By William Morgan
The town of Phippsburg, Maine, which includes the village of Popham Beach and an imposing Civil War fort, is celebrating its 200th anniversary. Ironically, this peninsula has a much longer history. English settlers arrived here in 1607, but left for greener pastures a year later. They sailed back to England in a ship that they themselves built, initiating a long boat building tradition along the shores of the Kennebec River that continues to this day.
But this spot did not lose its strategic importance; there were small fortifications here during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The coastal battery, which guards the entrance to the Kennebec, was begun in 1861 to protect maritime commerce and shipbuilding along the river. It was feared that Confederate raiders would foray up the river and lay waste to vital navy yards at Bath.
The garrison never had to repel an invader, although re-activated during the Spanish-American War and again in World War I. The fort became a Maine state park in the 1920s. There is a haunting and sublime quality about this partially ruined fortress. The massive, 30-foot-high walls of local granite look as though they could withstand any sort of assault. A double tier of arched gun emplacements is a tribute to 19th-century American military engineering, but the design is reminiscent of a Roman theatre, forming a semi-circular parade ground inside the fort.
From its mouth several miles up to Bath, the Kennebec is treacherous and not easily navigated. You can witness the tricky tides, shoals, and maelstroms looking out through the gun ports.
When I was 11 and attending Camp Tacoma Pines in Litchfield, Maine, a group of us paddled canoes all the way from Gardiner, past destroyers being built at Bath Iron Works, through the tricky and often dangerous channels, and all the way to the mouth of the Kennebec and the sea. I am amazed now that we were allowed to make this trip. But what I remember most was camping out on the beach beneath the walls of this mighty sentinel.
Great design is always at your fingertips! Read Design New England‘s September/October issue online!