A mile off Portland’s Eastern Promenade, the granite walls of Fort Gorges seemingly float on Casco Bay, as they have for the past 155 years. Within the hexagonal structure, sumac, milkweed, and other invasive species have foraged paths from the ground up.
The public, city-owned fort, was built on Hog Island Ledge to defend the coast during the Civil War – but it never housed troops and never saw battle. Nonetheless, it is an iconic part of Portland’s waterfront that remains undiscovered by many, with overgrowth that obscures layers of granite blocks resting in their original form, a time capsule of the city’s past.
Since its completion in 1865 the fort – named for the colonial proprietor of Maine, Sir Ferdinando Gorges – has remained nearly intact without need for restoration and is included on the National Register of Historic Places. However, there are a few areas that are in “structural jeopardy,” according to Paul Drinan, executive director of Friends of Fort Gorges, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the structure.
Though much of the fort is granite, the repeating archways, known as casemates, have brick ceilings that are slowly crumbling, with public access to them restricted.
“As a whole, Fort Gorges is in great shape,” Drinan said in an interview on Aug. 17. “We want to intervene and repair that one area.”
This summer, Friends of Fort Gorges launched a “#yourfort” fundraising campaign to raise $500,000 to structurally repair the at-risk infrastructure and to create greater accessibility inside the fort.
While the fundraiser is relying on private donations from visitors to the Friends’ website and tour revenue, the city has pledged to match $250,000 to help meet the goal.
“This is a preservation plan to literally save the fort,” Drinan said. “There will never, ever, ever be another Fort Gorges.”
The granite wall surrounding the fort shows wear due to its open exposure to waves on the northern side, and the ceilings and floors across the fort have slowly filled with stalagmites and stalactites from lime mortar deposits.
“Fort Gorges has cultural, historical, and architectural significance,” Drinan said. “It’s a special place, and you have to go there to really understand it. Just looking at a picture doesn’t really convey how special it is.”
Only accessible by private boat, the structure still manages to welcome nearly 8,000 visitors a year. Friends of Fort Gorges offers transportation by boat and a walking tour of the island; Portland Paddle, a sea kayak and paddleboard operator, offers kayak tours. Otherwise, getting to the destination is in the hands of the individual.
Completed in 1865, Fort Gorges was one of three third-system forts, the typical coastal defense structure of the mid-19th century, built in the Portland area. It was constructed to support its already existing sister forts, Fort Preble in South Portland and Fort Scammel on private House Island, which were built in the early 1800s, author and historian John Weaver wrote in “A Legacy in Brick and Stone.”
Within the fort, two tiers of casemates exist with narrow windows overlooking the ocean. The arched rooms are big enough to have held cannons and to sleep the militia that would have manned them. And the fort had provisions for gunpowder and mine storage, a bakery, a blacksmith, and a carpenter shop.
Built to hold 300-500 troops, the structure was never fully garrisoned by the time it was completed, Drinan explained while guiding a tour around the island last week. The fort was last used for military storage during World War II.
Since then, overgrowth has flooded all the open spaces, seeping into the granite cracks of the stairwells, which Drinan said is partially intentional by design, although the Friends hope to replace the invasive species with native plants.
The public space has more recently served as space for artists to exhibit works, a concert hall for musicians, a refuge for yoga, and a venue for engagements, weddings, and birthday parties.
“There’s a spectrum of ruin to restoration in the preservation world, and our goal is to stabilize the structure and keep the place open for future generations,” Drinan said, adding that the second objective of the fundraising campaign is to improve overall accessibility to Fort Gorges.
One section of the roof hosts a small observation deck, filled with gravel and surrounded by a railing. The Friends hope to install a larger observation deck on the opposite side, too.
“Some developers proposed projects (for Fort Gorges), but it’s a historic site and should remain a historic site,” tour attendee Bill Lundborg said before he and his wife arrived on the island aboard the Friends’ new tour boat, Fortitude. “But also, it should remain safe enough for the public.”
Last year, when a developer floated a plan to establish an inn, restaurant, and brewery at the fort, members of the public expressed concern.
“We learned that the community does not want Fort Gorges to be turned into Disneyland,” Drinan said. “And the community will decide the fate and the future of Fort Gorges. If the community steps up and we fund this project, then Fort Gorges will be there for the next generation or two or more.”
While improved access and safer conditions are crucial to preserving the structure, much of the allure of Fort Gorges rests in its remote nature, its structure, and location encouraging curious individuals to explore its crevices and its cultural history.
“We all see it and you go by it, and you wish you could go out there, and now you can,” said Linda Lundborg, who was visiting Fort Gorges for the first time.
The new tour boat meets COVID-19 safety standards and hopefully will increase tour frequency and overall island access, Drinan said. Proceeds from tour reservations go towards the #yourfort campaign.
“We like history and are curious, and would give money to support it anyway,” Bill Lundborg said. “We get to support them and have a lovely trip. It’s a win-win.”
“Plus,” his wife added, “it’s gorgeous.”
Freelance writer Jenny Ibsen lives in Portland.