A Snapshot in Time: The Founding of Fort Lawton

Early military exercises at Fort Lawton, circa 1900. Photo courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives

Early military exercises at Fort Lawton, circa 1900. Photo courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives

Where does the history of such an illustrious place as Fort Lawton begin? Why is it here? What was its function? Who were the main players in its founding? Fort Lawton’s history is such a rich tapestry—a woven story over nearly 125 years—that it is sometimes easy to lose sight of where it all began.
 
In the late 1800s, Seattle was eager to expand and hungry for an economic boom. As such, Seattle’s elite lobbied for the United States military to open and staff a bonafide Army base; a fully functioning army base would supercharge the local economy with its influx of population, goods and manufacturing.
 
Still addled by the anti-Chinese workers rebellion in the late 1880s, Seattle, at the time, was plagued by relentless lawlessness—fueling even further the drive to establish the base. Its geography also acted as a selling point for the founders, Thomas Burke, John Leary and Edward Graves, to use. The founders believed that an active fort could also provide a first line of defense for the Bremerton Naval Base, further south in the Sound.
 
After much deliberation and politicking—as well as finagling to ensure the land could be given to the Army for free—Fort Lawton finally opened as a military post on 9 February 1900. From there on out, the Fort played host to a smaller military operation than intended, nonetheless remaining a vibrant part of the city. Despite its ambitious yet unrealized plans to be a major military player, the Fort was eventually donated back to Seattle and became the city’s largest and most preeminent park for the people: Discovery Park.