As the name implies, long before Fort Williams became a town park, it was a military installation. Construction of defensive structures was started as early as 1873 but the area was not formally established as a “military reservation” until 1891. In 1898 the reservation became a sub-post of Fort Preble, and a few months later an independent post. It was formally named Fort Williams in 1899. While batteries were completed in time for the Spanish-American war, they were never used. In fact, guns at Fort Williams were never fired in combat. The fort was quite active, though, housing and training troops and serving as a command post and headquarters. If you visited here in the first half of the 20th century, you would have found a bustling campus of brick buildings, fields filled with tents, and troops on the parade ground.
By the early sixties, military needs had changed and the Fort was obsolete and minimally used. It was officially decommissioned and closed in 1963. As you explore Fort Williams Park, you will find explanatory bronze plaques on the remaining buildings and batteries. If you are looking for a detailed history, the Portland Headlight Museum shop sells Portland Head Light & Fort Williams, by Kenneth. E. Thompson Jr.
Cape Elizabeth purchased the beautiful 90-acre property on December 1, 1964 for $200,000. It took another 12 years for the Town to designate it a park. By then, the Town had razed most of the buildings, which had been neglected and vandalized. You will still see a few, though, along with other relics and ruins which provide clues to the Park’s military past.
Today the Park is a popular destination for tourists, picnickers, hikers, bicyclists, dog walkers, kite flyers, artists, and many others. It attracts nearly one million visitors each year, who come to visit the Portland Head Light, recreate, and attend numerous special events including The TD Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race, Family Fun Day, and the Labor Day Art Show. Picnic shelters are rented out for private and corporate events, and other sites provide the romantic backdrop of the ocean for alfresco weddings. Admission to the Park is free and the Park is open 365 days a year.
Historical Photos Courtesy of Ken Thompson