Last Saturday, Bill Carpenter of Stockton Springs went hiking in Orland and finished a little after sunset, leaving for home at 6:30 p.m.
It’s a trip that, in ordinary circumstances, takes him about 15 minutes. But Saturday was no ordinary day, Carpenter discovered as he found himself ensnared in a traffic jam that continued all the way to Waldo County. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was caught in a surge of vehicles headed to Fright at the Fort at Fort Knox in Prospect, where unprecedented crowds broke attendance records for the 19-year-old event.
“I thought there must be some kind of accident in town. I didn’t get home until 8:30 p.m.,” Carpenter said. “I’d never seen anything like it — I was absolutely stuck … I was 45 minutes on the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, if you can imagine that. I imagine anybody with a bridge phobia would have had a hard time. The traffic jam was truly urban. It was also huge. I didn’t know there were this many cars in Maine.”
No one had anticipated that many people would show up for Fright at the Fort, which has a Stephen King theme this year, according to Dean Martin, the new executive director of the Friends at Fort Knox. About 4,800 people attended the event that night, which is almost 2,000 more than expected.
“We hit capacity,” he said. “I never dreamt we would. Nobody knew there was capacity, that we would ever get to that number.”
Martin attributes the surge in popularity to what he called a perfect storm of factors. The weather was good. It was the same day as the popular Ghostport event put on by the Bucksport Chamber of Commerce. And there was a persistent, though apparently false, rumor that Stephen King himself would be at the fort.
“We have permission to use his intellectual property,” the director said. “But if he shows up, you probably wouldn’t even know.”
There is still one more weekend to go for the event, which is a fundraiser for Friends of the Fort, and which relies on the volunteer efforts of Bucksport and Searsport high school students to terrify the attendees. Martin said that advance ticket sales are much slower for the Friday, Oct. 26, and Saturday, Oct. 27, frights, and he expects the predicted rain will help to dampen crowds. Even so, he has been working with local police and school district officials to start a shuttle on Saturday night. People can park at Bucksport Middle School at 100 Miles Lane and take school buses to the fort. That, combined with better traffic control, should lead to jam-less roads, he hopes.
“I’ve been going around to the businesses, apologizing,” Martin said. “I anticipated hundreds of complaints, and I didn’t get that. I got less than ten. I’m talking about truly irritated people. Most people said the wait was awful, but it was the best fright ever.”
Even Carpenter, who was not going to the event, was largely philosophical about his long wait. While he was sitting on the bridge, watching hundreds of people walk across it to the fort, he mused about how this kind of jam could be dangerous — “no ambulance, no cop car, could have gotten through there. It was solid,” he said.
“I got a little bit angry because I thought they should have some kind of traffic control,” he said. “But at the same time, I was thinking how wonderful it was that something in Bucksport has caught on in this manner.”
It has been only four years since the small community was upended by the news that the Verso paper mill, the largest local employer by far, was going to close. For a time, it seemed uncertain how the town would get through the economic upheaval caused by the closure. But Bucksport has been resilient, and Carpenter figures the Halloween-themed events are part of that.
“What a wonderful thing that they have done, to create a nexus of some kind where everybody is drawn to it,” he said, adding some seasonal thoughts of his own. “It was even a little scary to see. You had the sense of a spider with many arms, all filled with traffic and people.”
But it wasn’t all scary. Carpenter noticed something else remarkable about the traffic jam.
“In all that time, nobody blew their horn,” he said. “In New York, it would have been a symphony of automobile horns. I think it spoke well to the Maine character.”
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