Inside the Triangle of Fire

Steve Koblyk will share his knowledge of the Coast Artillery’s use of Fort Casey and the fort’s role in the “Triangle of Fire” that protected the Puget Sound during a tour Saturday. - Cynthia Woolbright
Steve Koblyk will share his knowledge of the Coast Artillery’s use of Fort Casey and the fort’s role in the “Triangle of Fire” that protected the Puget Sound during a tour Saturday.
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright

Look at the concrete.

Each crack tells a tale.

Most were earned from concussive blows, although none are battle wounds earned from fights or fits of anger.

Look closely at Fort Casey and Casey will tell you its past.

Steve Koblyk knows it well.

Koblyk is a 30-year resident of the Coupeville area who has a devotion to Fort Casey. He’s a pro when it comes to knowing the history of the fort — specifically the tactical side of the camp and the fort’s role in defending the coast. His vast knowledge about the fort almost hides the fact that it’s just his hobby.

“I love it,” he said. “Some people can tell you everything about cars — I know this fort.”

Koblyk can scan a wall, notice a trace outline and tell you that that’s where a specific model of radio telephone was once mounted.

This Saturday, Koblyk will give an insider’s look at Casey during a walking tour called “Triangle of Fire.” The tour, sponsored by the Island County Historical Museum, will have Koblyk leading eager participants on a tour of the fort’s emplacements and other structures.

This weekend, Koblyk was a scout of sorts at Casey, surveying the fort and what information he hopes to pass to people on the upcoming tour.

He began on “fire control hill,” where the signal station and fire commander’s station sits.

Koblyk knows Casey. Not just the structures, but also the people and the equipment at the fort. He can look at an outline on a wall and tell you what used to be there and what it was used for — even details about the manufacturer.

His curiosity with Casey began when he was a student attending Skagit Valley College. After completing some reports on the fort, learning the history of the old Army outpost became addictive.

This weekend, Koblyk will talk of the “triangle of fire” formed by forts Casey, Flagler and Worden and the role the three establishments played in the state’s defense system in the 19th century.

The current Fort Casey site had been used off and on as a basic military reserve since the 1860s, when the U.S. was worried about thwarting any British invasion. It wasn’t until the late 1890s, however, that construction began on permanent structures for Casey.

The buildings and structures of the fort — from the batteries to the barracks, the lighthouse to the signal towers, were all constructed as funding permitted between 1898 and 1907.

“They had to work the concrete as was possible,” Koblyk said.

Time delays included only working during the drier seasons, when money was available and when the local labor wasn’t heading up to the gold fields of Alaska.

Koblyck will tell of the fort’s image of the time at its peak of operation, the decade from 1907 to 1917.

“That’s when it was the most state of the art, although it was never fully manned,” he said.

Where soccer camps now enjoy afternoon scrimmages, thousands of soldiers once practiced their marching and camped in tents, awaiting their orders to practice firing the large guns.

Boats regularly ferried soldiers over to Fort Warden or down to Everett for dances. Koblyck said that much documentation has been found saying the troops enjoyed heading down to Seattle to travel the one lane road at 25 miles per hour.

When they couldn’t leave the fort, Casey had a number of bands and the soldiers often played banjos and guitars to entertain each other. And sports also occupied a great deal of down time for the troops, who often formed their own baseball teams.

Changes in technology eventually made Fort Casey obsolete. By 1919 it was deemed to no longer be a useful Coast Artillery fort, according to Koblyck, and Fort Casey was placed in caretakers status.

Still, that didn’t help the soldiers who were stationed there much.

“They still had inspections and everything had to be operational,” Koblyck said.

In the 1930s the fort was modernized and rejuvenated for use against the threat of attack from Japan and Russia. At the time, many of the barracks and other wooden buildings were dismantled and sold for salvage because much of the wood was found to be rotten and the structures were deemed unstable.

During the early 1950s the Army Corps of Engineers used the fort for some time for training, and other military branches used the grounds for ROTC training purposes. But even then, it wasn’t exactly well cared for. Many of the structures had been left with equipment inside. Left deserted they were looted and vandalized, and the buildings deteriorated. The fort was basically abandoned until the state parks system bought the land in 1956.

Throughout its decades of use, the guns at Fort Casey never fired at an enemy in anger, only at practice targets, Koblyck said.

The guns now mounted at Battery Worth are not the original 12-inch behemoths that once fired over the cliffs.

The current guns that visitors to the park see came from a fort in the Philippines, and they still bare the shrapnel marks of action. The Coupeville Lions were integral in leading local supporters who brought the guns to the fort in the 1960s.

Earlier this year, the guns at the fort were refurbished as part of the museum’s ongoing work that coincides with its year-long exhibit.

Although they may look spooky, the only thing that haunts these now inactive military forts are the children that run about exploring and attempting to scare the bejesus out of their parents.

Saturday’s “Triangle of Fire” tour coincides with the year-long Island County Historical Society Museum exhibit “In Our Defense: Military Service and History in Island County,” which opened in February.

It features artifacts and information from the mid-1850s military fortifications, to articles and pictures of today’s soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and their return to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Artifacts from World War I and II, photos of USO dances, early images of Fort Casey, PBY Catalina seaplanes, and even flight gear from an A6 Intruder pilot is on display. Koblyck contributed some of his own collection to the museum exhibit. The museum will also host a veterans lecture night of POW/MIA accounts Nov. 11.

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