Every day, Peninsula College students clamber up and down the wooden steps of the School House at Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, pulling open the heavy front doors and making their way to class through a maze of corridors that meet at slightly different floor levels.
But in the first half of the previous century, the rooms where students learn history and math were used for more serious operations. And some people who entered by the front door left by the side door — feet first.
Originally the fort hospital, the School House building has a past that lives on its basement, where the morgue was located.
On March 2, Scouts in Troop 1477 and their parents got a tour of the fort’s underground spaces and other unseen places from night caretaker Jeff Boyles.
“We may even see some ghosts,” Boyles said.
Boyles, the father of one of the Scouts, received special permission from park administration to lead the night tour of the former Army post, built at the beginning of the last century to guard the entrance to Puget Sound from invasion by water.
Old movie set
The tour started in the basement of Building 225, a former barracks just east of the park office, where a piece of more recent history resides — the fake decompression chamber used in the 1982 film, “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
Scouts were able to enter the chamber, the only piece of the film set left, and sit in the seats where Richard Gere and the other officer trainees tested their mettle.
The Scouts also received a lesson in defensive architecture — located on the bluff above the beach, the barracks is the only building on the fort built with scaled-up dimensions, meant to confuse the aim of gunners firing from ships.
“It’s designed to create an optical illusion that it is closer to shore,” Boyles said.
The next stop was the basement of Building 203.
Entering by steps down to the door, the Scouts and parents passed through low-ceilinged rooms filled with wooden chairs, tables and pieces of carved woodwork, relics of the fort’s history that are awaiting restoration.
In the last room, they viewed a working relic of the fort’s past, a massive oil-burning furnace flanked by an elaborate system of pipes.
“Each building on the fort has its own heating plant except for the houses on officers’ row,” Boyles explained.
The Scouts also toured the fort’s maintenance building, a series of rooms packed with bits of fort history in the form of hardware, pipes and fixtures.
History also hangs overhead in the form of street signs and building signs slung from the ceilings and covering the walls.
Another stop was at the old wagon shed to see the donkey engine, found buried on the beach, which was used to haul building materials up from the dock.
The foundations of the fort buildings are limestone quarried in the San Juan Islands and shipped to Port Townsend, Boyles said.
The sand and the Belgium cement for the gun batteries on the bluff overlooking Puget Sound were also brought in by ship.
Belgium cement was the best of its kind, Boyle said, while the sand used had to be free of salt.
“When you go up there, you’ll see very little deterioration,” Boyles said.
Boyles said he has never seen ghosts at the fort, but when he first started working in the old hospital building, he often had the feeling that someone was watching him from the top of the stairs.
Once, he caught a glimpse of the fort’s past. It was early one misty morning after working at McCurdy Pavilion.
“I looked up and saw horses and wagons crossing the intersection,” he said.
“When I looked away and looked back, they were gone.”
The last stop on the tour was the basement of the old hospital, once heated by a coal-fired furnace now grown cold.
Adjacent to the furnace room is the stairway down which the bodies of patients were carried down to the morgue.
The building has a family connection for Dorothy Westlund, a Scout mother who took the tour.
“My mother’s sister died in this hospital,” she said. “She was 9 years old.”
At the time, Westlund’s grandfather was stationed at Fort Casey across the water, Westlund said.
When her aunt, Ellen Vane, became ill, she was taken to the Fort Worden hospital where she died and was buried in the fort cemetery.
Her grandmother didn’t want an autopsy, Westlund said.
“The cause of death was recorded as intestinal disruption,” she said.
Now, unused chalkboards block the entrance to the small room where autopsies were performed.
Lined with waist-high wooden counters on two sides, the room has a large sink flanked by sloping porcelain counters.
“When I first started working here, this is the one building that gave me the creeps,” Boyles said.
“When I was at the bottom of the stairs, I’d get the feeling that someone was looking down the stairs at me. One time I heard a child crying.”
For the Scouts, the trip back in time was a chance to explore some mysterious places while fulfilling a requirement for the citizenship badge to tour a government building.
Most gave Boyles a review of “cool” or “neat” at the end of the tour.
For Boy Scout Spencer Bonds, 13, the experience was something more.
“I liked knowing that history still stands,” Bonds said.
“I hope we keep our memories of the people who shaped our world and helped make this country great.”
And the mismatched floors in the School House?
It was once two buildings that were put together, Boyles said, pointing out the place in the basement where they join.
Port Townsend/Jefferson County reporter-columnist Jennifer Jackson can be reached at [email protected]