PORTLAND — Fort Allen was particularly valuable during the War of 1812 because its position high on Munjoy Hill meant its men could fire down on any British ships – whose guns weren’t designed to fire up steep hills.
“When those guns told the ships to leave,” said Dan Haley, gesturing to two cannons perched on the sloping ground, “they left.”
Although the fort is no longer needed for Portland’s defense, Haley said, it remains just as valuable as a park, dotted with memorials and offering sweeping views of Portland Harbor, Casco Bay and the ocean beyond.
That’s why Friends of the Eastern Promenade intends to spend time and a significant amount of money restoring the park over the next three years, from replacing the rotting wooden carriages that hold the cannons and fixing the landscaping to repairing a wrought iron fence and sprucing up a bandstand.
“It’s on the edge of the city,” yet just a short walk from one of Portland’s densest neighborhoods, said Diane Davison, president of Friends of the Eastern Promenade.
The park, she said, attracts bird-watchers, joggers, families and people “who just want to come up here and watch the bay.”
Davison said the city’s master plan for the Eastern Promenade area made her organization responsible for helping to maintain Fort Allen Park. She said the park hasn’t fallen into disrepair, although the cannons were marked off with yellow tape during Monday’s Fourth of July celebration to keep people from clambering on the guns and further damaging the carriages.
The cannons and carriages are a top priority – and among the more expensive parts of the restoration. Haley, a board member of Friends of the Eastern Promenade, said the carriages could cost $100,000 or more to replace, although the organization hopes to find used carriages as a cheaper alternative.
The other key goals, Davison said, are fixing the wrought iron fence that runs along the bottom of the park and along a trail that leads away from Fort Allen, and sprucing up the bandstand, where the first in a series of seven summer concerts will begin at 7 p.m. Thursday.
The final estimate for the work won’t be ready until this fall, when landscape architects hired by Friends of the Eastern Promenade complete their research of the park and pinpoint the most historically significant features to restore.
A $20,000 grant from the Davis Family Foundation is helping to pay for architects Martha Lyon and Regina Leonard, who helped design trails around Fort Allen, to do design work for the restoration.
Lyon said she’s combing city records and the public library to establish how the area was transformed from a fort into a park and then the site of memorials to the Civil War, the USS Portland, the USS Maine, the Vietnam War and the Sept. 11 attacks.
The park isn’t large by her standards – Lyon said she just completed work on a 350-acre expanse at the horse track in Saratoga, N.Y. – but “it’s an extraordinary piece of land,” given the location and the view.
Davison said her organization will work to raise money to preserve that, hopefully by October 2014, the bicentennial of the founding of the fort, which came two years into the War of 1812.
She said the friends group will continue its regular fundraising, such as this weekend’s “Hidden Gardens of Munjoy Hill” tour, to pay for preliminary work while planning more extensive efforts to raise as much as $300,000 for the restoration.
Davison said the effort may include a request for help from the city, although her organization recognizes that the tough economy has led the city to cut its budget for parks.
Haley, who has lived near the park his whole life, said he’s sure that residents will recognize its value when they’re asked to support Fort Allen’s future.
On a hot day, he noted the cool breeze coming up the hill from the water, and pointed out the Casco Bay Lines ferry making a run to Peaks Island and dozens of sailboats skimming from the harbor into the bay.
“I’ve been all over the world,” Haley said. “There is no better view.”
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]