About This Location
The Fort McClary Caponier is a captivating and historic site situated in Kittery, Maine. This unique caponier is one of the only of its kind in New England that is publicly accessible. Located within the Fort McClary State Historic Site in the Kittery Point neighborhood, just off Pepperell Road, the Fort McClary Caponier offers a fascinating glimpse into the region's military history.
A Brief History of Fort McClary:
Fort McClary is a former defensive fortification that played a crucial role in the United States' military history. It is situated along the southern coast at Kittery Point, Maine, at the mouth of the Piscataqua River. Throughout the 19th century, the fort served as a guardian of the approaches to the harbor of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery. Today, the property and its surviving structures are owned and operated by the State of Maine, preserved as the Fort McClary State Historic Site.
The fort's surviving buildings represent various periods of construction, as it was continually upgraded and modified to meet the changing defensive needs of the region. Among the structures found on the site are the Blockhouse, Magazine Building, Barracks, and, of course, the Caponier.
Fort McClary witnessed action during five different wars: the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, Spanish-American War, and World War I. Although it saw minimal conflict during its service, it played a vital role in the nation's coastal defenses.
The Fort McClary Caponier:
The Fort McClary Caponier was constructed during the mid-1800s as part of the Third System of Fortifications. While Fort McClary experienced limited action during the Civil War, a significant reconstruction and expansion project began in 1863 as part of the third system of fortifications. The intent was to create a large five-sided fort with one or two tiers of cannons positioned all around. However, only the seawalls were completed on the two seaward fronts, along with one of the landward cannon bastions featuring a granite magazine. The seawall was defended by a small caponier with rifle ports, which remains a notable feature of the site.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a caponier is a type of defensive structure within a fortification. Positioned to provide cover and a line of fire over the ditch beyond the curtain wall, caponiers were designed to deter any attempts to storm the fort. The word "caponier" originates from the French term "caponnière," meaning "chicken coop," highlighting the protective and enclosed nature of this structure.
The End of the Fort and Its Transformation into a Park:
By the early 1900s, the fort had been surpassed by the construction of Fort Foster in Kittery and new batteries at Fort Constitution as part of the Endicott Program. Most of Fort McClary had fallen into disrepair by the 1910s. It was officially decommissioned in 1918. The State of Maine acquired most of the property from the federal government in 1924, after which it was managed as a park. Over the following decades, several of the deteriorating structures were demolished. During World War II, portions of the fort were used by civilian defense forces.
In 1969, Fort McClary was added to the National Register of Historic Places, recognizing its historical significance. It's reference number, assigned by the National Park Service is 69000025. Substantial renovations took place in 1987, with the blockhouse restored to serve as a museum.
Visiting the Fort McClary State Historic Site:
Today, visitors have the opportunity to explore the remaining structures at Fort McClary, including the captivating Caponier. The Caponier, as of 2023, is open to the public. A small stairway leads down into the structure, allowing visitors to peer through the old rifle ports and experience the views of Portsmouth Harbor. However, it's important to note that the Caponier is not actively maintained, so caution is advised while exploring. Given its somewhat deteriorated state, its accessibility may be limited in the future.
For those planning a visit, the parking lot at the Fort McClary State Historic Site is typically open from 10:00 a.m. to sunset daily, from Memorial Day to Columbus Day, unless otherwise posted at the gate. A small fee is collected via a self-pay station. During the off-season, a few parking spots are available near the Fort McClary gate on ME-103. Visitors can also park at the Fort McClary Picnic Area, located across the street, which is accessible year-round. This historic site offers a fascinating journey through time and an opportunity to appreciate the military history that unfolded in this picturesque coastal setting.