PROSPECT, ME (AP) Fort Knox is the state’s most visited historic site, but the thousands of people who walk the grounds of the 150-year-old fort never realize that there is a hidden Fort Knox, quite literally beneath their feet.
Throughout its history, the fort has been garrisoned during national tensions when officials deemed there was a threat to the coastline. In fact, it was the ongoing threat from the British after the War of 1812 and the “bloodless” Aroostook War a few years later that prompted Congress to authorize the money to build the fort, part of a network of forts along the East Coast.
Troops occupied the fort during the years of the Civil War and the months of the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Although there are photographs of some of the buildings the soldiers built and occupied, there is little evidence on the ground to show where they were.
Now, proof of a lost Fort Knox has finally come to light.
Recently, crews working on a new entrance to the fort in connection with the nearby Waldo-Hancock Bridge construction unearthed a large hand-worked piece of granite that has become known as “the mystery stone.”
The granite is 17 in. thick and tapered, with a circumference of 51 in. on the fat end. There is a hole in the center, and the outer edges still bear the marks of the hand chisel that shaped it. The taper indicates that the stone was intended to fit into something, according to Tom Desjardin, historic-site specialist with the state Bureau of Parks and Lands.
“Somebody spent a lot of time working that,” Desjardin said recently at the site. “It doesn’t make sense that they would put that much effort into something that was going to be covered up.”
The shape of the stone doesn’t match any of the other stonework at the fort.
And though there have been some suggestions of what it might have been, such as a flagpole base or a cistern cover, none of the guesses fit and nobody really knows yet.
“It’s a mystery,” Desjardin said.
The stone is the latest mystery of Fort Knox. The new visitors’ center at the fort displays photographs from both the Civil War and Spanish-American War era. The Civil War photos, particularly, show buildings that no longer exist.
There are no detailed plans of the fort that would help, leading fort historians to believe that the engineer who oversaw the building of the fort, Capt. Thomas Lincoln Casey, had been given general instructions on the needs of the fort, then a lot of leeway in the actual construction.
The U.S. government bought approximately 125 acres for the fort. Most of the permanent fort structure is located on the eastern side of Route 174, which was built in the 1920s. There is some speculation that some buildings, including wooden barracks and possibly a fort hospital, might have been located on what is now the other side of the road.
A photo from the Spanish-American War era shows an encampment of a volunteer Connecticut regiment. By matching the topography in the photo with a current photo of the site, Desjardin places that encampment in the area of the existing picnic area. A study of that area could turn up evidence about the encampment.
Although the fort served as a defensive post against anticipated 19th century threats, the fort never saw any action. That may be one reason for a lack of information about some of the past buildings.
“Nothing happened here. Nobody ever came back every 10 years for a reunion,” Desjardin said. “They came and they left. There was nothing eventful enough for anyone to write down every detail. All we have is hints.”
The hints can be tantalizing. On a recent walk on the grounds, Desjardin and Leon Seymour, executive director of the Friends of Fort Knox, discovered evidence of a small tramway that apparently carried stone from the ledge up the hill down to the fort.
“This was not the finished granite that came from Waldo Mountain,” Desjardin said. “This was rubble that might have been used for the footing underneath the foundation.”
During a recent survey about the design of a walking path to the tower of the new bridge now under construction, archaeologists found some evidence of American Indian visitation near the river.
Then there’s the foundation near the visitors’ center parking lot. By its location alone, it could match one of the buildings seen in a 100-year-old photograph. But no archaeological work has been done there.
The state conducts an archaeological survey whenever a project requires that the ground be disturbed, but there have been no detailed studies either of obvious sites such as the foundation or to scout out where some of the long-gone buildings might have stood.
A full-fledged study by a team of archaeologists, however, costs money. And that is always an issue. That may be where Friends of Fort Knox comes in.
Since its creation a decade ago, the group has raised money to restore sections of the fort that have fallen into disrepair, including the officers’ quarters renovated last summer and the planned work this summer on the roof of the Battery A powder magazine.
Although some of that work has turned up relics, including a beer bottle from a Boston brewery from the late 1800s, most of the group’s work has focused on preserving what is there. There has been some preliminary discussion of funding some archaeological research, but no plan has been developed.
“If we got the board enthusiastic and decided to raise some money, we might be able to do something,” Seymour said.
Until then, a part of the fort’s history will remain hidden, awaiting another chance discovery like the mystery stone.