The 1844 hexagonal blockhouse anchoring Fort McClary is one of the last of its kind built in Maine. Photo courtesy of the Maine Office of Tourism

For some summer visitors to Maine’s coast, the vacation begins at Fort McClary, no matter their ultimate destination. Crossing from New Hampshire on Interstate 95’s Piscataqua River Bridge, they take the first exit, into Kittery – Maine’s oldest incorporated town (1647). Bypassing its shopping outlets, a brown sign at the traffic circle waves them on a few miles to the fort on Route 103 in scenic, serene Kittery Point.

Glenn Dochtermann, fort manager, knows how these “folks from away” feel; he was one of them, as a New York kid, stopping at the fort first on Maine family vacations. “It was so exciting … you cross the bridge, and you can’t wait to see the water,” he said.

Whether from Maine or elsewhere, visitors soak up Fort McClary’s rich history along with views that sweep from Pepperrell Cove across the Piscataqua River and Portsmouth Harbor to the open Atlantic, taking in three lighthouses, Wood Island Life Saving Station and, several miles out, the Isles of Shoals (home to one of the lights).

English immigrant William Pepperrell was an Isles fisherman before settling in Kittery Point and amassing a fortune through fishing, shipbuilding, trade and land acquisition. His son and namesake followed in his footsteps and was even named a baronet by the British Crown (for leading an expedition that captured a French fortress in Canada).

In the late 1600s, the elder Pepperrell fortified a hilltop property he owned near his home. While he enjoyed good trade relationships with Native Americans, conflicts between tribes and settlers were a fact of frontier life (natives burned nearby York and massacred and captured its residents in 1692). Around 1720, Massachusetts built Fort William (named for Pepperrell), a six-gun breastwork, at the site.

The site was manned during the Revolutionary War after being taken from a Loyalist Pepperrell descendant. Massachusetts later gave the land to the federal government. Fort McClary, constructed in 1808, honors New Hampshire’s Major Andrew McClary, killed during the war’s Battle of Bunker Hill. It was one of the “Second System” forts built in anticipation of war with Great Britain, which broke out in 1812.

The fort’s oldest remaining buildings – the brick magazine and the riflemen’s house – date to this time and are clustered with the landmark 1844 hexagonal blockhouse. Atop its fieldstone foundation is a granite story with narrow slots for rifles, and above that, a log story with more slots and larger openings for cannons (the one inside, from 1820, is like those originally here).

Historical placards, photos and a cannon display are inside the blockhouse. There’s more signage about the grounds, and site staff are armed with additional fort facts. Kids of all ages love the caponier jutting out from the granite waterfront wall: Riflemen could tunnel to position here and shoot back on attackers climbing the fort. The structure was added during a Civil War refortification, as was the bastion, but the upgrade was abandoned post-war – granite blocks scattered on the shorefront attest to that.

While the fort site was manned during five wars, including service as a World War II civil defense lookout, no battles were waged here. But the smoke flies for Friends of Fort McClary-hosted reenactments (see box). These and other events raise funds for fort improvements. This year, the group planted garden beds with herbs and medicinal plants – the type grown here in Fort McClary’s active days. The historic site’s picnic area across Route 103 has a playground and a path on Barters Creek.

Continuing north on the road about a half mile, the gambrel-style, cove-fronting William Pepperrell Home – its oldest part dates to 1682 – hugs the road. Beyond a parking area on the other side, and down a tad, a historic marker flags the family tomb. Near the fort heading the opposite way on twisty Route 103 is the Lady Pepperrell House, a 1760 Georgian beauty built by the second William’s widow across from the 1732 First Congregational Church of Kittery Point. Both private homes are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mary Ruoff is a freelance writer in Belfast and a contributor to Fodor’s New England travel guide.


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