Touring Fort Scammel and House Island, Portland, Maine

Background to an Excursion...

In early August I received an email from Dave Garrison, Director of Marketing & Communications for the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath. The nature of the correspondence was a request for permission to use a photograph I had posted on my website of Fort Scammell on House Island. I’d taken photographs of the fort's gun battery area from seaward when Photographing Pelagic Birds at Sea a few years ago and Dave was referencing one of these shots. The image would be used in a newspaper advertisement to get information out to the public of an upcoming tour of the fort and island, both privately owned, and not far out of Portland Harbor. The tour was to be sponsored by the museum. I was pleased to be of assistance and readily agreed. I also thought this sounded interesting and wanted to learn more about the tour. In the end result, Dave worked it out so I could accompany the group to photograph the event for the museum’s activities archive. It was a great day and in retrospect, I was pleased to have joined this interesting and informative tour.

My office is only a few blocks from Long Wharf where the group would meet. I was able to park in the garage that I use when at work and walk up, so Old Port parking issues didn’t apply. I had all my photographic gear in my vehicle but needed to make a decision about what to carry onboard and to the island. Being primarily a nature photographer, my preference is to shoot from a tripod always, but there are occasions when this simply isn’t practical. I thought this may be one of those occasions and I didn’t bring one along. I anticipated the tour to be quite mobile and everything I had along would be carried the entire time, another consideration. I selected my primary camera, a Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, with a 70~200mm f/2.8L IS, my workhorse lens for general shooting, strap mounted at my side. In the end result, all the photographs in this article were taken with this combination. I also carried a camera bag along with a spare camera, two additional lenses and two Canon speedlights, besides the accessories one always keeps available. I used flash in the darkness of the fortifications and magazines, believe me – if you didn’t have a flashlight these areas are pitch black and dangerous to walk. Because of the nature of the tour I exposed nearly everything in Program mode, letting the camera select the aperture and shutter speed, while adjusting the ISO and exposure compensation to fit the conditions. I shoot ‘right histogram adjusted’, meaning I push the exposure compensation into the right zone as noted on the histogram read-out to take advantage of the roughly 40% of the data that resides in that zone. I hope you’ll appreciate the following photographic record of our day…

Maine Maritime Museum Website For those of you not familiar with the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, the sponsor for this House Island tour, I urge you to investigate this outstanding facility further. As excerpted from the museum website, ‘Maine Maritime Museum offers a myriad of opportunities to explore Maine’s maritime heritage and culture and to experience the mystique of Maine.’ Whether local or ‘from away’ do yourself a favor and make the drive to Bath to check out the facility – you’ll be pleased having taken the time…

I was also pleased to learn of the recent merger of the Maine Maritime Museum with the Portland Harbor Museum along with their collections. Check the museum website to learn more about this merger and to investigate upcoming events.

From the Maine Maritime Museum Website...

The museum arranged the tour to be about four hours total from departure and return to Portland Harbor. I found everything to be organized and well implemented. Attendees were to be at Long Wharf, a Portland pier where multiple excursion boats are berthed, at 1100 hours for an 1130 departure on the vessel Chippewa with Captain Hal Cushing.

The tour was to be divided into four groups offering varied levels of activity to accommodate all levels of participation. Although this wasn’t an especially difficult site to traverse, it did involve some uphill terrain, navigating stairs and possibly some climbing around the fort and excavations. The arrangement worked well for all ages I found. Group 1 was under the expert auspices of Joel W. Eastman, a Professor of History at the University of Southern Maine and author of a number of articles and books on state and local history. Group 2, the group I joined, was ably led by Kenneth E. Thompson Jr., another expert local historian and author of multiple books related to Maine history. Group 3 was led by Captain Hal Cushing, who no doubt is expert in all things related to the twenty-four-acre House Island along with the Group 4 leader, his sister, Karen Cushing Lannon. House Island has been owned by their family since 1954… The first two groups would entail full tours of the entire fort. Groups 3 and 4 with Hal and Karen would tour the major features of Fort Scammell. Should you have an interest in learning more about their island home and many functions they host, please check out the House Island website…

Chippewa, Berthed in Portland Harbor...

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, 1/500 second at f/8, ISO 200 at 70mm, EF 70~200mm at f2.8L, handheld
The Chippewa, Berthed in Portland Harbor

Vessel Chippewa Vessel Chippewa

Captain Hal Cushing As the departure time drew near I was surprised with the turnout the tour had generated. There were many people nearby the ramp listening to instructions. Captain Hal gave his obligatory safety talk to the group, indicated how many could be seated on the upper observation deck and other pertinent information as the Maine Maritime Museum staff finalized their checklists and getting everyone registered. I’m not certain of the count, but somebody mentioned the tour would max out at seventy-five attendees. I believe the tour was full – quite impressive…

Captain Hal Providing Pre-boarding Instructions...

