMap.