PROSPECT, Maine — The granite 19th century fort that stands guard over the Penobscot River soon will have a new, modern accessory — 1,800 feet of galvanized steel safety fence, according to an official from the state’s Bureau of Parks and Lands.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Maine Historic Preservation Commission are expected sign by the end of this week a memorandum of agreement to add fencing at Fort Knox State Historic Site, Skip Varney, the director of engineering and real property for the bureau, said Wednesday.
The memorandum will detail the state’s understanding that the work will have an adverse effect on the visual, atmospheric and audible elements at Fort Knox.
“The reason why we’re doing this is public safety,” Varney said. “People have been very supportive of the fencing. They understand it is a state historic site and it will alter the look of it, but they think it’s worth it if it will prevent serious injury and death.”
But that sentiment is not shared by everyone, including the board of directors and executive director of the Friends of Fort Knox, the nonprofit group that manages the state historic site.
“Everybody wants safety, but the board members thought it could be done in a less invasive way than 1,800 feet of galvanized fence,” executive director Leon Seymour said. “The board remains concerned that there doesn’t seem to be any way to have meaningful input into this project. We have heard from the public, and a lot of the public is not happy with this project.”
Among other questions, Seymour said the Friends of Fort Knox would like to know if the fence will mean the public will be restricted from using parts of the fort that are now open to use.
The project should cost about $500,000, Varney said. The Army Corps of Engineers will put the work out to bid and want to have a contract signed in September, with the work slated to be done in the off-season before Fort Knox opens next summer.
In addition to the railing — some of which will replace existing fencing — the project will entail 300 linear feet of plantings, also designed to prevent people from falling off the ramparts of the fort.
Varney shared a document that detailed 34 incidents of falls at the fort since 1982, which the state believes would be prevented by the proposed fence. The most recent incident involved a 9-year-old boy, who was rolling off the hill and fell approximately 10-15 feet off the wall and needed to be transported by ambulance to obtain medical care. But the 30 years of falls at the fort also include 14 instances of people who slipped on granite stairs. It was unclear how fencing high points of the fort would keep visitors from slipping on the steps.
Varney said that funding for the project will come from a federal grant program used to improve safety at former military sites that have vertical drops of more than six feet. He said that the Army Corps of Engineers approached the state in late 2011 to alert officials that money could be used at Fort Knox, Lamoine State Park and Fort Edgecomb State Historic Site in the Sheepscot River. The bureau did use some funds to break down and cover a 30-foot-deep water cistern at Lamoine State Park but declined doing any projects at Fort Edgecomb.
But Fort Knox rose to the top of the list, thanks to places where people could fall 25 feet onto granite and the list of preventable injuries, he said.
“We’ve had some major injuries, and a few people have had to be life-flighted out,” Varney said.
However, Seymour said that he and others do not believe that the plan to fence the fort is finalized and intend to seek more information from the state.
“We’re going to pursue getting our questions answered,” he said. “In terms of the board’s mind, it isn’t a done deal.”