When Crystal Springs was Torpedo Alley

In this 1947 photo (above, left), John Worthington and sons Doug and Bill straddle one of many runaway torpedoes from the Bainbridge-Keyport Firing Range, high on Tolo beach. The target pilings sited from Keyport still stand in the waters just off Crystal Springs. - Courtesy of Doug Worthington
In this 1947 photo (above, left), John Worthington and sons Doug and Bill straddle one of many runaway torpedoes from the Bainbridge-Keyport Firing Range, high on Tolo beach. The target pilings sited from Keyport still stand in the waters just off Crystal Springs.
— image credit: Courtesy of Doug Worthington

Old pilings recall the days of Keyport test-fires toward Bainbridge.

Photographers wandering the meander line place them in photos to add depth. Cormorants air dry atop them. They are fish lookouts for stately sharp-eyed, winged predators and skillful divers.

Generations have fished and daydreamed among these pillars of life. They were essential to our connection to the mainland, part of our marine highway. They made the island an isthmus before steel bridged Agate Passage.

They are not “derelict.” They are driven into the sands of time and our cultural memories as they are into tide flats and cobble.

And they are stories – beach pilings.

It may be difficult for some new to this place to understand happy days of Puget Sound beach kids. Crawling on their bellies on dock planks scented in sun-baked fish guts, clam bait and creosote with whiffs of seaweed iodine and esters of popsicle is rarely an inlander’s idea of heaven.

Yet it is there for young minds dangling fishlines and staring between splintered, guano-soaked, timbers into mystical undersea temples where magical formations of silver fish glide.

Columns thick with waving creatures, bizarre vertical gardens bathed in dancing green light are part a world rich with life because of pilings.

Some Depression-era folks survived on eggs harvested from seagull nests hollowed out atop them. More than 36 island shoreline sites boast them as vestiges of steamboat or ferry landings. They are monuments to neighborhoods and port districts: Agate Point, Eagledale, Ferncliff, Manzanita, Rolling Bay, Yeomalt and Bainbridge.

Some were installed by a rebel group who created “their own damn car ferry.” Some mark unseen hazards to navigation. Some led divers to sunken ships and man-made fish habitats.

Some are former seawalls and a record of how rapidly or slowly our shorelines change. Some mark dreams of future community docks at public road ends, perhaps even a return of passenger vessels and a day when everyone knew the captain by the sound of his ship’s whistle.

These old pilings moored log booms and vessels before marinas, including fish boats and Navy tenders protecting Rich Passage during wartime, where today they mark over a mile of public tidelands between beaches named South and Pleasant.

Creosoted timbers enwrap boulders that anchored anti-submarine nets. Before radar, piling supported sound boards so we could navigate in fog and still help us know from whence we came.

Here’s a story about two inconspicuous pilings.

When the Seattle Yacht Club built their Manzanita outstation and race course north of Battle Point in 1908, little did they know that by 1914, the Navy would build a torpedo test station at Keyport across the bay.

Graceful gaff-rigged sloops soon had to yield right-of-way to torpedoes. Yachters left for calmer seas.

Activity at the Navy’s Bainbridge-Keyport torpedo range was at fever pitch during World War II and the Cold War. Test firings were crucial to design and use.

Two creosote piling about a quarter mile north of Point White Pier are a vestige of those days. The large, white, triangular signs atop the pilings were range markers toward which unarmed torpedoes were fired south-southeast from Keyport.

The torpedoes were 21 inches in diameter and 16 feet long. Alcohol and compressed air ran their steam turbines. They had a range of two and a half miles. Each cost over $10,000 (in WWII dollars) and had to be retrieved.

Most testing was to control depths. They were short range, unless something went wrong with the timer shutoff. If found on a beach, they contained chemical and high-pressure hazards.

Though they packed no explosives, they still packed a wallop. They weighed over a ton and traveled at 55 mph.

Off the beach!

“The year was 1954 or ‘55,” Ralph Munro recalls. “I was 11 or 12 years old and played on the beach every day, all day if I could. In the Review each week, Keyport published a list of days and times for torpedo testing and firing. The range finders were just north of us on the beach at Crystal Springs.

