April 15, 1905: The U.S. War Department transfers ownership of the Kennebec Arsenal in Augusta from the federal government to the state.

The arsenal, located on the eastern bank of the Kennebec River within sight of downtown Augusta, is the northernmost 19th-century U.S. arsenal and one of the best preserved. Eight granite structures built from 1828 to 1838 still survive. They were built at a time when the lessons of British predation along the Maine coast during the War of 1812 were still fresh in the government’s mind, and when an ongoing, rancorous dispute about Maine’s northern boundary was years from being settled.

Some arsenal commanders later played conspicuous roles in the Civil War.

Carte de Visite of Major General Oliver Otis Howard Image courtesty of the Maine State Archives

First Lt. Robert Anderson, the top officer there from 1834 to 1835, also was the commander at Fort Sumter in South Carolina when it surrendered to Confederate forces on April 13, 1861. When the war ended, Anderson, by then a major general, returned to Fort Sumter with the flag he had been forced to pull down at the war’s outset.

Second Lt. Oliver Otis Howard, a Leeds native, commanded the arsenal from 1855 to 1856. He took part in key Civil War battles, including Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, losing an arm in the process and gaining promotion to major general.

After the war, Howard directed the Freedmen’s Bureau for nine years and played a role in the founding of Howard University, which bears his name.

The Kennebec Arsenal deed transfer occurs on the day President Theodore Roosevelt signs legislation that authorizes it to take place. The state uses the arsenal to expand the nearby Maine Insane Hospital, later called the Augusta State Hospital, and still later, the Augusta Mental Health Institute. The first patients move into the remodeled arsenal building in 1906.

By the end of the 20th century, treatment of the mentally ill changes in ways that prompt the hospital to abandon many of the arsenal buildings. The state retains some for other uses for a while, but eventually sells the whole complex in 2007 to North Carolina developer Nieman Capital, which proposes turning the buildings into condominiums and retail shops.

To date, none of that has occurred. The private nonprofit group Maine Preservation, apprehensive about potential degradation, places the arsenal on its 2013 list of most endangered historic properties.

The undergrowth that once choked the arsenal’s granite riverside wall is now cut away, affording a clear view of the grounds from several vantage points around the city.

 

April 15, 1943: Brunswick Naval Air Station is commissioned amid World War II on the site of what had been a municipal airport since the mid-1930s.

Naval auxiliary airfields are commissioned on the same day in Auburn, Owls Head and Sanford, and another is opened later that year in Trenton, near Bar Harbor. The Navy relinquishes all four of those auxiliary airfields after the war, and they become municipally or county-owned regional airports.

Brunswick Naval Air Station photographed from the air in April 1944. Photo courtesy of the National Archives

During the war, the Brunswick base provides Atlantic air and surface patrols to protect the U.S. coast. It is in caretaker status after the war, but in 1951 the Navy recommissions it to support fleet reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft operations. That prompts an expansion that includes building two 8,000-foot runways. For a half-century until 2009, the station’s planes patrolled the North Atlantic using P-3 Orion aircraft.

In 2005, the Defense Closure and Realignment Act commission decides to close the Brunswick station. The last squadron leaves in 2009, and the station is decommissioned May 31, 2011.

At the time of its closure, the Navy’s Brunswick property consists of 3,372 acres – 3,162 at the main base and the rest at outlying facilities including two housing complexes and a radio transmitter site.

The station – now called Brunswick Landing – and the Navy’s Topsham property now are managed by the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority.

April 15, 2010: San Diego-based Bumblebee Foods closes its Stinson Seafood sardine cannery in Prospect Harbor, ending an era.

The industry once consisted of dozens of sardine plants in Maine. Bumblebee’s was the last sardine cannery not just in Maine, but in the entire United States.

The cannery dates to 1906. It burned in 1968 but was rebuilt and back in operation in 1969.

Bumble Bee cites federal restrictions on the allowable catch of herring, which are called sardines when canned, as the reason for the shutdown.

As of 2020, the only sardine cannery left in North America is run by the Connors Bros.’ Clover Leaf Seafoods, which cans the fish under the Brunswick label in Blacks Harbor, New Brunswick, a scant 10 miles by water from Eastport, Maine.

Joseph Owen is a retired copy desk chief of the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal and board member of the Kennebec Historical Society. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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