Old Fort Western: Where History Comes to Life

Main garrison building at Fort Western
Old Fort Western

I came across Fort Western in Augusta, Maine, quite by accident. As I was driving through Augusta, on my Maine road trip, I noticed a sign for Fort Western. Following that sign, I had no idea what a unique piece of history I had found. Come along on a tour of Fort Western with me and discover a building with a diverse and interesting history.

A Welcome Greeting at Fort Western

A picture of my tour guide Dorothy in period costume
My tour guide, Dorothy

Walking in through the large wooden gates, you already get a feel for the history that is about to unfold. A wooden gatehouse just inside those foreboding large wooden walls would open up to a world of history. A wonderful greeting at the gate by Dorothy, who would be my tour guide. This lovely young woman would tell the tales of the past and bring them to life.

Cushnoc Trading Post (1628-1654)

The beginning of the story of Old Fort Western did not start with Fort Western but with the area, it was in. In the earlier 1600s, the area known as “Cushnoc.” became a vital trade location for the people in the area. The fur trade in 1628 was booming, and “Cushnoc” became a major junction for trading with the establishment of the Cushnoc Trading Post. By 1654, the fur trade was on the decline, and the trading post closed. The remnants of the trading post were reportedly burned in 1676, but that would not be the end but just the beginning of this story.

Fort Western (1754 – 1767)

main garrison building at Fort Western
The main garrison of Fort Western

The large wooden building standing staunchly in the fort is the original structure from 1754. That in itself is a cause for celebration. The reason a fort was built in Cushnoc (Augusta) is an amazing tale of ingenuity and fortitude.

The area along the Kennebec River was a very unsettled area after the close of the trading post. War and fighting for the rights of land were abundant in the early 1700s. Threats of a French and Indian invasion down the river into the already settled English colonies swirled. The province of Massachusetts decided to build a fort (Fort Halifax) of defense at Teconnet Falls (Winslow, Maine), upriver from the main colonies.

A Strategic Location with One Flaw

Supplies could not be brought to Fort Halifax by way of the Kennebec River as it became shallow after Cushnoc (Augusta). The large supply ships could not traverse the shallow water, and the forests and terrain were too thick and dangerous to walk through. Another fort had to be built as a supply warehouse.

That fort was Fort Western. Large supply ships would drop off goods for shipment to Fort Halifax. As the water levels rose on the Kennebec River, flat-bottomed boats would carry the goods to the soldiers upriver to the fort. This was not an easy task. Watching along the shore for enemy attacks as they floated upriver, some spots in the river were too shallow for even the flat-bottomed boats. The crew would then have to portage the boat and supplies to the next section of the river. 

The Buildings Within Fort Western

The main garrison built on the side of the Kennebec River was used for storage of incoming supplies and barracks for the 23 men stationed there. The garrison is the ‘oldest surviving wooden military structure’ in the United States. Although Fort Western would not see any action, they were prepared. On the river side of the building, cannons were set and ready to go to defend the fort.

Cannons in the room of the main garrison

In other parts of the garrison, there are rooms for storage, sleeping bunks, and living spaces. The wooden construction of the rooms and the remnants of what was left behind brought you back in time. A beautiful display of the tools and items used for everyday life can be found throughout the garrison.

Inside the garrison

On the grounds of the fort is a remake of the powder magazine built into the ground to keep any explosion limited in case of any accidents. The powder kegs would be stored here, awaiting shipment to Fort Halifax.

Powder magazine

Throughout the grounds of the fort, you can see a display of some of the items they would use at Fort Western. A stockade for those who did not follow the line, a bucket well system used for cooking and drinking. A practice wall for firing muskets to make sure their aim was correct.

The threat of war by 1759 had greatly reduced. The English had captured Quebec, and the risk had moved significantly north. Fort Western was decommissioned in 1767. Another end to start a new beginning.

Fort Western had a famous touch as well. Benedict Arnold, along with 1,100 soldiers, would stop at Old Fort Western in 1775 on his “March to Quebec.”

S & W Howard Store (1767 – 1807)

S &W Howard Store

The colonization of the area greatly increased with the creation of Fort Western. Samuel Howard was a sea captain who worked out of Boston. He saw the potential and need for a store for the colonists to get supplies. In 1767, he purchased the fort for $500. Along with his brother William, they created S & W Howard Store. Samuel would purchase and ship the goods from Boston, and William would run the store. The store would operate for forty years until the Embargo of 1807 (an act that prevented trade with the British) would put them out of business.

Howard Family Home

Rooms in the Howard Family home

William would live with his family on one side of the garrison building and operate the store on the other side. A blacksmith shop would be added to complete the supply of goods needed to live at that time.

It was interesting to see all the items they would have used back then. The spinning wheel was used to create cloth, the “coffee box” that ground the coffee beans to powder, and the washboard that would have been used to clean clothes.

Items for living in the 1700s

Although the store closed in 1807, the Howard Family would continue to make the garrison their home until the 1850s.

Tenement House (1850 – 1920)

The mid-1800s brought vitality and industry to the area. The Howard family descendants would move out of the garrison, and the building became a tenement house for the town’s mill workers. The building was broken up into eight apartments to house the workers of Augusta.

Fort Western Becomes a Museum (1922 – Present)

In 1919, the tenement house was acquired by the city and returned to the Howard family descendants. William H. Gannett and Guy P. Gannett worked to restore the building to its former glory. While restoring the main garrison, they also built two buildings that are designed to represent the blockhouses that are still at Fort Halifax. In 1922 the Gannett’s gave the buildings and land to the city of Augusta. It has flourished as a museum ever since.

The preservation of the history and the interesting diversity of the buildings is wonderfully presented at Fort Western. I would like to thank my wonderful tour guide, Dorothy, for bringing this magnificent history to life with her stories of life in the past.

I encourage everyone to make Fort Western a travel destination when in Augusta Maine.

Thanks for coming along on my Chipmunk Adventure. See you next week.


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