September 22, 2013

Josh Christie: Maine's many forts offer prime spots for exploration

Some of my favorite childhood memories are of family visits to Maine's decommissioned forts. When you're a kid (and, I'd imagine, even as an adult), there's something cool about wandering around a military structure that's over a century old. Fort Knox, located in Prospect, was our most frequent destination, but there's a whole world of Maine's military past out there.

Given Maine's long history of European and American settlements – not to mention its position at the northeast corner of the United States – it's of little surprise that the state's coast, borders and rivers have been heavily fortified. The earliest forts, built in the 17th and 18th centuries, were built to protect from enemies within; British and French colonists, as well as Native Americans. Forts built in the 1900s, during World War I and World War II, shifted the focus to foes from away.

Before I began researching this piece, I didn't realize the sheer number of forts in Maine. There are over a dozen blockhouses, stone forts and other historic military structures that visitors can explore. Many more exist on private property, and even more have been destroyed.

Of the surviving forts, my favorites are Fort Knox and Fort William Henry. Located in Prospect and Bristol, the two nicely bookend Maine's midcoast region. Both are large, fun to explore and packed with educational resources, making them attractive destinations for family trips.

Before the famous bullion-hoarding Fort Knox of Kentucky, there was the Fort Knox of Maine. The massive fort (the largest historic fort in Maine) was built over a 25-year period, with construction beginning in 1844. Located at the mouth of the Penobscot River, Fort Knox was built to defend the river – and specifically the industries of Bangor – from seaborne aggression. Knox never saw battle, but it was manned during the Civil War and Spanish-American War. Maine bought the fort from the federal government in 1923, and the nonprofit Friends of Fort Knox (fortknox.maineguide.com) recently took over day-to-day operations.

Most of the fort's two levels, including parade grounds, storage vaults, soldiers' quarters and magazines, are open for visitors to view and explore. The fort has information panels throughout, and a self-guided tour of the facility is also available. The Fort Knox State Historic Site is also home to a visitor and education center and a picnic area. Fort Knox is open from 9 a.m. to sunset from May 1 through Nov. 1.

It is through the historic site that visitors can access the 420-foot Penobscot Narrows Observatory. From the three upper levels of the Observatory, there's a 360-degree view of Penobscot Bay, the Penobscot River, and even as far as Maine's western foothills and mountains. The tower, which according to the state website (www.maine.gov/mdot/pnbo/) is the tallest occupied structure in Maine, the only bridge observatory in the Western Hemisphere, and the tallest bridge observatory in the world, is a welcome addition to the site since my visits as a child. 

ORIGINALLY BUILT in 1692, Fort William Henry was constructed during King William's War to defend against the French, but was sieged and destroyed only a few years later. In 1908, the state rebuilt the western tower and base of the outer walls. So, while the current iteration of the fort hasn't stood since 1692, the fort site itself has been in Maine for a long time.

Today, a large square defined by the rebuilt bastion and walls can be explored. Attractions include a museum and visitors' center within the rebuilt western tower, and foundations of a number of 17th- and 18th-century buildings. A herb garden and historic graveyard are also on the grounds of Colonial Pemaquid, and the nearby Fort House is home to a research library and archaeology lab. Colonial Pemaquid is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day. More information is available through the Friends of Colonial Pemaquid (www.friendsofcolonialpemaquid.org).

Beyond these two favorites, Maine is a haven for history and trivia buffs. There's Old Fort Western in Augusta, the oldest surviving wooden fort in New England. There's Fort Baldwin (Phippsburg) and Fort Williams (Cape Elizabeth), stone forts built at the turn of the 20th century and used during both world wars. Maine's oldest forts have histories stretching nearly three centuries, serving in every war from the American Revolution up through the 1900s.

If you're looking to explore these fascinating historic sites, Maine's Division of Public Lands offers excellent information on the maine.gov website. The 10 sites under the purview of the state are listed there, along with addresses, contact information, rules, fees and amenities. Travel-Maine.info has an even more extensive listing of historic forts, including many that are now either on private property or have been destroyed.

Josh Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime outdoors enthusiast. He shares column space in Outdoors with his father, John Christie. Josh can be reached at:

joshua.j.christie@gmail.com

 

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