Cape Elizabeth project hopes to recapture military life at Fort Williams

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CAPE ELIZABETH — Although millions of people visit Fort Williams Park each year, few remember what it was like when it was an active military fort.

With the help of Cape Elizabeth High School students, former Town Councilor James Rowe is trying to track down veterans who lived in the fort.

The plan, which was developed by the Fort Williams Park Foundation, is to produce a documentary film detailing what it was like to serve there.

“Basically it’s the goal of the Fort Williams Park Foundation to archive the history of the fort,” Rowe said.

Rowe, a Fort Williams Advisory Commission member, was approached by the foundation to make the film because of his interest in the fort’s history.

The project is still in the early stages, and Rowe said he’s had one meeting so far with foundation members, four high school students and John Holdridge, the high school’s volunteer/extended learning opportunities coordinator.

Rowe said the students have an interest in film and photography, and he hopes they will agree to interview the veterans.

“We want to encourage them to be part of the interview process with veterans,” he said. “I want them to have some ownership in this thing and be part of the process all the way through.”

Rowe said he has two leads on veterans who still live in town, and hopes to find at least a few for the documentary. He acknowledged it will be hard to find people from that era.

“The fort closed in 1962, so whoever we get will be pretty well along in years,” Rowe said. “We want to grab this piece of history before it’s too late.”

Rowe said at one point there were about 1,000 people living at Fort Williams, but towards the end there were “only a few hundred.”

“The veterans we’ll find will have been at the tail end of the fort as a fort,” he said.

Rowe also has a lead on a man who was born at the park in Goddard Mansion and lived at the fort when his father was a soldier. Rowe said he hopes to find more veterans, or relatives of veterans, through the media, Facebook, and word of mouth.

By talking with veterans, Rowe hopes to “nail down what the fort was like back then and what a typical day was like.” He wants to talk with them about daily tasks, drills, meals and other personal experiences.

He also wants to talk with veterans about where they lived within the fort. The town acquired the property in 1964 and turned it into a park, but in the 1970s torn down the barracks because they were unsafe. There were also 11 officers’ buildings, two of which remain.

Various structures from the fort are still standing, and are accompanied by many displays that contain facts, dates and other historical information.

“There’s a pretty good skeleton of information,” Rowe said.

Rowe said he’s not sure when the project will be done, but hopes to have it ready within a year.

“If we come up with a product we’re happy with, hopefully we’ll be able to get it online,” he said. “Our goal is to make it available to everyone.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Baracks at Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth in the 1950s.

A 1915 panorama of Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth.

Battery Blair, in the space between what is now the main parking lot and Portland Head Light at Fort Williams Park, being used for artillary practice in 1917.

I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.