Campus News

Digging Into What Lies Below: Fort Preble

By Celina Simmons

If you’ve ever ventured around SMCC’s South Portland Campus, you’ve probably noticed the granite structures abandoned along the coast. These underground structures, as well as many other buildings on campus, were part of a military base constructed over 200 years ago called Fort Preble. Thanks to Paul Charpentier, the Interim Dean of Academics here at SMCC, I got to take a look inside some of those structures and learn more about the history behind them.

The construction of Fort Preble was initially commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson in 1808. It was made to enforce the embargo Jefferson placed on Great Britain which would prevent British vessels from exporting their goods into US ports.The embargo was lifted in 1809 but eventually led to the war of 1812. During the war, troops at Fort Preble were required to inspect all ships entering the Portland Harbor. If a ship did not stop to be inspected, the Fort would send a shot across the bow as a warning.


The long retired and slowly decaying Battery Rivardi stands resolute as it still dutifully watches
over our campus grounds. Photo by Celina Simmons.

By 1815, the fort had 10 magazines and gun emplacements to protect the harbor. These stretched all the way from our current cafeteria to the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse where the last one standing remains. What used to hold ammo and artillery is now an empty room with brick and granite walls.

Right next to the magazine is Battery Rivardi, named after John J. U. Rivardi, the first US Artillerist and Engineer. This was the command bunker on base. It was built at the end of the 19th century, a little less than 100 years after the construction of Fort Preble. Inside is a series of rooms and tunnels that stretch 40 feet along the coast. Some of the rooms had fireplaces and, like the magazines, had walls made out of brick and granite. Special bricks were used in the walls to keep humidity and water in the air from deteriorating the structures.

Located on the other side of Battery Rivardi is the largest underground structure standing today. It was the communication center of the fort, called the Switchboard, and was originally only a wooden building. Later on, a giant steel-and-concrete cover was built over it to protect against shells and bullets. Today, the wooden building inside has collapsed, but you can still see chimneys from the outside and the anti-aircraft command post located at the top of the hill.

Fort Preble was a highly strategic and prepared base. If any ships managed to get past all of the gun emplacements along the coast, they would then have to survive a three-way crossfire between Fort Preble, Fort Gorges, and Fort Scammel, which would have been nearly impossible. They were also equipped with anti-aircraft defenses to shoot down enemy aircraft as well as a submarine net before the harbor. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the fort was decommissioned and locked off from the public.

So next time you find yourself taking a stroll on campus, remember that there is always more that lies below the surface.

Categories: Campus News

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