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, 1/1000 second at f/6.3, ISO 200 at 200mm, EF 70~200mm f2.8L, handheld

Photographs Around Long Wharf - Portland, Maine

It was a nice day and the traffic was active as the Captain maneuvered Chippewa into the channel. I found a spot on the port side and checked the camera to make certain I was ready for whatever we may observe on the way out… it’s not a lengthy trip but the time was extended somewhat by traffic before getting into open water. This was anticipated in planning and everyone was simply enjoying the day. The Captain narrated over the speaker system and pointed out a few sights along the way. A short time later he announced we were approaching House Island…

Schooner Underway - Portland Harbor...

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, 1/1000 second at f/6.3, ISO 200 at 200mm, EF 70~200mm at f2.8L, handheld
Schooner Underway - Portland Harbor...

Portland Harbor Views
Fort Gorges - Portland Harbor
Schooner Frances Schooner Frances Underway
Tanker & Kites - Portland Harbor
View in Portland Harbor Pilot Boat- Portland Harbor
Casco Bay Island
Fort Scammell - House Island National Ensign - House Island
The 1808 Battery - House Island

On House Island
House Island Location Map

Residence and Canopy - House Island House Island Residence
Chippewa at House Island
Chippewa at the House Island Pier

Forming the Groups Once the boat was docked and everybody unloaded, the group moved up to a large canopy used for events and functions. Seeing everyone together represented an impressive count and the four groups began to form to begin the tour. Ken had indicated he thought House Island was the best scenic spot in Portland. Looking around I had little doubt he was close to the mark. The island was indeed beautiful and rich with history of Portland and the State of Maine.

A few people ending up with Ken’s Group 2 asked about taking a short break before heading off to explore to re-gear, drink or eat something. Ken agreed and while our group stayed around the canopy he showed copies of the books he’d written and talked about various topics. I found this quite interesting and made note of the titles for future reference. When Ken stated we would meet back at this location before departing I saw an opportunity to leave my camera bag behind. We would never be far from the canopy if something was required so I lightened the load and ended up with just a single camera/lens combination and a few things in my pockets…

Forming Tour Groups - House Island...

Mark R. Thompson, Regional Director, Maine Maritime Museum

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, 1/1000 second at f/6.3, ISO 320 at 135mm, EF 70~200mm f2.8L, handheld

Mark R. Thompson, Maine Maritime Museum - House Island Group 3 Forming
Forming Tour Groups - House Island
Ken Thompson and His Books - House Island Ken Thompson and His Books - House Island
Group Two Underway - House Island

Ken was pointing out and discussing multiple subjects as the group went up the hill towards Fort Scammell. I’ll add a note here pursuant to the research I did working on this article. Fort Scammell was named for Alexander Scammell (1747-1781) of Massachusetts. He was an officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolution and was killed while commanding a provisional regiment of light infantry at the siege of Yorktown. I urge you to read further about this officer, a true revolutionary patriot... His name is spelled interchangeably with one ‘L’, Scammel, or two, Scammell. As far as I can tell both are acceptable. I used the second spelling in this account because it appears to be more common and was used in the information Joel Eastman handed out. I figured if he listed the name as such this was qualification enough for me. However, I did observe the framed site plan of the fort Joel presented to Captain Cushing from the 1800’s noted, ‘Fort Scammel on House Island’. In a clarification later, Ken indicated ‘Alexander Scammell’ spelled his name as such. The army noted it incorrectly early on, but by the 1860’s the name appeared with the double L on all the engineering drawings...

I was lagging behind the group as Ken continued his narration as we walked – there were simply too many interesting subjects and scenes to photograph along the way. I was surrounded by much of interest and desirable subjects. Before we enter the battlements I’m going to post a template of scenic shots from House Island…

View from House Island...

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, 1/640 second at f/9, ISO 320 at 70mm, EF 70~200mm at f2.8L, handheld
Looking Towards Fort Gorges from House Island.

Scenic Views Around House Island
Angel - House Island

Interior View - Fort Scammell on House Island I’d considered how best to handle the history of the fort in this article, the actual purpose of the tour. I wished to provide a photographic record of the visit, not necessarily provide a history lesson. However, the fortifications protecting Portland Harbor were fairly extensive and this information is interesting indeed. Interesting enough in my view that a short presentation may be relevant to anyone taking time to investigate this article… I decided to keep it simple. The following information on the evolution of Fort Scammell was prepared by Joel W. Eastman and has been excerpted from a handout we received for the tour.

Interior View - Fort Scammell on House Island...