“During these times you were told by the Navy to stay off your beach. Sometimes it was beautiful weather and we could not go down the beach between 9 a.m. until noon or from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. People had so much respect for the government that we obeyed. The torpedoes were not intended to go much south of Battle Point.”

Doug Worthington, who lived near Battle Point, remembers, “When I grew up until after I got out of the Army, they were still shooting them, diving for them and losing them. Usually, when the propulsion stopped, they’d bob to the surface, nose up. A retriever – a 40-foot boat – would come, latch onto them by the nose with cables and winch them on deck over the astern.

“Many, many times they would lose contact with them. A lot of them would sink. That’s when they brought a 60- or 70-foot ship to locate and retrieve them with divers.

“Once, I was working for Capt. John Backland, a famous Alaskan seafarer. The Navy was shooting and a torpedo got away. It came bobbing up near Tolo. Backland rowed out to see it and while he was there, here came another one. It damned near hit him.

“Torpedoes were always coming up on the beaches and rocks would be flyin’ (from their propellers). They were heavy and carried way up the beach. I have a photo of my dad, brother and me sitting on one at the high tide line. Another once hit the Munros’ boat shed.”

Ralph Munro can’t forget: “Carl Pedersen and I were playing on the beach together. My mom and some others were sitting there enjoying the day. It was August. When 2 p.m. rolled around, we all left the beach. Torpedo firing was about to commence. Carl and I walked up the Crystal Springs road towards Westwood. All of a sudden we heard a horrendous noise and racket. A torpedo ran astray, surfaced just beyond Mose Vining’s big yacht “Benign,” and hit the beach in front of my Aunt Isabel Dunn’s house.”

Pedersen attests, “It hit right where the women had all been sitting only moments before!”

Munro continues, “It shot up the beach, hit a small log, then a bigger one. These sent it sailing for 20 feet. It landed on some huge 4 by 16 planks that my dad had for seats around evening bonfires. The torpedo’s weight flipped the planks end for end and kept moving across the beach logs and into the corner of dad’s boat shed. That stopped it... for a moment.

“Then it slid back down into beach sand and gravel where the propellers – it had two turning in opposite directions – sent rocks and sand flying 50 feet in the air.

“Finally, the props stopped. All returned to quiet on our little beach, except for the roar of chase boats from Keyport looking for their torpedo. They came down and, quite chagrined, pulled it off the beach.

“My dad worked for the Navy in the Bremerton Shipyard, so he didn’t want to raise a fuss. He settled for $150 in damages.

“I learned later that the crew at Keyport shot 15 torpedoes that day, and five went astray. We saw them pull one out of the ferry lanes near the Waterman dock. If they had sunk the Bremerton ferry, that would have been a story!”

Not long after these events, Capt. J. A. Pritchard, Keyport Station commandant, was invited to Bainbridge Island’s American Legion Hall to address a town meeting arranged by the Chamber and Rotary Club.

“Navy torpedoes haven’t hurt anyone since Keyport firing began in 1914,” Pritchard reminded his audience. He described the need for testing, hydrophones used to follow torpedoes, red flags flown from boats to alert folks when firing was in progress, and the danger that could come from 416 Soviet submarines.

He confessed that a few “tin fish” were lost for a period of time – such as one valued at $35,000 for which his men had been searching for over a month. “Only eight to 10 hit beaches annually,” he said, adding that most of those were on the Kitsap side of the channel.

“What about my boat shed?” George Munro queried. “And what about the one that narrowly missed island children playing on the beach?” others asked.

Capt. Pritchard said patrol boats tried to warn people to get off the beach, “but we can’t see everyone. Situations have occurred where people would not leave the beach, so we called off firing...”

Tolo’s Capt. Backland said, “I, for one, am glad to give up a few hours a day for the defense of our country.”

Not long after this meeting, test firings moved to more rural locations leaving two range markers and stories in their wake.

“We had the Keyport Commander over for dinner this summer,” Ralph Munro recalls. “I told him I’d waited a long time to have him at our table so I could give him hell!”

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