Since becoming an independent nation, the United States has been able to maintain adequate defenses from foreign invaders. Aside from the Mexican-American wars to the south in the mid 19th century, the only successful invader has been the United Kingdom during the War of 1812. Additionally, up until WWII, the only practical invasion technique was by sea, and American defense heavily relied on armed fortifications lining the U.S. coasts.
Following the War of 1812, the U.S. Corps of Engineers proposed the construction of a fort on Hog Island Ledge, off the Portland coast. Titled Fort Gorges after Sir Fernando Gorges (the colonial proprietor of Maine), this new fort assisted the other forts in the area, including Fort Preble in South Portland and Fort Scammel on House Island.
From its construction beginning in 1857 to WWII, Fort Gorges served a central role in U.S. military maritime activities. In 1960, Portland acquired the port and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Nowdays, Fort Gorges is a public park accessible by private boat, and the city asks visitors to bring flashlights and other materials when entering the fort’s powder magazines.
History of Fort Gorges
The War of 1812 was a distressing time for the United States, as it was yet a young and growing nation. The naval fighting between America and England as well as the Burning of Washington illuminated America’s significant coastal weaknesses.
Following the war, the Army Corps of Engineers set plans for the construction of Fort Gorges on Hog Island Ledge. Construction didn’t begin immediately, as Congress refused to fund Fort Gorges until 1857. When the fort did receive its Federal funding that year, construction began and by 1958, Fort Gorges had only its walls.
The beginning of the Civil War in 1861 sped up construction, and the fort was fully completed by the war’s end. However, it’s long construction left the fort behind in terms of military technology, and in 1869, Congress approved of a modernizing project that would create new emplacements for larger guns with adjacent powder magazines.
Other additions at this time included a “parados” of sod-covered sand to protect the guns and magazines from the rear and a two-story “great magazine.” In total, the modernizing project outfitted the fort with 34 guns mounted on the first and second levels.
In 1876, Congress removed funding for further modernization (with the third-level of the fort yet unfinished), and during the outset of the Spanish American War, Fort Gorges held 31 guns.
The fort remained as a submarine mine storehouse until the 1930s, when the Coast Guard installed aid-to-navigation beacons. With WWII, Fort Gorges stored submarine nets and mines. Immediately after WWII, in 1946, the General Services Administration declared Fort Gorges as surplus and in 1960, the City of Portland acquired the fort as a historic site.1
Construction and Features of the Port
Fort Gorges was initially built using granite rock and thick steel beams. Although deterioration has rendered most of the original structures indecipherable, the thick steel beams supported the floor of the officers’ apartments at the fort.
At the time, an officer apartment at Fort Gorges included wood lath and plaster finishes, wooden floors, doors, and double-hung windows. The officer quarters were located on the north end of the first level along with the store rooms, a bakery, and the privies. Also on the first level were 28 casemates for the 10-inch Rodman guns. The fort’s parade ground was on the first floor as well, and circular staircases located on the southeast and southwest corners would take soldiers up to the second and third levels.
The second level of the fort included more casemates and Rodman guns as well as powder magazines. The third level had plans for another 39 emplacements for the Rodman guns, and during the modernization project, the third level was rebuilt to feature 11 15-inch Rodman guns. Unfortunately, funding ran out and the fort never received those guns.
In total, Fort Gorges needed about 500 soldiers to man the guns. Although the Fort was never permanently garrisoned, it supported soldiers temporarily from nearby forts.
The 10-inch Rodman gun would fire 125 pound projectiles over a distance of 3 miles.2