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A picturesque island fort off Portland is getting some much-needed safety upgrades

Posted July 06, 2017, at 6:36 a.m.
Last modified July 06, 2017, at 3:21 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Sitting in the middle of Portland Harbor, Fort Gorges is completely open to the public. There are few safety rails in the 19th century military installation. It has no front door and the fort is never closed. Visitors, who must come by private boat, are free to roam. Nothing is off limits.

It’s been this way since the federal government gave it to the city in 1960. But that’s changing.

The Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to start making safety upgrades, starting Thursday. They will install handrails, fences and a lockable door on the fort, according to the local group which advocates for the property’s upkeep. They’re also planning to build an observation deck on the corner of the fort’s roof, closest to Little Diamond Island. At the same time, they will cut off access to the most popular location for photography opportunities on the other side of the roof. That spot looks toward the city.

“As you look around the fort you see wide open spaces, open casemates where the cannons were, open windows,” said Paul Drinan, executive director of Friends of Fort Gorges, pointing out the potential hazards. The friends is a nonprofit group that looks out for the fort.

Drinan says the Army Corps is manufacturing all the metal gates, grates and railings off-site.

“And they’ll be out here for the next couple of months, installing those things,” he said, “to make the fort a safer place.”

The Army Corps will not be fixing anything, Drinan added. They will only be installing safety features.

During the work, access to the interior of the fort will be completely blocked on July 6, 7, 10 and 11, a city news release stated this week. Other dates may also be announced. Even when access to the interior is allowed, certain sections of the fort may be closed off due to construction.

The work isn’t costing the city a dime.

“The work is funded through the Army Corps of Engineers at no cost to the city of Portland,” the city release stated, in part.

The Army Corps started building Fort Gorges on Hog Island Ledge in 1858. They finished in 1864 but by then, advances in gunnery had rendered its design obsolete. It was never garrisoned and never fired a shot in anger.

It was named for Sir Ferdinando Gorges, one of the first English proprietors of Maine.

At the same time the Army Corps will be doing its work, a separate engineering study is being conducted. The study, funded by Friends of Fort Gorges and the city, looks to identify structural problems with the fort, said Drinan.

The biggest barrier to public access, Drinan said, is the lack of a functional dock. The original boat landing is badly damaged by 150 years of winter storms.

Once the structural and safety issues are dealt with, Drinan envisions theater and music performances in the fort, as well as historical tours.

“The acoustics are just incredible here,” he said.

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