PROSPECT, Maine — The powder magazine at the Fort Knox historic site hasn’t seen any activity since 1960 when it was closed to the public for safety reasons.
On Monday, however, there was activity aplenty as a crew from the Leighton Construction Co. of Orrington began dismantling the rotted wooden floors and walls of the large, granite- and brick-lined storage room. The room was once used to house large kegs of powder for the fort’s cannons and other arms.
Located at one corner of the fort facing the Penobscot River, the powder magazine room was one of the two main powder storage areas in the fort, according to Leon Seymour, executive director of the Friends of Fort Knox. The Friends group, working with the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, is directing the restoration work.
Moisture seeping into the area long ago rotted the wooden floors and wall siding in the magazine, and forced the state to close the area to the public for safety reasons sometime in the ’60s, Seymour said. It has remained closed since that time.
During the demolition, crews have uncovered several items from the time when the fort was occupied. Among those items were an iron “dog” used to move large granite blocks, a portion of a barrel cover and a wooden bung, likely from one of the large powder kegs that were once stored in the room.
The project is fairly straightforward, according to Bruce Leighton, owner of Leighton Construction.
“We’ll remove all of the wall studs and sheathing, the floor joists and sheathing and restore it to the original,” he said.
Restoring it to the original state also involves installing 1,200 wooden plugs over all the metal fasteners.
“All of the fasteners were covered with wooden plugs,” Leighton said. “They were very afraid of static electricity. That was the biggest danger in an area like this — more of a danger than an open flame.”
To further lessen that danger, Seymour said, anyone working in the area was required to wear cotton covering over their boots. They also used copper fixtures to guard against any unintended sparks in the area that could have ignited the thousands of pounds of powder in the room.
The first phase of the project is expected to be completed in about three weeks, according to Leighton. Phase Two of the project will include running electricity to the area so it can be lighted for visitors and to enable the Friends to install a fan to keep the air circulating and prevent future rot. Seymour said they also plan to develop additional educational and interpretive materials, including replicas of the powder barrels, to depict how the area would have looked about 150 years ago.
The estimated $30,000 project, funded through support from the Morton-Kelly Charitable Trust and the Messler Family Foundation, is expected to be completed this summer with the room possibly open to the public again as early as August.
The project marks a milestone of sorts for the Friends group, which has been working to restore and preserve areas of the fort. The restoration of the powder magazine will open up the last area of the fort that historically had been accessible, but had been closed for safety concerns. Among the areas the Friends have worked to reopen to the public have been the officers’ quarters, the Long Alley area, the enlisted men’s quarters cistern rooms and an area near Battery “B.” The group also has worked on the “Century and a Half” project replacing the “miles of mortar” that hold the fort’s granite blocks and brick walls together.
With those areas open to the public, Seymour said the Friends board will look at new ways to “enhance the educational components of the fort.”
“We will also be keeping an eye toward preservation,” he said. “That’s never going to cease. We have one of the best-preserved forts in the U.S. But that’s always going to need attention.”