For much of our history , coastal fortifications were the nation's first line of defense. Every harbor of any size had a fort guarding it -- important ports like Boston had several large ones -- and a chain of them stretched up the East Coast from southern Florida to northern Maine.
The cannon are silent and the garrisons long gone, but a surprising number of the old forts, some of which were active into the 1950s, still stand guard. A few are wooden block houses or sod-covered earthen works, but many were massive, constructed of granite blocks and their walls virtually indestructible.
These coastal bastions built for war now often have a peaceful and recreational purpose as centerpieces of local, state, or national parks. You don't have to be a serious student of military architecture -- affectionately known as ``fort freaks" -- to enjoy a visit to a coast defense fort.
What the military calls ``an unimpeded field of fire" is a panoramic ocean view to the rest of us, and most of the forts are near attractive coastal communities.
Fort Warren on Georges Island in Boston Harbor, for example, is the hub of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area and its ramparts offer splendid views of both Boston Light at the entrance to the harbor and the city skyline. Fort Independence on Castle Island in South Boston, although much rebuilt over the past three centuries, dates to the 1600s.
Fort Adams in Newport, R.I., now a state park and home to annual jazz and folk festivals, commands the entrance to Newport Harbor and looks out on Narragansett Bay.
Fort Knox in Prospect, Maine -- the country's first Fort Knox -- was built in the mid-19th century near the mouth of the Penobscot River to protect the city of Bangor from attack. The largest fort in New England north of Boston, the granite bulk of Fort Knox often appears like a mirage to passing motorists -- particularly at night when it is illuminated. Travelers catch just a passing glimpse as they go over the suspension bridge that crosses the Penobscot at Bucksport. ``What on earth was that?" is a common reaction.
Some coastal fortifications, such as Fort Independence and Fort Knox, are beloved local landmarks with their own volunteer organizations whose members raise money and contribute their time to protect and preserve them. Most volunteers are happy to share their enthusiasm and knowledge by guiding visitors around ``their" fort.
While there are scores of coastal fortifications of various shapes and sizes in New England, here is a list of several that are particularly noteworthy and visitor-friendly:
Open daily; free.
A square earthen fortification, Fort Griswold was captured by the British during an attack in 1781 led by the traitor Benedict Arnold. After surrendering, most of the garrison was massacred, including the commander, Colonel William Ledyard, who was supposedly killed with his own sword. A 134-foot-high granite obelisk, erected as a memorial in 1830, stands in the middle of the fort. There are 166 steps to the top but the spectacular view is worth the climb. The story of the battle is told in a museum adjacent to the fort.
FORT TRUMBULL STATE PARK
90 Walbach St., New London
Open daily; free.
Built between 1839 and 1852 at the mouth of the Thames River, Fort Trumbull has unique Egyptian Revival architecture inspired by the Temple of Luxor. The interior of the fort includes the restored living quarters of 19th-century soldiers, an antique cannon, and original gun emplacements, along with exhibits devoted to its 20th-century use as a submarine warfare research facility. There is a fine view of New London Harbor from the ramparts. A visitors center depicts two centuries of military history from the Revolutionary War to the Cold War with touch-screen interactive exhibits and multimedia presentations. There is no fee to enter the park grounds, which include a fishing pier and waterfront walkway. There is a $5 adult charge to visit the fort and visitors center, which are open Wednesday through Sunday through Columbus Day .
Harrison Avenue, Newport
Fort Adams, the largest coastal fortification in the country, was built between 1824 and 1857 to defend the entrance to Narragansett Bay and Newport Harbor. Its design represented the most advanced military architecture of the day. A masonry fortress, it could accommodate 2,400 soldiers -- the interior parade ground is 6 acres -- and mount 468 cannon in three tiers on its walls. The views from its high ramparts are wonderful. Also in the state park are a swimming beach, picnic areas, and a yachting museum. Hour long tours of the fort, which has a gift shop and museum, are offered daily on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. mid-May through October. Tours are $8 for adults, $5 for children ages 6-17 (under 6 free), and benefit the Fort Adams Trust .
Georges Island, Boston
Georges Island's 39 acres are dominated by Fort Warren, the second-largest fort in New England. The federal government acquired the island in 1825 and the fort was dedicated in 1847 . It housed Confederate prisoners during the Civil War and supposedly has a resident ghost, ``The Lady in Black," a prisoner's wife who was hanged at the fort for trying to help her husband escape. Park rangers lead tours of the fort, which is in the center of the harbor with fine views from its ramparts in all directions. Harbor Express (617-222-6999; www.harborexpress.com ) operates ferry service from Long Wharf to the island on the hour weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and every 30 minutes, 9-5:30, on weekends. Adult round-trip fares are $10 Monday-Wednesday, $12 Thursday-Sunday. Family rates are available. There is free shuttle service from Georges to other islands in the park, some of which have campgrounds.
Day Boulevard, South Boston
There has been a fort on Castle Island since 1634, making it the oldest continuously fortified place in the country. Fort Independence, a five-pointed granite structure, was built between 1834 and 1851. Free half-hour tours are available from noon to 3 p.m. on summer weekends through August. Besides its harbor views, the fort is a great place to watch planes take off and land at Logan Airport. Castle Island has been connected to the mainland since 1930 and has a parking lot. There is a popular clam shack at the base of the fort, picnic tables, and a sandy beach in nearby Pleasure Bay.
Route 1B, New Castle
Open daily; free.
Built during the Civil War to defend Portsmouth, Fort Constitution is located on a peninsula at the northeast corner of New Castle Island looking out on the Piscataqua River and the Atlantic Ocean. Part of the fort dates from the Revolutionary War era, but most of it was built during the Civil War. Adjacent to the fort is the Fort Point Lighthouse, and Whaleback Lighthouse is just off shore. On a clear day the Isles of Shoals are visible 10 miles away. There is a walking trail through the 2-acre site.
Route 174, Prospect
Open daily; admission $3.
The largest fort in northern New England and the most visited historic site in Maine, Fort Knox was sited to command narrows at the mouth of the Penobscot River and keep any enemy from attacking Bangor, Maine's chief inland city. Constructed in the 1840s of granite quarried on nearby Mount Waldo, the fort never saw action, but was garrisoned during the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. Thanks to the efforts of the Friends of Fort Knox, a volunteer organization, the once derelict fort has been restored and virtually every part of it is accessible. Among the impressive sights is a Civil War-era Rodman cannon, which took seven men to operate and could fire a 315-pound shell more than 2 miles. There is a visitors center and gift shop. Free tours are given daily. The fort is often the scene of festivals, concerts, and other events.
FORT EDGECOMB STATE HISTORIC SITE
66 Fort Road, Edgecomb
Open Memorial Day to Labor Day; admission $2.
One of the country's few surviving two-story octagonal wooden blockhouses, Fort Edgecomb was built in 1809 to defend Wiscasset, then the largest port north of Boston. Its presence was credited with thwarting an attempted British attack in 1814. There are displays and exhibits inside the blockhouse and a park ranger on hand to answer questions. The site overlooks the Sheepscot River, where harbor seals and osprey can be seen, and is a pleasant place to picnic.
FORT WILLIAM HENRY
Colonial Pemaquid StateHistoric Site
Off Route 130, New Harbor
Open daily; admission $2.
The fort is a round, two-story, crenellated stone tower erected in 1907, and replicating the one built on the same spot in 1692. Also on the site is the Fort House, a preserved 18th-century house , and a museum with historical exhibits, including some interesting archeological finds. Picnic tables look out on Pemaquid Harbor.
Contact William A. Davis, a freelance writer in Cambridge, at email@example.com.