Fort Halifax — the stout, wooden blockhouse bordering the Kennebec River in Winslow — has meant many different things to the people of that town in its 250-plus years, according to Colby College history professor Daniel Tortora.
Yet until he wrote his 160-page book, “Fort Halifax: Winslow’s Historic Outpost,” due to be released Tuesday, there was no easy way to find out about the evolution of the country’s oldest Revolutionary War-era blockhouse.
“I saw this blockhouse and knew there must be more to it, but I couldn’t find any information about it online or from anybody, really,” said Tortora, who moved to Oakland in the summer of 2011 after getting a doctorate in history from Duke University. “I was intrigued by it, and once I was here, I had to know more.”
“Once I started learning a bit more about the park and the blockhouse,” Tortora continued, “I learned there had never been a comprehensive book about it.”
In fall of 2012, Tortora started research for the book. Less than two years later, after dozens of interviews, hundreds of pictures scanned and thousands of articles and town minutes peered through, the book was published.
While Tortora was the inspiration behind the project, doing the majority of the research and digging for information along with two assistants, Colby College history students David Thomas and Colin Hull, Tortora is the first to admit that putting this comprehensive history of Fort Halifax together for the first time was a communal endeavor, and he hopes the new book serves the central Maine communities just as the fort has all these years.
“This was one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in the years I’ve been involved with history,” said Tortora, 32. “Everyone I spoke with was so excited and enthusiastic about the project and have done everything they can do to help. I appreciate that a lot.”
The book consists of nine chapters, starting with “Indians and Pilgrims: Fort Point before 1754,” and ending with “Winslow’s True Treasure: Fort Halifax Park since 1990.” Tucked in between are chapters on Gen. John Winslow constructing the fort, the creation of Fort Halifax Park and the April Fool’s Day Flood of 1987, which destroyed the blockhouse, as well as dozens of photos, maps and a timeline of the fort’s existence.
The fort has evolved from a military outpost during the French and Indian War (1756-1763) to a community park that hosts picnics, concerts and community gatherings.
What stands at the park today are the last remnants of Fort Halifax, which used to be a 140-square-foot fort surrounded by a 9-foot-tall palisade.
Now a single 20-square-foot blockhouse, reconstructed after the 1987 flood, remains on the plot as a symbol of the area’s history.
“For many people there’s not much to see there, but what many people don’t realize is there was so much more than just that blockhouse,” Tortora said.
â€˜A GOPHER OF JOY’
Tortora knew the research for this project would be no easy task, even for a history professor. With no comprehensive history of the fort available, Tortora dug through newspaper clippings, microfilm, town records and photo albums, slowly but surely piecing together Fort Halifax’s rich history.
“It was tough,” he said. “I tried to figure out what the different historical periods of the fort were. I discovered that Fort Halifax has meant many different things over the years, but it has always been the symbol of Winslow.”
In addition to scouring libraries and historical societies for more material, Tortora interviewed dozens of Winslow residents, several of whom played vital roles in the fort’s history. They included Stan Mathieu, who ultimately rebuilt the fort after the flood; and Jack Nivison, a Winslow High School graduate and retired Winslow High School history teacher, whose photos helped document the fort’s history through the 20th century.
“Something like this book has never been done,” said Nivison, 79. “It had always been one of those areas I’ve been interested in, and when Dan came over, it kind of resparked that interest.”
Tortora, along with assistants Thomas and Hull, met with Nivison at his home about a half-dozen times to discuss the history of Fort Halifax, with Tortora picking Nivison’s brain and the former Winslow High School teacher doing his best to find out the answers he didn’t know.
“I’ve been a mini-gopher trying to answer the questions he had, but it’s been a gopher of joy,” Nivison said. “I’ve been excited about this.”
Nivison, who graduated from Winslow High School in 1952, is a lifelong Winslow resident. He taught history at the high school until 1993. In the 1970s and ’80s, when the area surrounding the blockhouse was being turned into a park, Nivison helped clear shrubbery on the riverbank for several years.
“In some sense, I have a personal connection to the fort,” he said. “I feel that most townspeople know they really have a great treasure in that park.”
Nivison’s photographs appear throughout the book, including two harrowing photos of the fort — one on April 1, 1987, surrounded by floodwater; and the other the following day, with the fort nowhere in sight.
With a head full of the town’s history and photo albums to supplement it, Nivison said his children always joked with him that he should do something with all this knowledge.
“They asked me when am I going to write a book,” he said. “I mean, I can’t do that, but I was very happy Dan took on this project. There’s a lot of written material you can find on Fort Halifax, but a book like he has written, with the past, present and possible future of the fort, plus the images he used, I don’t think you will find a book like that up to this point.”
Although research had been difficult, what Tortora was able to discover amazed him.
“I was surprised that we found so much,” he said. “For example, I was surprised to see that the fort was Massachusetts’ biggest fort in the French-Indian War. I was surprised at the significant people who had been there, like Chief Joseph Orono and Paul Revere. I was surprised it was so significant.”
Digging through old stacks at historical societies and libraries, Tortora was relieved that there was enough documented history to piece information together.
“What I tried to do is figure out what did the fort mean during various chunks of time and how would I go about finding that,” he said. “I went to the Maine Historical Society, and they had a bunch of pre-1800 things that just came to them one day when someone cleaned out their garage.”
FORT HALIFAX’S FUTURE
Although Fort Halifax has been a consistent symbol of Winslow, what that symbol is has differed over the decades. From being a military post, to a used car lot, to a “moonscape” after the flood, according to Nivison, up to its current use as a municipal park, Fort Halifax rarely has meant nothing to Winslow residents.
“It’s a symbol of endurance for Winslow,” Town Manager Michael Heavener said. “The town is considered hardworking people with pride, and that’s what the blockhouse represents.”
While the book mainly summarizes the fort’s lengthy history, its last 10 or so pages are dedicated to what the future might hold for the site, including a redesign that puts more emphasis on the fort’s history, according to Heavener.
The town put together a committee to look at the park and redevelop it. Some changes include moving the blockhouse to its original location, which is used for parking; outlining the other structures that once stood on the plot and creating walkways with placards explaining the site’s history. Heavener said the project will cost a little more than $190,000, and that the town applied for a matching grant from the Department of Conservation, which would cover almost half of the project’s cost. The town is expecting to hear the result of its grant application in the coming weeks, Heavener said.
Tortora hopes the book can serve the community just a sliver of the amount that Fort Halifax has, with the hope of using the profits from the book to help fund the park’s redevelopment.
“Dan coming in when he did with his book will do nothing but help the impetus of pushing forward the developed plan,” Nivison said.
A couple of weeks after the book is released, Tortora will be at the Winslow Public Library at 6:30 p.m. April 28, signing copies and talking about his work. He will do the same at the Colby College Bookstore at 4 p.m. May 8.
“The more I learned about Fort Halifax, the more I loved writing this book and the more I appreciated the people and the history of Winslow,” Tortora said. “It was the most rewarding project I have worked on as a historian. I hope that this book will continue to generate interest in Fort Halifax.”