When Major General Henry A. Greene, the first Camp Lewis Commander, was reassigned, he left a bustling cantonment to Brigadier General James A. Irons. With the Armistice, activity at Camp Lewis slowed. With peace, military appropriations were sharply reduced and Camp Lewis fell into neglect. The 400-acre cavalry remount area, called the “corral,” returned to scrub; and the hastily built barracks, without maintenance, started to fall apart. The main drill field, today’s Watkins Field, was reclaimed by fir seedlings.
A contract was let to dismantle some of the wooden buildings. The United States was returning to its traditional isolationist stance in world affairs, and the high cost of World War I caused the Congress to slash military spending. The Army was authorized 150,000 men and was allowed to maintain three combat-ready divisions. Although Secretary Baker publicly stated that Camp Lewis had been instrumental in the war effort and was an excellent training area, economy and priority were forcing him to use his men and funds elsewhere.
As the buildings fell to contractors and decay, Tacoma civic groups and newspapers demanded that the War Department return the land. The hastily acquired lands had resulted in much bitterness and litigation, and the Camp was not popular in all quarters.
As the workers tore down more barracks, rumors spread through the County that Camp Lewis was being abandoned. The clamor to “keep faith or return” the lands grew, this time led by the Rotary Club and The Tacoma News and Tribune. Local groups demanded that a division be stationed at the Camp. Although many thought that the agreement between the County and the government called for a division, the agreement actually called for the post to remain in government hands as long as it was used for the purposes named, chiefly a training area.
On 23 September 1921, Camp Lewis became Headquarters for the 3d Infantry Division, one of the three remaining divisions; but most of its units were scattered throughout the western states. Although the 3d Infantry Division would remain at Fort Lewis until 1942, it was never up to strength until the late thirties. The Camp Lewis garrison from 1920 to 1925 would number as few as 850 men and no more than 1,000. Many of the local groups considered this a mere sop. There were no troops or money to spare for Camp Lewis; and although War Secretary Baker and Army Chief of Staff General Peyton C. Marsh had wanted to develop the Camp’s potential, they stood no chance against the formidable Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon. Secretary Mellon was a fiscal conservative who viewed military appropriations as money down the drain; and during his tenure from 1921 to 1932, his fiscal policies were largely accepted by Congress.
Although the new Secretary of War John W. Weeks (1921-25) had sent Headquarters, 3d Infantry Division to Camp Lewis, he was not able to fulfill his promise of 2,000 troops. In 1922, many of the remaining wooden structures at the Camp were found to be dry-rotted. The old rumors were revived; and in April, Tacoma and Seattle newspapers headlined an Associated Press wire story – WAR DEPARTMENT PLANS VIRTUAL ABANDONMENT OF CAMP LEWIS. Secretary Weeks, questioned by Washington Representative Albert Johnson, denied any truth in the story. Clark Squire, in the Tacoma Times, reported that the roads, streets, and sewer systems at Camp Lewis were beginning to break down. The theater was condemned for fear it would cave in, other roofs had sagged or had fallen in, window panes everywhere were shattered, chimneys were down, and doors and stairways in barracks were splintered. Beer bottles, catsup bottles, tin cans, old shoes, and other rubbish was scattered over the floors. Desolation was everywhere.
The only event of bright note in 1921 was the opening of the American Lake Veteran’s Hospital four miles north of the camp, near Steilacoom.
In 1923, a new Commanding General, Major General Robert Alexander, inspected the camp and called it a “ghost post.” Many of the remaining buildings were in danger of collapse from the weight of winter snow. General Alexander estimated that 3.5 to 4 million dollars would be needed to build permanent buildings.
In 1924, the next Commander, Major General U. G. McAlexander, after viewing the post, wrote that “Camp Lewis is the most valuable military possession in the United States…large enough to train infantry movements and provide room for the firing of the heaviest guns.”
The year 1925 almost saw Camp Lewis revert to civilian ownership. In June, civic groups urged the county commissioners to begin proceedings to reclaim 26,000 acres of Camp Lewis lands. Eight hundred forty-seven of the remaining buildings and incidental structures were torn down and sold for scrap. Then fire struck. Almost nightly in the spring, summer, and autumn, fires advanced in a straight line and destroyed or damaged 250 structures. National Guardsmen training at Camp Lewis that summer were housed in tents. Many permanent personnel slept with their belongings packed. The camp was ringed with guards and roving patrols, but the fires kept on and no suspect was ever found.
The scrapping of the buildings and the fires added new fuel to the “keep faith or give back the land” groups. The Tacoma News and Tribune, in an editorial, accused the federal government of “breaking its promise.”
In 1926, Secretary of War Dwight F. Davis asked Congress to approve a ten-year building plan to rebuild and revitalize three army posts. Camp Lewis was one of the three. Congress, in March 1926, authorized $4,518,000, raised from the sale of Army lands, for this purpose. In May, Camp Lewis received $800,000 to begin construction on permanent red brick barracks on main post. Camp Lewis was to have a new lease on life. Its worst years were over.