Written by Todd DePastino
When a city’s motto is Resurgam–Latin for “I shall rise again”–you can guess it’s seen tough times.
That is true for Portland, Maine, perhaps the hippest town in New England. But the city’s trendy restaurants, art galleries, and improbable number of craft breweries mask a dark military history that has shaped its unusual character.
The first thing you notice is a lot of veterans out and about.
They are easy to spot, thanks to the highly visible Maine state Veterans License Plate. I felt like jumping out of my car to hand VBC Magazines to every driver I saw with this plate. But I ran out of magazines just before my patient wife was about to ask ever-so-kindly, “Could you please stop doing that?”
She also tolerated my stopping for historical markers and plaques. Here’s what I’ve learned:
For much of our nation’s history, Portland, Maine, was one the most heavily defended harbors in America. That’s because it was burned to the ground several times by its enemies. The most infamous incident occurred on October 18, 1775 when British Royal Navy Captain Henry Mowat laid waste to Portland (then called Falmouth) by firing 3,000 incendiary cannonballs at its wooden buildings. The town’s crime was supporting the Patriots then besieging British-held Boston.
George Washington declared Mowat’s action “an Outrage exceeding in Barbarity & Cruelty every hostile Act practised among civilized Nations.” Even English newspapers condemned the terror visited upon Falmouth.
The burning of Falmouth inspired the Second Continental Congress to rush plans for a Continental Navy, complete with fighting ships and two battalions of Marines.
It also inaugurated an almost maniacal defense plan for Portland’s harbor that waxed and waned time and again from the War of 1812 through World War II. At its peak defense in 1945, Portland’s Casco Bay was guarded by no fewer than eighteen forts, underwater minefields, artillery installations, and other shore defenses.
Remnants of these Harbor Defenses of Portland are everywhere, some are more visible than others.
Obsolete from its time of completion during the Civil War, Fort Gorges stands silent sentry on Hog Island less than a half-mile off Portland’s Eastern Promenade. A crown of wild shrubbery atop the granite walls proclaims nature’s triumph over the fort long ago.
Fort Gorges (Don Shall Flickr)
Fort Williams in South Portland grew from gun batteries during the Spanish American War to a full-fledged military installation with quarters, barracks, hospital, PX, fire station, and parade grounds. After its decommissioning in 1962, the fort became a park, a huge one, with much of its military past preserved.
Peaks Island, a couple miles off the Portland mainland, is home to another of the many former gun batteries constructed to protect the harbor. Built in 1942 to defend against German attack, it’s called Battery Steele.
For the pride locals take it, Battery Steele is sure hard to get to. First, you have to get to the island on the Casco Bay Line ferry. Then, you rent a bike (or golf cart) and ride to the location, indicated by a modest sign easy to miss. Then–and this is the fun part–you walk a couple hundred yards deep into a marsh with ten-foot-tall cattails lining either side of a narrow and very muddy path. In fact, it’s more than muddy. But, thankfully, the trail is dotted with ancient two-by-four and one-by-six planks, laid haphazardly in just enough quantity so you don’t sink to your ankles in muck.
Then, the path opens up and before you appears a hulking concrete relic covered in graffiti. It’s like you’ve stumbled across the remnants of an ancient civilization deep in the Amazon. I didn’t stay long but encouraged a young couple biking behind me to stop and check it out.
Portland also hosts the usual local veterans memorials:
But then, along the Eastern Promenade (formerly Fort Allen) there are all sorts of unique memorials with special ties to the region.
One celebrates Jacob Cousins, the first Jewish resident of Portland killed in World War I.
“Jacob Cousins left a torch for us to carry” Marker
Another is a gun retrieved from the USS Maine, whose sinking in Havana Harbor in 1898 triggered the Spanish American War (even though the ship’s explosion was probably caused by a fire in a coal bunker next to an ammo magazine).
Rising above it all is the mast, bridge shield, and ship’s bell of the USS Portland (CA-33), a much decorated heavy cruiser that served in the Pacific in World War II.
There’s a World War II Arctic Campaign Memorial, which was presented as a gift from Murmansk, Russia, in 2000 to the people of Portland.
Deserving of special notice is the War of 1812 Memorial–perhaps the least memorialized war in American history–which is also a small cemetery holding the remains of 21 US soldiers captured by the British in Canada but died in Portland en route back home during a prisoner exchange.
On the ferry back from Peaks Island I spotted two sights on the mainland that drew my curiosity. First was a massive shelter that looked to be the grey bow of a ship emerging from some woods. It’s the memorial to the South Portland Shipyards which once sprawled across 140 acres of shoreline. The shipyards built 236 Liberty Ships between 1942-1945 for the Allied war effort. The remarkable centerpiece of the memorial is the grey bow, designed to replicate in detail what an actual Liberty Ship would look like while under construction in dry dock.
Liberty Ship Memorial (By William Fisher, Jr. hmdb.org)
The other sight spotted from the ferry was this boat (not a ship!), the USS Joseph F. Kennedy (UB-85), a decommissioned Navy Utility boat built in 1985 for the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71).
These sights and memorials just scratch the surface of what is a several-day Veteran’s Tour of Portland, Maine. There are also the Underground Railroad sites of the Portland Freedom Trail, the Maine Military Museum and Learning Center in South Portland, and the 5th Maine Regiment Museum on Peaks Island, none of which I visited.
Along with Portland’s other charms, these all give me reason to return.