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Fort Knox State Historic Site

Prospect (near Bucksport), Waldo Co., Maine (August 2009)

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Wandering Through the Fort

Fort Knox, Maine

Before I describe Fort Knox, perhaps I should describe what it is NOT. In that regard it is not the "famous" Fort Knox you've probably heard of before. It is not the place where the gold is stored, the United States Bullion Depository located at the fort in Kentucky with the same name. No, this is an earlier Fort Knox constructed in Maine along the Penobscot River to protect Bucksport and Bangor from British invaders in the wake of territorial incursions both in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The confusion arises because both of the Fort Knox military facilities are named after the same individual, Henry Knox, the first U.S. Secretary of War who lived in nearby Thomaston, Maine. It was natural for a fort in Maine to be named in his honor, perhaps less so for a camp in Kentucky, but nonetheless the place with all the gold gained all the fame. That's a shame. The fort in Maine is impressive and in pristine condition.

Fort Knox on the Penobscot River

Penobscot River Vantage

Getting to Fort Knox is easy for any visitor who happens to be traveling up Maine's primary coastal highway, U.S. Route 1. It's also convenient for visitors that prefer the Interstate rather than the scenic route, dropping from I-95 about twenty miles down to Bucksport. The Fort Knox State Historic Site provides a two-for-one opportunity. For the price of a single admission, visitors gain access to both Fort Knox and the co-located Penobscot Narrows Observatory perched atop a 420 foot leg of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge. The fortress grounds are open year-round but the fort itself is open only during the warmer months so you'll want to plan accordingly. It's easy to spend an entire morning or an afternoon between the two attractions, or they can be toured much more quickly if it's simply a convenient rest during a longer journey along the Maine coast.

Outside Fort Knox

The Granite Exterior Wall

Some might consider that this is an unusual location for a U.S. military fortification but it made perfect sense at the time of its construction. It's hard to imagine today because of the special friendship between Great Britain and the United States, but the exact opposite held true in the early history of the fledgling former colony. Great Britain was the enemy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and watched with mistrust all the way up through the American Civil War in the 1860's. Maine sat directly on the front line between the two, an uneasy boundary between British Canada and the United States. Compounding that, Maine was blessed with what must have seemed like unlimited natural resources. It's vast forests provided a nearly inexhaustible source of wood for construction or shipbuilding. It's seacoast and inland waterways harbored a great abundance of fish and crustaceans. It was an attractive target and it needed to be protected.

It wasn't simply paranoia on the part of the United States. Britain had invaded and captured large portions of Maine including the lower Penobscot River twice before in recent memory, during the Revolutionary War and again in the War of 1812. The British Navy destroyed a fleet of American ships near Bangor during the Revolution. They returned in the War of 1812, capturing Bangor and forcing it to surrender unconditionally before looting the town and burning many of the ships in harbor.

Residents of Maine's coastline demanded protection. They did not wish to suffer a third humiliating defeat. Clearly the case for a coastal fortification had been made.

Fort Knox Courtyard

The Interior Parade Ground

Bangor had become the Lumber Capital of the World by this time and it was important economically to protect it. Britain remained an adversary. Border incursions by Canadian lumbermen led to growing tensions between the two nations and sparked an undeclared confrontation known as the Aroostook War in 1838-1839. The parties settled many of the underlying border issues diplomatically in the 1842 Webster–Ashburton Treaty, but mistrust prevailed. The recent events finally spurred the United States to fund the construction of Fort Knox in 1844.

They chose a strategic location, not in Bangor itself but twenty miles downstream just below Bucksport. Here Verona Island split the Penobscot River and constricted its width. Here also stood a high bluff directly across from Bucksport on a bend in the river, with a commanding view and within easy cannon shot of any ship attempting to run past it. A fortress dug into the hillside would be practically impenetrable but could be outfit with sufficient firepower to protect Bucksport, Bangor and indeed the entire interior along this stretch of the Maine coastline. This single well-chosen spot could protect vital economic interests for a large swath of the lumbering industry.

Fort Knox Panorama

Fort Knox Viewed From the Observatory

Thus, construction began in 1844 and would continue slowly and intermittently all the way through 1869. Masonry coastal fortifications were in vogue during the first half of the nineteenth century and Fort Knox became part of that protective chain. They used locally-available materials, some of the finest granite available anywhere, found only five miles upriver at Mount Waldo. The military constructed Fort Knox roughly in the shape of a pentagon. They further constructed a series of three batteries including some with their own magazines and with hot shot furnaces for artillery intended to catch wooden ships on fire in addition to smashing them. Protected underground passageways, dry moats, steep bluffs, and living quarters built into the hillside would protect the occupiers. Fifteen-inch Rodman cannons enclosed in casements were placed strategically to create a deadly crossfire capable of hurling projectiles weighing as much as 450 pounds. This would serve as an intimidating deterrent or a fierce foe to any force attempting to capture the Lower Penobscot River.

Inside Fort Knox

Casements inside Fort Knox

Fort Knox never experienced hostile action. However, it was pressed into service during the Civil War like many of the other masonry coastal fortifications up-and-down the coast. Certainly the possibility of Confederate naval operation this far north would be remote but the fort could and did serve other purposes. A number of the Maine volunteers serving in the Union army trained in artillery and infantry tactics here beginning in 1863 and throughout the duration of the war. The Fort's population held at about 150 soldiers. New trainees arrived at the fort as those completing training headed off to war. They did not occupy the living quarters however, as they were not yet habitable. Fort Knox was still under construction so they had to stay in temporary structures or tents on the premises.

The Spanish-American war of 1898 provided another brief splash of activity at Fort Knox. Fear that Spain might attack a U.S. city prompted a resurgence in activity at the masonry fortifications up-and-down the coast, including here. With the Spanish threat quickly dispatched, the fort went back into mothballs. The Federal government finally declared Fort Knox superfluous in 1923 and passed control to the State of Maine.

The site is remarkably well preserved owing to its solid construction and its lack of retrofitting as happened at many other coastal fortifications. It is also the lucky beneficiary of the efforts of a nonprofit group, the Friends of Fort Knox, who expend great efforts to preserve and maintain the fort.

Readers who have an interest in forts might also want to check my Forts, Fortresses and Fortifications page.