All that remains from the old Baxter Army Hospital complex on Spokane’s North Side are remnants – an unassuming set of buildings surrounded by an 8-foot-high chain-link fence. They have anchors outside as well as a beached landing craft.
Welcome to the home of the U.S. Navy Reserve Center adjacent to the VA Medical Center on Assembly Street, which more than 200 Navy and Marine reservists and active duty service members call home, and where they converge once a month for drills.
However, the World War II-era Baxter Army Hospital once occupied the entire area from Wellesley Avenue north to Rowan Street, encompassing what are now recreational fields. Built in barracks style, the hospital was made up of nearly 400 buildings, all connected by miles of covered walkways, according to Aimee Flinn of the City-County of Spokane Historic Preservation Office and a member of the Spokane Navy League.
Baxter had its own bank, fire station, library, restaurants, an animal farm and even a prisoner-of-war camp, where approximately 70 German POWs were housed during World War II. About 3,000 civilians, soldiers, nurses and doctors worked there.
Opened in 1943, it treated many military officers and enlisted men suffering from trauma, war wounds and tropical diseases. Red Cross Gray Ladies volunteered writing letters home for wounded soldiers, and celebrities such as Helen Keller and Rita Hayworth came by to boost morale.
Flinn said that in 1945, 23 of the nation’s Army general hospitals were slated for closure, Baxter among them. Most of the buildings were removed, but eight existing buildings were acquired by the Navy, which also constructed a new administration building for the nearly 600 reservists who needed space for military training. In 1949, the training center was formally commissioned by Admiral H.H. Good, commandant of the 13th Naval District, who acknowledged Spokane’s Navy connection and recognized that the Navy had often drawn much of its strength from areas far from saltwater.
Navy Reserve units used the old hospital buildings until the 1960s, when they were razed to make room for a new administration center – which remains today as the Naval Operational Support Center for reservists. It is the only Navy reserve center in Eastern Washington, Flinn said.
Each fall for the past eight years, the Spokane Navy League has held a formal ball, a social event to honor the sea services; the last three years it was held at the Davenport Hotel. Amy Johnson of Greater Spokane Inc. presented a plaque at the ball Oct. 5 in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Spokane Naval Trophy before the group of 150-plus in attendance, including a contingent of Canadian sailors.
“It still surprises many to know that Spokane is home to so many sailors and Marines,” Flinn said, “but we are. We’ve been a vital part of the Spokane community for quite some time, as our roots at the Baxter Hospital clearly show.”