Fort Kent Blockhouse has guarded the border for 175 years

Posted Sept. 01, 2014, at 4:45 p.m.
The Fort Kent Blockhouse celebrates its 175th anniversary this month.
Julia Bayly | BDN
The Fort Kent Blockhouse celebrates its 175th anniversary this month. Buy Photo
Residents enjoy a summer outing near the Fort Kent Blockhouse in this undated photograph.
Courtesy of Fort Kent Historical Society
Residents enjoy a summer outing near the Fort Kent Blockhouse in this undated photograph.
This undated photo from the late 19th century shows the area around the Fort Kent Blockhouse before it became a residential neighborhood.
Courtesy of Fort Kent Historical Society
This undated photo from the late 19th century shows the area around the Fort Kent Blockhouse before it became a residential neighborhood.
An 1859 drawing of the Fort Kent Blockhouse shows the underground entrance that may have given rise to the persistent rumors of tunnels leading to and from the building.
Courtesy of Fort Kent Historical Society
An 1859 drawing of the Fort Kent Blockhouse shows the underground entrance that may have given rise to the persistent rumors of tunnels leading to and from the building.
Courtesy of Fort Kent Historical Society
Fort Kent historian Chad Pelletier has been collecting blockhouse items for years.
Julia Bayly | BDN
Fort Kent historian Chad Pelletier has been collecting blockhouse items for years. Buy Photo
Fort Kent historian Chad Pelletier has been collecting blockhouse items for years.
Julia Bayly | BDN
Fort Kent historian Chad Pelletier has been collecting blockhouse items for years. Buy Photo
A sign inside the Fort Kent Blockhouse admonishes people to not carve on its walls, but passers-by have done just that for 175 years. Several of the carved names and dates go back to the late 1800s.
Julia Bayly | BDN
A sign inside the Fort Kent Blockhouse admonishes people to not carve on its walls, but passers-by have done just that for 175 years. Several of the carved names and dates go back to the late 1800s. Buy Photo
Maine's changing boundary
GRAPHIC BY ERIC ZELZ | BDN
Maine's changing boundary Buy Photo

FORT KENT, Maine — When Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and John Adams signed the 1783 Treaty of Paris, it set into motion the series of events that led to construction of what ultimately became Maine’s first state-owned historic property.

“The Treaty of Paris really was the inception for the Fort Kent Blockhouse,” Chad Pelletier, president of the Fort Kent Historical Society, said recently. “It’s kind of crazy when you think about it.”

Built in 1839, the blockhouse celebrates its 175th anniversary in September, and the stories behind its construction and purpose have mixed fact, fiction and folklore for decades.

Pelletier is more than happy to drop whatever he happens to be doing to separate fact from fiction and walk visitors through the chain of events that took the building from fort to tourist attraction.

It started with the 1783 treaty, which ended the American Revolutionary War and at the same time sparked a northern border dispute.

“The treaty stated that Maine would extend to ‘the highlands of the St. Lawrence,’” Pelletier said. “That was really open to debate, because the highlands could mean right at the St. Lawrence (River) or the range of mountains around what is now Mars Hill.”

Vague as the description was, few politicians lost much sleep initially over a patch of land so far to the north.

But after Maine broke away from Massachusetts and became its own state in 1820 and as settlers who were drawn by the thought of all the virgin pine, cedar and spruce along the St. John River slowly trickled into the disputed area from British Canada and the United States, things really began to heat up, Pelletier said.

By 1838, fierce squabbles between British Canada and the U.S. over who had rights to the valuable timber sparked the so-called “Bloodless Aroostook War” — not one shot was fired or casualty was listed during the conflict.

Local folklore tells of a cow that was at the wrong place at the wrong time being shot and killed as collateral damage, but Pelletier said there is no evidence that actually happened.

From 1838 to 1839, groups of armed men from both sides engaged in skirmishes along the disputed border. In March 1839, British troops arrived in the region.

“That’s when you saw the first wave of Maine troops come up here,” Pelletier said. “They would be equivalent to today’s National Guard.”

After British troops arrived in Madawaska in early 1839, the Maine Legislature approved $800,000 and called for 10,000 volunteers to travel north, according to historical documents. The blockhouse was built to help support those troops, Pelletier said.

Then Congress stepped in and appropriated $10 million to send 50,000 federal troops to Aroostook.

But before things got completely out of hand, then-U.S. President Martin Van Buren sent Gen. Winfield Scott to Augusta, where he met with a representative of the British Crown.

The two men worked out a truce on March 21, 1839, arranging for joint occupancy of the territory until the boundary issue could be settled. The borderlines finally were resolved with the Webster-Ashburton Treaty in 1842.

The treaty established the St. John and St. Francis rivers as the international border and gave rise to what has become one of the more popular myths concerning the blockhouse, Pelletier said — and proves there is nothing like the facts to ruin a good story.

Legend has it the St. John River in its entirety was to be the international boundary, but residents on the Maine side of the river allegedly got the border surveyors good and liquored up and managed to convince them the St. Francis River was, in fact, the St. John and not a tributary.

“There is no evidence at all that happened,” Pelletier said. “No one really knows why the St. Francis ended up as the boundary, but it did add a huge chunk of land to Maine.”

At the same time, Pelletier said, the British were able to preserve enough land to secure an overland route north of the new border between Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Quebec.

With the Webster-Ashburton Treaty treaty signed, there was no need for troops to remain in the area to defend it from the British. The blockhouse was sold and resold several times to private owners until, in 1891, the Maine Legislature was convinced to appropriate $300 for its purchase, Pelletier said. It marked the first time the state acquired property of historical significance.

“Over the years, there were rumors of families using it as a private residence,” Pelletier said. “But there are no indications that ever really happened.”

Other blockhouse legends perpetuated over the years, including the one about a tunnel that supposedly led from the structure to an island in the middle of the St. John River.

“I remember as a Boy Scout giving tours here and telling tourists all about tunnels running all over Fort Kent,” Pelletier said. “But we know now there were no tunnels.”

Building such tunnels, given the closeness of the water table to the surface, would be an engineering marvel by modern standards and a near impossibility in the early 1800s, he said.

There was an entrance to a subterranean chamber below the blockhouse, Pelletier said, but that likely led to an adjacent ammunition magazine.

And, despite several accounts, Pelletier said Robert E. Lee — a noted engineer before he was a Civil War Confederate hero — never visited the area to design any buildings around the blockhouse.

Care and operation of the blockhouse was taken over by the Fort Kent Boy Scouts in 1958, Pelletier said.

These days, an estimated 1,000 people a year from all over the world visit the two-story structure built with 20-square-inch logs and study the carvings left by soldiers, lumbermen and residents over the past 175 years.

Inside, the Fort Kent Historical Society has established a pictorial display of the history of the blockhouse, and Pelletier has added his own collection of vintage blockhouse tourist memorabilia.

Even without the liquored-up surveyors, mortally wounded cows or confederate generals, the story behind the 175-year-old Fort Kent Blockhouse is still a pretty good one.

A special exhibit is planned inside the blockhouse during Fort Kent’s annual Scarecrow Festival, from Sept. 19-21, and Pelletier said other special exhibits might be in the works.

 

CORRECTION:

In a previous version of this story, the year 1938 appeared instead of the year 1838 in one instance. It was a typo.

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