Down To The Sea

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Ten miles north of Searsport stands the immense granite Fort Knox (known in these parts as the first Fort Knox), commanding a strategic stretch of the Penobscot River. Named for Maj. Gen. Henry Knox, Washington’s artillerist and a local in his later life, the fort took 25 years to build, starting in 1844. It was never entirely completed and there was never a shot fired in anger, despite America’s long-lasting wariness of the British, who in the Revolution and again in 1812 controlled much of the Maine coast north to Canada. Civil War troops maintained a presence at the fort, and later, during the Spanish-American War, a Connecticut regiment was garrisoned for a month. The structure is always undergoing restoration, not to make it war-ready but for the tourists who come to climb its ramparts, picnic on its grassy riverbanks, or marvel at the visible power of its 15-inch Rodman cannon (four of these behemoths are still here; the rest succumbed to World War II scrap drives or were incorporated into small-town war memorials). The cannon needed 12 men to load and could fire a ball a distance of close to three miles. Fort Knox now hosts a variety of activities, including Civil War encampments, artillery demonstrations, and a popular Halloween event called “Fright at the Fort,” which is described as a “tremendously frightening experience for those brave enough to wander the Fort passageways, as any number of ghosts, ghouls and other macabre beings do their best to scare the unwary.”

You get a whiff of the character of the seafarers when you inhabit their homes that have been turned into inns.

I walked from one end of Searsport’s main street to the other in less than five minutes. Belfast took considerably more time. Set on the complexly named Passagassawaukeag River (shortened to Passy by locals) and with a web of three historic districts—two residential, one commercial—this is a fine place for strolling, good restaurants, and interesting locally owned galleries and shops. Colburn’s, which dates from 1832 and lays claim to being Maine’s oldest shoe store, occupies an attractive Greek Revival building on Main Street. Belfast’s first prosperity accompanied the burgeoning shipbuilding industry. Later, when that faded, shoe manufacture and poultry processing fueled the economy. After various ups and downs the region’s latest rebirth is based on a much more modern concept, the credit card. A giant of the industry, MBNA, set up a white-columned regional headquarters in Belfast in 1995 and quickly became the area’s largest employer.

But it is the bright vocabulary of late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century building in all its variety that makes Belfast shine. Three nicely chatty walking-tour pamphlets, available at the visitor information center on the waterfront, fill in the story. Stopping in front of a Federal-style building on Church Street, I read, “Supposedly, during the War of 1812 a British soldier rode up the front granite steps into the home, watered his horse in the kitchen sink and went on.” And the Samuel Jackson House, also on Church, “as is common in many Belfast homes, has a dirt-floored basement with a stream running through it.”

Belfast’s attractive harbor offers many waterborne activities. You can kayak from the city pier, find out about the bay’s ecology during a leisurely cruise, or sail on the Amity, one of the oldest surviving Friendship sloops, most likely named after the town of Friendship, where many were built, and originally used for lobstering. Lobster, served straight from the sea, is or course one Maine offering impossible to miss. I indulged in it every meal I could, except breakfast. There are many great options for this indulgence, including the Lobster Pound, a relaxed Lincolnville Beach establishment operated by the same family for three generations. It has wonderful views of the bay and provides picnic tables for those who insist that lobster is best consumed outdoors.

That Penobscot Bay continues to serve up such bounty is no accident, nor can it ever be taken for granted. Melissa Terry, the young captain of the excursion vessel Good Return, comes from a long line of local fishermen, and on her trips she explains the need to have competing shipping and fishing interests to join together in maintaining these waters, “because we have to understand how important our bay is to our livelihood and our history.” Marcia Markwardt, owner for the past two years of the Carriage House Inn and a newcomer to Maine, shares this philosophy. She has signed on with a project run by the Marine Museum that will qualify her as a bay steward. This requires her to spend 80 hours in classroom work and out on the water, plus a further commitment to work on other museum projects. On the path to her stewardship Markwardt has participated in a count of clams, horseshoe crabs, and tiny oysters. All of which is meant to help keep track of the bay’s health, not only for the fishing industry but to attract the visitors that everyone hopes will continue to arrive in great numbers on the heels of those tiny oysters.