Unique United States Museums: Fort Western

By Carla Charter

AUGUSTA, ME – The oldest wooden fort in the country sits on the shore of the Kennebec River in Augusta Maine. Fort Western was built in 1754 by the Kennebec Proprietors, a Boston based company seeking to settle the lands along the Kennebec River that the pilgrims had been granted a century earlier. Both the company and the Province of Massachusetts were interested in expanding their influence in the area as part of an effort by Britain to take political control of North America and to sever ties between the Abenaki and the French in Canada.  “Fort Western was created out of wood all of which was cut down river and floated up here. It was built in 11 days”, according to Linda Novak, Director and Curator of Fort Western.

Fort Western was used as a storehouse for Fort Halifax which was 17 miles up the river.  Once supplies were brought from Boston to Fort Western, they were transferred to flat bottom boats, called Batteaus, and sent, often against a strong river current, to Fort Halifax.

James Howard Company garrisoned the fort and guarded the head of navigation of the Kennebec from 1754 to 1767.  In 1767 when the last of the garrison was discharged, Howard bought the forts buildings and surrounding land.  After 1767 the building became a civilian store and private residence. Fort Western currently has several of the account books from this store. “ In the account books you can see what people are buying and how they were bartering with wood products.”

In 1775, the fort was used as a staging point for Benedict Arnolds assault on Quebec, during the American Revolution. He, along with some of his officers including Daniel Morgan, Aaron Burr and Henry Dearborn also stayed at the fort at this time as well.

Descendants of the Howard Family live in the garrison until the 1850’s.  In the 1850’s they left Maine to go to Michigan, Florida, Texas and Ohio.   “At the North end of the garrison we actually have a few family pieces on display,” said Novak

During the industrial revolution the fort was transformed into tenements with 8 apartments for factory workers.  “Edward Textile Mills was just north of it,” she said.

In 1919 the Gannett’s of Gannett publishing who were descendants Margaret Howard Captain Howards daughter, offered to renovate the Fort. “They said to the city, if you take Fort Western by eminent domain, we will renovate it at our own expense and give $6,500 to the general fund of the city.  Then we will give it back to the city.”  From 1919 to 1922 the Fort was rebuilt, fixed and received fort status. It was given back to the city on July 4, 1922.

Today the fort receives 6,000 visits from Maine school children a year.  “During tourist season we get an additional 5,000 from every state in the Union except Wyoming and Alaska as well as visitors from Western and Northern Europe. The least visited demographic is from Augusta itself and it is free to visit for Augusta residents,” Novak said.

Annual events include a reenactment of the French and Indian Wars and a Revolutionary War Muster Day and Craft Fair.  More information on Fort Western can be found at www.augustamaine.gov/old_fort_western/index.php