RICHMOND — Archeologists in a race against time to document colonial life have uncovered much of two forts at the site of the Richmond-Dresden bridge, and they have reason to believe parts of Winslow’s Fort Halifax are nearby, too.

Workers preparing for construction of a new bridge have found not only parts of the original 1720s and 1740s Richmond forts, but the roof of the blockhouse of Fort Halifax, which was washed away in the flood of 1987.

The forts provided protection for settlers and Fort Richmond also served as a trading post where they traded goods with members of local Indian tribes.

The roof of the Fort Halifax blockhouse, the oldest wooden blockhouse in the United States before it was swept away by the 1987 flood, may have ended up stuck against the bridge piers of the soon-to-be-replaced Richmond-Dresden bridge. Some original timbers from Fort Halifax were recovered well downriver after the flood, some in Casco Bay. But the roof of the blockhouse was never found, according to Leith Smith, an archeologist with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.

The underwater structure — bunches of attached logs — won’t be officially identified as part of the former Fort Halifax until the archeologists begin to remove the old bridge and take a closer look.

“The flood of ’87 lifted the blockhouse (of Fort Halifax) up and dismantled it as it was washed down the river,” Smith said. “We think this might be it.”

A replica blockhouse was built at the Fort Halifax site in 1988.

State archeologists, volunteers and other diggers have as few as four weeks to discover as much as they can about what lies beneath the ground on the Richmond side of the proposed new bridge, which will connect Richmond and Dresden across the Kennebec River.

Last year the proposed new bridge, which will replace the 77-year-old deteriorating swing bridge, was one of four projects nationwide designated to be fast-tracked through the federal We Can’t Wait initiative. Federal authorities said it could speed up the project by up to a year.

While that was good news for anyone waiting for the bridge to be replaced, it wasn’t so much for archeologists anxious to learn as much as they can about the site before it is corrupted by new construction.

“A dig this big is the kind of project we should have had about three years to work, rather than the 10 to 12 months we’ve had,” Smith said Tuesday as about a dozen workers, college students and volunteers used trowels and shovels to uncover layers of soil at the site. “Fast-tracking may be great for bringing in jobs and getting started quickly, but it has created a terrible amount of stress to get the archeology done. It’s getting short shrift as far as that goes. There are all kinds of questions we could go back and answer, if we had more time. Or we had funding so we could have more people here. It’s a constant decision-making process — what you want to focus on and what you can let go. We’ll work until we have to stop, either due to a lack of funds or construction begins.”

Ted Talbot, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said Reed and Reed, the contractor, could start on the project as soon within a couple weeks. He said the archeology work may be able to continue during the early stages of the project.

Smith said the team has until the end of the month to finish, but believe that may be extended by working alongside Reed and Reed crews as they mobilize to the site.

The dig, which started in earnest last year, cost about $350,000 in federal money so far. Federal funding for the dig has all been spent but the dig is continuing this summer thanks to a $50,000 contribution from a Maine resident who wished to remain anonymous.

About 250,000 artifacts have already been discovered at the large dig, which is taking place around the former home of Paul and Jill Adams. That house will be demolished to make way for the new bridge.

Many of the artifacts are being preserved, either at Fort Western in Augusta or the Maine State Museum. The remaining stone and wooden walls and other architectural features of the fort, however, will be left at the site, though Smith hopes they will be covered with a layer of soil, so maybe 100 years from now when a new bridge is being built, they’ll be uncovered.

Discoveries at the site include large sections of the palisade walls of both Richmond forts, both of which archeologists have determined were much bigger than previously thought.

The original 1720s fort was first thought to be about 70 by 70 feet, but the dig indicates it was closer to 90 by 90. The 1740s fort was thought to be 98 by 86 feet, but appears to be 140 by 180 feet.

Diggers have also uncovered the foundation of a large building inside the fort palisades similar to the building at Fort Western.

Tuesday morning Eric Lahti, an archeologist for the state, used a shovel and trowel to remove layers of soil as he worked to trace the wall of a structure which was inside the older fort’s palisade walls. Nearby, a small pile of splintered, rotten wood remained from an approximately 20-inch sill of the building. Shovel marks believed to be 273 years old were visible in a trench made when the second fort was being built in 1740.

“It’s kind of fun to try to read the soil and see what it shows you,” Lahti said. “With all the road construction, driveway building, house construction and garden planting and replanting going on, it’s amazing so much of it has survived. And it’s exposing history that wasn’t well-known.”

Next week a crew from Half Yard Productions will be at the site to shoot footage for use on an episode of National Geographic Channel program “Diggers,” according to Talbot.

The show features two hobbyist metal detector-users who travel the country looking for relics of history. Talbot said the Fort Richmond episode could run in late fall or early 2014.

Smith has mixed feelings about their visit, though he noted the state has control over what the show personnel do at the site. He said metal detector users can be helpful in finding artifacts, but said reality TV shows can focus more on the drama of the search and the items found, while not providing context about the people and events which make the items significant.

“A pile of artifacts has no meaning without knowing anything about the people connected to it,” Smith said.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
kedwards@centralmaine.com