Why the Army Built Fort Knox in Prospect Almost 180 Years Ago

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Hard Telling Not Knowing tries each week to answer your burning questions about why things are the way they are in Maine – especially about Maine culture and history, both old and new, big and small. , important and silly. Send your questions to [email protected]

This week’s question comes to us from a comment left on a Bangor Daily News Facebook post some time ago. The commentator wondered why there was a huge granite fort at Prospect of all places – an awfully large structure for a small town with no other military installations for miles around.

Why was Fort Knox built along the Penobscot River?

Fort Knox stands like a sentinel in the town of Prospect, near the mouth of the Penobscot River, overlooking Bucksport Harbor – a granite edifice built in times long past when ocean and river ships still drove the economy and that the railroads were still in place. their childhood.

Although today it’s a tourist destination that hosts events ranging from Civil War reenactments to spooky Halloween nights to modern dance performances, Fort Knox was originally built in the 1840s and 50, to protect Maine’s coastal interior and booming lumber industry from attack.

A Confederate soldier loads his musket during a soldier’s school at Fort Knox in Prospect in 2016. Credit: Ashley L. Conti/BDN

Fort Knox’s location on the river certainly makes sense – it’s on a promontory where the river narrows before opening into Penobscot Bay, making it a good place to look out and defend against shipping. approaching – but it’s hard to imagine foreign aggressors. go up the river to attack, say, Orrington or Winterport.

But in the 1840s it was a legitimate concern. Several triggering events prompted the military to secure the entrance to the Penobscot River by building a fort. The first was the ill-fated Penobscot Expedition, the Revolutionary War battle of 1779 that saw American forces attempt to force the British out of eastern Maine via an armada of warships. The Americans were severely defeated, in what has been called the worst domestic naval defeat in American history until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The second was the Battle of Hampden during the War of 1812, when in 1814 the British marched up the Penobscot and defeated American forces at Hampden, later looting and burning Hampden and Bangor. In 1838 and 1839, the Aroostook War, a border skirmish between Aroostook County and the then British colony of New Brunswick, further heightened anti-British sentiment and concerns about Maine’s vulnerability. to attack – and given Maine’s lucrative lumber industry, there was certainly reason to be concerned about protecting such a valuable natural resource.

After the War of 1812, the government began an ambitious effort called the “Third System”, to build a coastal defense system along the eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. These forts would replace the deteriorating, often poorly constructed ones built in the years following United States independence in 1783. Five forts were to be built in Maine, including Fort Knox, Fort Popham in Phippsburg, Fort Gorges and Fort Scammell in Portland. and Fort Preble in South Portland.

Between 1821 and 1869, the US government built 47 forts nationwide, although not all of them – including Fort Preble – were fully completed. Work on Fort Knox began in 1844, with the fortress to be built of granite quarried near Mount Waldo in Frankfurt. It was named in honor of General Henry Knox, a resident of Thomaston and the first United States Secretary of War. Fort Knox’s roof, in fact, was never fully completed when funding for the project was cut in 1869, according to the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.

A cannon inside Fort Knox.
An interior view of Fort Knox in Prospect, showing one of the historic cannons which, if ever used in wartime, would have fired at enemy ships through an opening in the granite wall. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Although it took 25 years to build and cost the equivalent of approximately $38 million, adjusted for inflation, Fort Knox has never seen a single battle and has not been inhabited since. the beginning of the 20th century. There was a Civil War regiment stationed there, although they mostly did training exercises, and a Connecticut regiment was stationed there during the Spanish–American War. That’s it.

The federal government sold Fort Knox to the state of Maine in 1923, and since 1943 it has been a state historic site. It is now run by the local nonprofit Friends of Fort Knox. Today it is one of the best preserved forts of this type in the country. In 2007, the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and its lookout tower were opened next to the fort, adding another major landmark to the historic site – a structure built for war but only seen peace during of its 178 years of existence.

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