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, 1/125 second at f/4.5, ISO 1000 at 70mm, EF 70~200mm f2.8L, handheld with Flash

1808 - The original fort was sited to command the main ship channel into Portland Harbor. It was semicircular brick work which mounted eleven 24 and 32-pounder cannon with a range of one mile. In the center of the fort was a powder magazine, and on the left was a brick furnace to heat shot (cannon balls) before they were fired at wooden sailing ships. At the rear of the fort was a wooden blockhouse to protect the cannons, which also served as a barracks. The brick walls of the fort and the blockhouse were whitewashed to make it evident to enemy vessels that the harbor was defended. A detached gun battery was built behind the fort to command White Head passage.

Fort Scammell 1808

The War of 1812 – The fort was an able deterrent during the war, as one of three federal and three militia forts defending the harbor. In August 1813, the fort fired through White Head passage on a British privateer. The following month, a British flag-of-truce party landed at the fort to inquire about British prisoners from HBM brig Boxer. And, in October 1814, a small, detached earth gun battery was built 500 feet to the rear of the fort (north) to defend the landward approach.

1840 – The walls of the fort were gradually extended to allow the mounting of more and larger cannon.

Fort Scammell 1840

1850 – The walls of the fort were eventually lengthened further to make a fully-enclosed work, which was less vulnerable to a naval attack or a landing by enemy troops. Fort Scammell 1850

1862 – The fort was manned during the Civil War and plans were prepared to turn the original 1808 fort into a single-level bastion facing south, and to build three multi-level bastions of granite and brick facing east, west and north, mounting 13-inch Rodman cannons. The granite bastions would mount their guns in ‘casemates’ on the lower levels, providing protection for the cannons and crews. The North Bastion was never begun, the East and West Bastions were cut back to one and two stories, and the 13-inch guns were never built. However, the 1808 fort and the external batteries were modified to accept 10-inch cannon, most of which were mounted.

1870 – After the Civil War army engineers made modifications to allow the mounting of 15-inch Rodman cannons in the 1808 fort, the external emplacements, and on top of the two granite bastions. Earth-covered concrete magazines were built to the rear of the external open batteries to store powder, cannon balls, and projectiles, and they also protected the rear of the open batteries from enemy fire. The wooden blockhouse was taken down and a ‘Great’ (very large) gun powder magazine was constructed in its place to store the large amounts of powder needed for the 15-inch Rodman cannons. A large battery was planned for the site of the North Battery, but only the tunnels to it were completed.

1890 – At least four 15-inch Rodman cannons were in place during the Spanish-American War and the East bastion was used to control a mine field in White Head passage.

1918 – Concrete bases for 3-inch anti-aircraft guns were built in the 1808 fort and on top of the East Bastion, but the guns were never mounted.

Fort Scammell 1862 - 1918

We stopped at the gun battery for a time and Ken used this period to introduce the various elements of the fort we would be touring. Before leaving the canopy area he made certain there were enough flashlights available to illuminate the passageways we would be traversing on the tour. The gun battery is near a sallyport, as Ken noted a term adapted from 'sally forth', which we would use to enter the interior fort areas… He also discussed the additions to the fortifications as the fort evolved. We learned the 1808 section remains his favorite and that he’s been performing excavations around this area over the past years. I gathered he spent a good deal of time on House Island...

Fort Preble View from the Gun Battery...

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, 1/640 second at f/9, ISO 320 at 70mm, EF 70~200mm at f2.8L, handheld
Fort Preble View from the Gun Battery

Views Around the Gun Battery
View of Fort Preble and the Jetty at Spring Point Ledge Light
Ken Thompson, Group 2 Leader - House Island Ken Thompson, Group 2 Leader - House Island Ken Thompson, Group 2 Leader - House Island

Sallyport Views - Fort Scammell - House Island

Group 2 People on Tour - House Island

Through a Tunnel - Fort Scammell on House Island The group broke out the flashlights and followed Ken into the dark tunnels and passageways. I mounted a flash to take some exposures. This was definitely a tripod worthy task to obtain sharp images, but I did have an opportunity to experiment in lowlight (or no light) conditions. This was a bit challenging because you’d exit a passage into the harsh sunlight of an exterior gun emplacement. Looking around at the fort I could well imagine the treasure expended to provide the labor, materials and services required for this construction, especially during the days of sail…

I’d read that Canon’s flagship professional camera, the EOS 1Ds Mark III, the model I had with me, can take a photograph in dark or near dark conditions. What I found was it would produce an image in near darkness with certain limitations. Some light is required to obtain a focus lock and in order to handhold effectively, the ISO had to be close to maximum or the shutter speed was way too slow. Obviously this is a tripod and cable release situation and one normally wouldn’t shoot without lighting anyway. I’ll post a few shots of the interior brick magazines and other details. What’s interesting is these were photographed in utter blackness with a flashlight to obtain a focus lock and a Canon speedlight to illuminate the scene…

Through a Tunnel - Fort Scammell on House Island...

