On April 13, 1894, President McKinley named the one-time subpost of Fort Preble, Cape Elizabeth’s first military fortification, Fort Williams. Named after Brevet Major General Seth Williams, Fort Williams grew to be a tremendous military asset during World War II. Besides protecting the shoreline of Cape Elizabeth, the infantry and artillery units provided the Harbor Defense for Portland. After the war, many of the forts in Casco Bay were closed, including Fort Williams, which traded in its defense of the coast for caretaker status and Army Reserve accommodations. Fort Williams was officially closed and deactivated on June 30, 1963.
Although often a place full of runners, bikers, baseball games, and picnics, Fort Williams has managed to maintain some of its historic past. When the Town of Cape Elizabeth purchased the beautiful 90+/- acre park on December 1, 1964 for $200,000, the old military buildings became Town property as well, along with the various batteries and the Goddard Mansion. Although not in the condition it was when Colonel John Goddard and his family lived in it during the mid to late 1800s, the walls of the great mansion still stand high on the hill overlooking Fort Williams.
Today, Fort Williams is still one of the most treasured sites of Cape Elizabeth. Home to the oldest lighthouse in Maine, Portland Head Light, Fort Williams has become a place of tourism, recreation, and leisure time enjoyment. Welcoming nearly a million visitors a year, it is not surprising to see people on any given day of the year enjoying the playing fields, tennis courts, beach, or simply walking around the park. During the winter months many find Fort Williams an ideal place to cross-country ski, sled, or even ice skate on the pond. Special events such as Family Fun Day, the Labor Day Art Show, the People’s Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race and performances by the Portland Symphony Orchestra happen yearly, but it is the daily peacefulness of Maine's coastline that has made Fort Williams such a special place for so many generations to enjoy.
Information was gathered from Collections of Cape Elizabeth, Maine compiled, written, and edited by Chris Roerden, and Cape Elizabeth, Past to Present, compiled by the Cape Elizabeth Historical Preservation Society.
Brief Historical Chronology
The original 14-acre purchase in 1872 served to establish a sub-post to Fort Preble located at Spring Point, in what is now South Portland. Over about 25 years, a total of 90 acres were purchased to develop a fortification at Portland Head. These formative years saw the first three batteries — Sullivan, DeHart, and Hobart — completed on April 16, 1898.
This fortification became known as Fort Williams on April 13, 1899, by order of Army Headquarters. General Order No. 17, Headquarters of the Army, Adjutant General's Office, Washington, D.C., read, in part: “... By direction of the President, the battery at Portland Head, Portland, Maine, shall hereafter be known and designated as Fort Williams, in honor of the late Brevet Major-General Seth Williams, Assistant Adjutant-General, United States Army ...”
1901 began a decade of building expansion at Fort Williams. The following buildings were constructed: offices’' quarters, non-commissioned officers’ quarters, enlisted barracks, hospital, gymnasium, post exchange, guard house, bakery, laundry, and fire station. By 1920 an underground, protected telephone switchboard and a disappearing searchlight, raised and lowered by a counterweight, were added to the Fort. A balloon hangar and hydrogen generator house built in 1921 were later abandoned for a variety of reasons (i.e. wind, weather, cost).
During World War I, the fort was fully manned by artillery companies and National Guard troops. Anti-aircraft guns were added to the defenses during this time.
Fort Williams served as the headquarters of the Harbor Defenses of Portland During World War II. In January, 1950, Fort Williams’ mission was officially changed from a harbor defense post to a logistical and administrative support installation for all military units and personnel in the State of Maine.
On Saturday, June 30, 1962, Fort Williams officially closed and was turned over to the General Services Administration to be sold. At a special town meeting on June 29, 1964, the residents of Cape Elizabeth voted to buy Fort Williams. Their offer of $200,000 was accepted and on December 1, 1964, the Town of Cape Elizabeth acquired Fort Williams.
After countless town meetings and many proposals ranging from a Coastal Science Park to low-income housing, the Town Council designated Fort Williams on July 23, 1979, as “Fort Williams Park.” Since that time, Fort Williams Park has been host to many picnics, concerts and other events and has been enjoyed by countless thousands of visitors and Cape Elizabeth residents alike.
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