June 19, 2018
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Historic coastal forts are now Maine state parks

Brian Swartz | BDN
Brian Swartz | BDN
The blockhouse at Fort McClary State Historic Site in Kittery once protected the vital harbors at Kittery and Portsmouth, N.H. against seaborne enemy attacks.
By Brian Swartz, Custom Publications Editor

Learn about Maine history this summer by visiting three forts maintained by the Maine Department of Conservation.

During the Revolutionary War, sea-borne British raiders raised havoc in coastal Maine waters. To protect Wiscasset — then an important port — and Sheepscot River shipping, Fort Edgecomb was later constructed on Davis Island in Edgecomb in 1808-09 after Moses Davis sold the land to the United States for $300.

The octagonal blockhouse perched high above other fort facilities, including a four-cannon waterfront battery, two barracks, officers’ quarters, and an 18-by-45-foot storehouse. Garrisoned during the War of 1812, Fort Edgecomb sheltered British prisoners and received additional troops in 1814 after British troops and warships captured Fort Sullivan in Eastport and British troops reoccupied Fort George in Castine.

Manned during the Civil War, Fort Edgecomb fell into disrepair. Most buildings were likely torn down for their brick and timber, but the blockhouse survived until area residents funded its repair in the late 19th century.

Today, Fort Edgecomb State Historic Site preserves the blockhouse, considered the best of its kind from the early 19th century. The blockhouse and adjacent grounds are open daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day; on-site picnic tables offer good views across the Sheepscot River.

The oldest fort in eastern Maine stands not in Castine (Fort George) or Prospect (Fort Knox) but near Route 92 in Machiasport. Fort O’Brien State Historic Site preserves earthworks and an overgrown powder magazine connected with Fort O’Brien, constructed in 1775 to protect Machias against British warships.

Armed with four cannons, Fort O’Brien offset Fort Foster across the Machias River. British troops captured both forts in 1775, but the Army rebuilt Fort O’Brien in 1777 and garrisoned it then and during the War of 1812.

In 1863, the Army constructed adjacent to the fort’s ruins a five-cannon battery named Fort Machias; the mown earthworks seen at Fort O’Brien today date to the Civil War. An on-site kiosk provides information about the forts.

Fort O’Brien State Historic Site is open daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day. To reach the site, turn south onto Route 92 at its intersection with Route 1 in Machias and drive approximately 5 miles. Watch for the site’s brown-and-white sign near the Fort O’Brien School on Route 92.

The oldest fort managed by the Maine Department of Conservation overlooks the Piscataqua River in Kittery. On a site called Battery Pasture, colonists erected Fort Pepperrell in the late 17th century.

The post gradually transformed into Fort McClary, constructed in 1808 to protect Kittery and Portsmouth, N.H. against hostile warships. Today, Fort McClary State Historic Site preserves the fort’s remaining buildings and fortifications; visitors can access the site from Kittery Point Road (Route 103).

The most striking building is the hexagonal blockhouse built in 1844 and equipped with upper-level gunports. The views across the Piscataqua River are excellent; boats flit across Portsmouth’s outer harbor during summer.

Standing near the white-painted blockhouse are an ammunition magazine, a roofless riflemen’s house, granite walls, and a caponier, a defensive post jutting from those walls. Another caponier rises above the Piscataqua River. Jumbled granite blocks between the blockhouse and the shore mark where builders abandoned Fort McClary in 1867-68.

Fort McClary is open daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

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