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, 1/125 second at f/6.3, ISO 1000 at 70mm, EF 70~200mm f2.8L, handheld with Flash

Inside Fort Scammell - House Island

When we arrived at the 1808 section of the fort Ken went into detail of the investigations being performed around the area. He’d been excavating this portion and pointed out the top of a masonry wall, indicating the structure went in-ground approximately sixteen feet below grade from the elevation we were now viewing. He also stated he’s willing to take on volunteers to continue the work if anyone had an interest. There's no backhoes or other excavation equipment on the island as far as I could tell - this represents a good deal of hand excavation...

1808 Fort Excavation...

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, 1/640 second at f/9, ISO 400 at 70mm, EF 70~200mm at f2.8L, handheld
1808 Fort Excavation

1808 Fort Excavations

Dr. Joel W. Eastman with Rodman Canon Photograph - Fort Scammell on House Island All the groups appeared to be converging in the same area about this time. As we examined a gun emplacement, Joel and Group 1 arrived on the berm above us so I took a few exposures. As we left the gun platform Hal and his group were coming in from the other side.

Rodman guns were American Civil War-era smoothbore Columbiads designed by Thomas Jackson Rodman, (1815-1871) West Point class of 1841. These weapons were the primary ordnance employed at seacoast fortifications. Rodman developed new technologies allowing a hollow casting method as opposed to the traditional solid cast, that resulted in production of cast iron ordinance that was much stronger than preceding weapons. Upon adoption of his methods by the U.S. government in 1859, Rodman was assigned command of the U.S. Arsenal in Watertown, Massachusetts. Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1867 and later placed in command of the Rock Island Arsenal, he died at his post in 1871, his health broken from continuous years of hard service. The heavy Rodman guns, intended to be mounted in seacoast fortifications, were built in 8, 10, 13, 15 & 20-inch bores and designed to broadcast both shot and shell. The guns were identical in design with a curving soda bottle shape and differed only in bore size.

Dr. Joel W. Eastman Displaying 15-inch Rodman Gun Photograph - Fort Scammell...

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, 1/800 second at f/7.1, ISO 400 at 150mm, EF 70~200mm f2.8L, handheld
Dr. Joel W. Eastman, Group 1 Leader - Fort Scammell - House Island Dr. Joel W. Eastman, Group 1 Leader - Fort Scammell - House Island

Two-Exposure Composite - Parade Ground View - Fort Scammell
Captain Hal's Group - Fort Scammell - House Island Joel's Group - Fort Scammell - House Island
Touring the Grounds - Fort Scammell

The afternoon was advancing quickly and soon enough Ken indicated it was time to return to the canopy area, the designated rendezvous point, to meet the other groups and re-board for the mainland return. The balance of the people returned on a staggered timeline but soon all we gathered. We sat around the tables enjoying a drink and for those who carried it along, lunch. I re-packed my camera bag and took a walk around the residence as I waited.

Interior Fort View...

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, 1/640 second at f/9, ISO 400 at 70mm, EF 70~200mm at f2.8L, handheld
Interior Fort View - Fort Scammell - House Island

Gathering at the Rendezvous - House Island Gathering at the Rendezvous - House Island
House Island View

Return to Long Wharf
Distant Portland Head Light

15-inch Rodman Gun Rendering from a Civil War Era Photograph The tour was over… Once Chippewa was tied up at the pier it didn’t take long for everyone to be on their way. It had been an interesting and informative day…

I’m certain I can speak for all us in thanking our excellent tour guides and the Maine Maritime Museum for making our visit to House Island possible.

September 2010

A note about Photography by Kirk M. Rogers… My primary photographic endeavors involve astronomy - shooting the night sky with telescopes or wide field lenses, and nature photography with macro and long focal length lenses. In recent times I’ve done far more daylight work including many image sessions at National Wildlife Refuges in various parts of the United States. This summer I’ve been fortunate to have attended multiple sessions on Maine’s seabird islands with my cameras photographing birds, eggs, chicks, and of course, the stunning scenery. Should you be interested in viewing more of my work please visit my website, A Shot in the Dark. There you will find travel photojournals - a venue used for many of my 'daylight' images, a gallery of astronomical works and one of my specialty pursuits, a Bird Photography Index. All images in this account are by the author unless noted otherwise. I control my workflow from image acquisition through printing and offer fine art prints from my digital lab for sale, with an association with a Portland frame shop for mounting/framing. The web versions are nice, but a full resolution print significantly enhances the beauty of these images; all are ©2010 Photography by Kirk M. Rogers - any reproduction, publication or transmission of this content without the written consent of the author is prohibited. Please contact me should you have an interest in obtaining any of the images.

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