Friday, August 8, 2014

The Penobscot Forts

Fort George, Castine, Maine
Just down the road from Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park in Maine are a series of old forts along the banks of the Penobscot River. I had no idea about this until I read a book by Bernard Cornwell, one of our favorite authors, called "The Fort."  It was a fascinating read encompassing the largest navel defeat of the United State until Pearl Harbor.   After reading the book, we wanted to visit the fort. And that's when we discovered there are several forts along the mouth of the Penobscot River that you can visit. Who knew? No one I've talked to has ever heard of these forts, and this may be in large part because the history behind them is rather embarrassing. That just makes them more interesting, however. There is a story there.

Fort George history plaque

In 1779, the British military landed in this location and began building Fort George. In response, Massachusetts and the United States sent a force of 43 ships to recapture the territory. With superior forces and fire power, the colonists should have easily taken the fort, the construction of which had just been started and offered little protection. But U.S. forces were not well lead or well disciplined (Paul Revere was later court martialed for cowardice), while the British forces consisted of hardened professionals.  

Fort George. The cement between rocks was full of shells. 
The British were able to hang on to their rapidly growing fort through a few weeks of half-baked battles and incompetent mulling about by the Americans until additional British ships arrived, chasing the Americans up the Penobscot River where all 43 American ships were scuttled. The American survivors were forced to retreat overland back to Boston without food or water. Do you remember learning about this in school?  I don't.  If you want to look up the history of the this battle, you should know it's not even referred to as a battle, but as the "Penobscot Expedition."  I'm now trying to imagine the South referring to the "Gettysburg Expedition."  

Looking across the fort grounds from the outfield
 One of the more unexpected sights was that of a rundown baseball field in the middle fort. Well, why not?  Here's the fort on Google Map.

Behind home plate inside Fort George
Our next stop was Fort Madison, just down the street (Perkins Street) and still within the battlefield area of Fort George.  This fort was even harder to find, but after a cranky neighbor yelled at us for parking on the street in front of his house, we were rewarded with beautiful views of the Penobscot Bay and were able to walk along the rocky shore. Here's the fort location on Google Maps.

Welcome to Fort Madison, Castine, Maine
This fort dates to the War of 1812. According to the sign, the Americans built the fort and then fled withdrew as soon as the British showed up.  Nice. The British went on to sack Bangor and generate lingering resentment.

Informational plaque, Fort Madison

Penobscot Bay, Fort Madison. Pretend those are big American Ships in 1779.
This was a beautiful park and there were a number of people relaxing and picnicking nearby.  You really could make a day of just hanging out here.

Bonus stairs down to the water. Also, massive Japanese Knotweed.
After exploring the shore, we visited the nearby Wilson Museum, which housed an eclectic assortment of relics collected by a resident geologist in the late 1800s (see map). Included in the museum were artifacts from one of the scuttled American ships that were part of the so-called Penobscot Expedition. Then we wandered on down to the Castine docks and had some seafood under an umbrella on the seaside dock. It was delicious (see map).

Crossing the Penobscot River (observatory is at the top)

After lunch, we head back up the peninsula along the Penobscot River towards Bucksport, where we encountered a beautiful cable-stay bridge crossing the river very near our next fort, Fort Knox. Not "the" Fort Knox, this is another one (but both forts were apparently named after the same guy).   But before exploring our third fort, we took a ride up the elevator in the Penobscot Bridge Observatory and got a great view of the surrounding. We could even see Acadia's Cadillac Mountain off in the distance.

View downstream from the observatory
 From up in the observatory, it's obvious why Fort Knox was location where it was. There is a very sharp, 90 degree turn in the river, which the old wooden sailing ships would have had to navigate under fire.

View upstream with Fort Knox located at the sharp bend in the river
The visit to Fort Knox was completely different than visiting the other two almost-forgotten forts (see location map).   For one thing, there was a fee, facilities, and a gift shop. Also, there were no embarrassing lost battles here (no battles at all, actually). The construction of this fort in fact turned out to be a waste of money (nearly a million dollars), a reaction to the previous humiliations by the British who intended to create a "New Ireland" in what is now Maine, but was then a part of Massachusetts (Maine subsequently won statehood in part because they had not been adequately defended by Massachusetts). This Civil War-era fort was under construction for 25 years and still wasn't complete in 1869 when construction was halted because iron-clad ships rendered it obsolete.

This one was a tourist trap.
Some granite quarry owner was probably made rich by this fort. There is granite everywhere. Maine has a lot of granite.

Fort Knox, just daring to British to try that "New Ireland" nonsense again.

Lots of granite

...and brick. 

The British weren't going to take over THIS fort!  

Fort Knox and the Penobscot Narrows Bridge
There are additional forts along the Penobscot, including Fort Pownall at Fort Point State Park, the oldest fort of them all. Alas, we didn't have time for that one.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was a fun read! Thanks for sharing your discoveries. Very interesting, indeed!