Wiscasset, Maine is one of the prettiest villages in the State with great restaurants and interesting shops. If you like Maine lobster then this is a great place to check out. The town has a long and proud history and saw it as one of the early contenders to be the State Capital of Maine, driven by its marine industry. Once the winds of changes drove this business back to a cottage industry, Wiscasset returned to a sleepier state. In the time of the town's great wealth some large houses were built, some of which are now in the hands of a trust and can be visited.
One of the many obsessions I have developed in recent years is to visit the State capitals in the USA (and their respective Capitol buildings) so as we passed through the northeast I decided to make a detour for Augusta, the capital city of Maine.
Some of the States have located their capitals cities to the largest city in the State, others have arrived at having their capitals elsewhere for strategic reasons. In the case of Maine, Augusta, with a population of around 18,000 is about the 12th largest city in Maine. When Maine gained statehood in 1820, Portland, the largest city, was initially made the capital. Some argued that the State capital should be more central and that Portland, being on the coast, was vulnerable to attack. A search for a new capital was started and offers were made from several cities, including Augusta. It took 5 years for the process to complete and in 1832, twelve years after Maine had become a state Augusta was finally named the capital city.
We reached Augusta around mid-morning on a Saturday in July and not a whole lot was going on. I got the impression this is a sleepy city, especially at the weekends. So, after a stroll up and down the main street, which took about 20-minutes, we headed off to the Capitol building – which like many is modelled on the Capitol in Washington DC.
One thing that I wanted to do while we were in Augusta was to visit Old Fort Western.
Some history here …
The area known as Cushnoc on the Kennebec River (now Augusta) was an important strategic location for the early peoples of the Kennebec Valley. In 1628, the Plymouth Colony built and established a trading post on the bank of the Kennebec River at Cushnoc.
The threat of war with the French and the Native Americans made it hard for settlements to thrive. To protect the territory it was determined that a fort would need to be built at Teconnet Falls. The problem here was that ships could only sail up the Kennebec River as far as Cushnoc.
The trading company who ran the post at Cushnoc made a proposal to Royal Governor, William Shirley that if the Province of Massachusetts built a provincial fort at Teconnet Falls (Fort Halifax) they would build a fortified “storehouse” at Cushnoc (Fort Western) as long as Massachusetts would man both forts.
The purpose for building these forts was two-fold: to encourage the resettlement of the Kennebec River and to provide necessary stores to Fort Halifax. Provincial stores came up the Kennebec River and were unloaded and stored at Fort Western. When river conditions were right, they were loaded onto flat-bottomed bateaux and portaged 17 miles upriver to Fort Halifax. The captain of Fort Western was Captain James Howard who commanded 23 men including his four sons; John, James Jr. Samuel & William. Colonel William Lithgow commanded Fort Halifax where 100 men were garrisoned.
The English capture of Quebec in 1759 reduced the threat of war in the Kennebec Valley. Within a year the number of soldiers at Fort Western was reduced to just ten and the number of soldiers at Fort Halifax was reduced as well. Forts Western and Halifax became militarily obsolete and were decommissioned in 1767 and 1766 respectively.
In 1767 Captain Howard purchased the fort for £500. Samuel and William Howard operated a store from the premises for the next forty years. Unfortunately, the Embargo Act of 1807 quickly put the Howard Store out of business. Howard family descendants continued to live in the old garrison building until the 1850s. In the mid-1850s, the Howard family descendants moved out of the old garrison building and it became a tenement. The garrison was split up into up to eight apartments. In 1919 the tenement housed Augusta’s burgeoning working class, particular those that worked in the Mills of Augusta and Hallowell. The Fort was mentioned often in the Kennebec Journal and was considered the “mean” part of town.
The Fort was taken over by the City of Augusta through eminent domain in 1919 and turned over to Howard descendants William H Gannett and Guy P Gannett between 1921 and 1922. The Gannetts renovated the garrison and built two new blockhouses patterned after the original blockhouse that remained at Fort Halifax. They then gifted the building back to the City of Augusta and it opened as a museum on July 4th, 1922.
In 1976, Fort Western became a National Historic Landmark.
There are tours of the Fort given by local volunteers, dressed in period costumes. There is no need to book and they seem to run whenever there is a group of people gathered interested in seeing the Fort.
We had a young lady who had been giving tours for several years take us around and she was very knowledgeable. We started in one of the recreated blockhouses and learned about the early history of the Fort when it was an active garrison protecting trade and the transporting of goods to Fort Halifax, a few miles up the Kennebec River.
From the blockhouse, we moved into the main garrison building which was laid out as it would have been when this was a trading store. There are also several rooms, including reception room and bedrooms, laid out as they would have been when the Howard family lived there.
The tour took around an hour and it was interesting to hear about how the role of this fort has developed over the years.
In Summary …
- Although Augusta is the capital city of Maine it is small and quite sleepy.
- It is fair to say that Augusta is not a destination in itself but if passing through it is worth making a visit to Old Fort Western
Planning your visit to Old Fort Western
|Address:||16 Cony St, Augusta, ME 04330|
June: Friday, Saturday, Sunday & Monday: 10-4pm
Adults: $10.00 per person.
Best time to visit Augusta
In Augusta, the summers are warm, the winters are freezing and snowy, and it is partly cloudy year round. Over the course of the year, the temperature typically varies from 13°F to 80°F and is rarely below -2°F or above 87°F.
Based on the tourism score, the best time of year to visit Augusta for warm-weather activities is from late June to early September.
Where to stay near Old Fort Western
1. SECOND STREET BED & BREAKFAST
This classic colonial style home was built in the 1800s and converted to a 5-bedroom B&B in 2005 after a full renovation.
Enjoy a short walk to an intimate downtown with several restaurants & pubs featuring tasty food and live music of local musicians seven days a week. Visit many unique shops, wonderful art studios and much, much more.
The Friends of the Kennebec Rail Trail offer a scenic trail for walking, running and bicycling that stretches through Augusta, Hallowell, Farmingdale, and Gardiner along the Kennebec River.
2. SENATOR INN & SPA
3. MAPLE HILL FARM INN BED & BREAKFAST
Maple Hill Farm is a small boutique hotel that perfectly combines true eco-consciousness, country serenity, relaxing comfort, and fine amenities. Surrounded by acres of rolling fields and woods, including an active bird feeder and a barn full of llamas and chickens, it was named “One of the Best 5 Green Hotels and Inns” in New England by Yankee magazine in 2017, and also Maine’s first certified “Environmental Leader” green lodging establishment with a huge solar electric array plus solar hot water and its own wind turbine. Every room has a private bath. Huge double whirlpool tubs, fireplaces, and private decks accentuate some guest rooms. A sauna and outdoor hot tub beckon the guest to truly relax, along with full bar service, a full breakfast cooked to order, and personalized attention.