Fort William Henry at Colonial Pemaquid State Historic Site in New Harbor is a reconstruction of a fort built in 1692 and destroyed four years later. Photo courtesy of Maine Office of Tourism
The blockhouse at Fort Edgecomb State Historic Site across from Wiscasset. Photo courtesy of Maine Office of Tourism
The parade grounds at Fort Knox State Historic Site in Prospect. Events are often held at the fort, which overlooks Bucksport across the Penobscot River. Photo courtesy of Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands
The blockhouse at Fort McClary State Historic Site in Kittery. A picnic area and playground are across Route 103 from the fort entrance. Photo courtesy of Maine Office of Tourism
Fort Popham State Historic Site in Phippsburg is just down Route 209 from Popham Beach State Park. Photo courtesy of Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands
A tourist boat passes Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse as a solitary visitor enjoys Willard Beach near Fort Preble in South Portland. Gordon Chibroski/Press Herald file photo
Fort Gorges, built during the Civil War, sits in Portland Harbor. Jack Milton/Press Herald file photo
From massive shore-hugging granite structures to well-preserved blockhouses to abandoned concrete bunkers that are sure to get the kids playing zombie tag, Maine’s many historic forts make for an ideal road trip. Standing sentry at scenic spots that were strategically important in past eras – a peninsular point, a harbor entrance, a river height – they offer an excellent vantage on Maine history.
The state was protected by forts from the early 1600s through World War II. Dozens were built, often on earlier fortifications. Many that remain today are preserved or restored, at least in part.
We’ve plotted a three-day journey to six coastal forts from southern Maine to Down East, with side-trips to others nearby. Five are among the nine forts operated as state historic sites by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands (parksandlands.com; check for special events like encampments). Maine Office of Tourism’s web site, visitmaine.com, has information on a number of Maine forts. Many have a small fee but others are free.
I advise packing the travel-friendly 2013 book, “The Forts of Maine: Silent Sentinels of the Pine Tree State,” by retired Pennsylvania history teacher and seasonal Vinalhaven resident Harry Gratwick. Weaving facts with personal stories – of fort designers and builders, military men and fort “daughters”– the 134-page softcover, available at many Maine bookstores, has sections on 12 forts (ours made the cut) and an appendix spotlighting another dozen.
FORT MCCLARY, KITTERY
On Route 103 in the Kittery Point area, the fort’s distinctive 1840s hexagonal blockhouse is made of fieldstone, granite and log. Next to it are a magazine and a brick rifleman’s house. Granite blocks from abandoned construction are scattered along the seashore. A state historic site, the fort at the mouth of the Piscataqua River was last manned in World War II as a lookout. At nearby Fort Foster, an 88-acre town park, decaying concrete gun emplacements and bunkers from that conflict are part of the fun, as are small beaches and a seaside trail. You can see lighthouses from both fort locales.
After exploring, have lunch at Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier off Route 103 in Kittery Point, or take the pretty, winding road to coastal York, where eating options multiply come summer.
FORT PREBLE, SOUTH PORTLAND
On the grounds of Southern Maine Community College, where a few fort buildings are in use, this fortification has been left to the elements but is well worth visiting, in part for the stupendous views of Portland Harbor. Forts Gorges and Scammel can be seen across the water; they were to work with Fort Preble to repel attacks. A short jetty runs to Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse; a seaside path links with the Greenbelt Walkway. One of the Second System forts constructed in the buildup to the War of 1812, Fort Preble was later upgraded. Unfinished granite walls with arched casemates run along the shore; there are also earthworks and gun emplacements. Scenic boat cruises pass close by Fort Preble and other harbor forts. Fort Scammel is privately owned, but a three-hour morning excursion to granite-walled, city-owned Fort Gorges (decaying; there is a nascent preservation effort) on Hog Island Ledge is one of Portland Paddle’s most popular kayak tours.
Spend your first night in downtown Portland, which is well-fortified with restaurants and lodging. Stroll the Eastern Promenade, checking out earthworks at Fort Allen Park and looking out on Fort Gorges.
FORT POPHAM, PHIPPSBURG
Twisty, picturesque peninsular Route 209 runs 15 miles from Bath to the granite fortification on Hunnewell Point at the Kennebec River’s mouth. Cyrus Longley of Bath painted watercolors of its construction while serving here during the Civil War. His relatives later gave a set to Phippsburg Historical Society. Nearby the semicircular shorefront fort are Fort Popham Beach State Park and Fort Baldwin, built in the early 1900s to replace Fort Popham. Both forts are state historic sites. In 1607, the area was home to the Popham Colony, the first English settlement in New England, which only lasted a year (and of course included a fort).
FORT EDGECOMB, EDGECOMB
Built in the early 1800s, this Second System or “embargo” fort sits high above the Sheepscot River across from Wiscasset, a major Maine port back in that day. Visitors to the state historic site can see the water from horizontal musket ports on the hexagonal blockhouse; there are also earthworks. Locals were none too pleased at the embargo that spurred construction of the fort, and was also intended to deter British attacks on American merchant ships.
COLONIAL PEMAQUID, NEW HARBOR (BRISTOL)
The wide watchtower at this state historic site is a 1908 replica of one built here in the 1690s and soon destroyed by Indians and the French. The British officer in charge infamously surrendered the fortification at the mouth of the Pemaquid River 14 miles from present-day Damariscotta. Enjoy outstanding views of Johns Bay from the bastion’s roof. A museum displays artifacts from an archaeological dig of a village that was here in the early 1600s. The renovated late 1700s Fort House has a period room, library, exhibit room and an archaeological library.
Bath, Wiscasset and Damariscotta offer lots of inn and restaurant choices for the second night. If time-pressed, perhaps because you paddled to Portland’s Fort Gorges in the morning, consider skipping Fort Edgecomb. On the other hand, it’s very close to U.S. 1.
FORT KNOX, PROSPECT
Across from Bucksport on a perch above Penobscot River narrows, this is Maine’s largest fort and one of New England’s best preserved. The granite fortress was constructed in the mid-1800s out of concern the British would again attack a region they controlled during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. (If time allows, visit British-built Fort George, now mostly earthworks, about a half hour Down East of here in Castine.) Pentagonal Fort Knox soon became obsolete, as did other Third System coastal Maine forts. Long passageways link interior rooms, and spiral granite staircases lead to a terreplein with bird’s-eye views of the parade ground, batteries and dry moat. There are eight cannons (about 70 were once here), two “hot shot” furnaces, and several batteries and magazines. Friends of Fort Knox (fortknox.maineguide.com) manages the state historic site, also the entrance for Penobscot Narrows Bridge Observatory. Guided tours are offered.
Conclude the day with a look back at the looming fort from Bucksport’s waterfront walkway. Harbor View Grille, which has a waterfront deck, is along the downtown path.
Mary Ruoff is a freelance writer in Belfast.