Fort Baldwin was a small, hidden U.S Army artillery fortification built on Sabino Hill in Phippsburg overlooking the mouth of the Kennebec River and Fort Popham. With nearby Fort Popham, it made up the Harbor Defense of the Kennebec. It was officially ready for action in 1908 and was manned during both World Wars and equipped with mounted guns at its three batteries. It never saw action and was decommissioned in 1949 and handed to the State of Maine. It is now a State Historic Site and the ruins can be explored, although the fire control tower is now closed to the public.
Grass Covered Gun Batteries
Fort Baldwin consists of three separate gun batteries: Battery Hardman, Battery Cogan, and Battery Hawley. Each battery was intentionally covered in earth to try to hide it from the enemy planes. The ruins now are decaying concrete and water drips into the rooms and tunnels as nature slowly takes over. There is also a five story concrete fire control tower on the property.
A path, which shows on the maps as Sabino Head Road, takes a relatively straight line up from the parking area to Battery Cogan. The trees have grown up over the years so the view of the water is mostly obstructed at the top. One has to assume that when it was active, it had a better view, at least from the tower.
There is also a 1.2 mile trail called the Perkins Farm Trail which leads to the fort from the other direction.
The parking lot is also near the spot of the original Popham Colony and its Fort Saint George.
Why Build it There?
The history of Fort Baldwin is entwined with the history of Fort Popham and the integrated defense of the Maine coast, especially access to the Kennebec River.
With Bath Iron Works churning out Navy ships up the river, it was necessary to protect the mouth of the Kennebec River from enemy ships. During the Revolutionary War, there was a small fortification built at Popham which was upgraded during the War of 1812. After that War, its guns were distributed and the fort abandoned.
Popham and the Civil War
In 1857, construction of a new Fort Popham began but wasn’t ready until near the end of the War. It was garrisoned by the 7th Company of Maine Infantry (under command of Captain Augustin Thompson who invented Moxie soda). It was designed to be a 3 level fort with 42 mounted heavy guns, but construction was halted in 1869 as this style of masonry fort was shown to be vulnerable to modern artillery as similar forts (e.g Sumter) were easily destroyed by the Confederates.
World War I and Construction
Up Sabino HIll from Fort Popham, construction of Fort Baldwin began in 1905 on 45 acres of land purchased from Nathaniel Perkins and Anson M. Oliver. Contrasting with the easy-to-spot Fort Popham, the new gun installation was built to be as hidden as possible from the enemy. Three separate low-profile batteries were constructed with mounted six-inch guns. A rail line was built to carry materials from a pier next to Fort Popham up Sabino Hill to the new location. It was named after Colonel Jeduthan Baldwin (1732-1788) who fortified Boston and New York during the Revolutionary War.
Only the gun installations were initially built so the soldiers were stationed at Fort Popham. However, once World War I broke out, the Army quickly constructed 8 temporary buildings with wood frames and tar paper roofs and walls in the limited space available on Sabino Hill. These buildings included an administration building, a small hospital, a double barracks, a bakery, a double mess hall and a lavatory. Winter at Popham, which doomed the previous Popham Colony, must not have been pleasant in those quarters.
An electrically-fired minefield was also put in the waters at the mouth of the Kennebec and the controls for that were manned within Fort Popham.
The fort never saw any action and in 1917, the three 6-inch guns were removed from the fort when it was deemed that they would be of more use overseas as train-mounted guns. Only one gun actually made it to France, but was returned to the U.S. never having seen service. The two 3-inch guns remained. A Coincidence rangefinder (CRF) was installed in 1922 to help the gun operators sight and range naval targets.
After the war ended, the Fort was disarmed and sold to the State of Maine in 1924. The property, along with Fort Popham, was to become a state park. The remaining guns were transferred to Fort Preble for storage.
World War II and the Actual Threat of U-boats
When the 2nd World War broke out, and the U.S. entered the war in 1941, German U-boats became active in Casco Bay, destroying commercial and navy vessels – 171 were destroyed in the first year alone. The defenses up and down the coast clearly needed to be improved. Minefields were laid and defensive installations were constructed on islands and along the coast, most notably on Peaks Island. Mainers were terrified. You can read about the time a U-boat delivered two spies to the Maine Coast here.
In 1941, the government took the Popham and Baldwin properties back over and set out to improve the outdated fortifications. Four circular concrete “Panama mounts” were constructed at Fort Baldwin and four 155mm guns were installed. Panama mounts were circular steel rails set in concrete and converted the guns were were built as mobile guns on carriages to be used as fixed guns. The circular rails allowed the guns to swivel. The 155mm guns were known as “Long Toms” and fired 100 pound shells with a maximum range of 14 miles. Each gun weighed about 30,00 pounds.
A 5-story concrete fire control tower was built. This fire control structure was one of a series of fire control structures that were built to radio precise enemy locations to Battery Steele and its massive 16 inch guns at on Peaks Island 40 miles away. There were other fire control towers in Casco Bay nearby including on Bailey Island and even closer at Small Point in Phippsburg.
Fort Popham was not armed during World War II and merely served as a motor pool and storage area for Fort Baldwin.
Return to the State
After the war ended, coastal defenses were drawn down. In 1949, the property was returned to the State of Maine.