Augusta, Maine, has the distinction of being the third smallest capital city in the United States. It is in the heart of the Kennebec Valley in central Maine and is located on both sides of the river at the head of the tide. The Native American name, Cushnoc, means “head of the tide.” Augusta was named after the daughter of Henry Dearborn, an American soldier and statesman who served under Benedict Arnold in the expedition to Quebec.
Traders first came to the area in the 1600s to establish a trading post. In 1754 Fort Western was built to protect the site from Indian attacks, and a village soon grew up around the fort.
Loretta Lathe, executive assistant to the city manager and Augusta native, said, “I think the most interesting fact about Augusta is we have the oldest wooden fort in the country, and it’s right next to city hall.”
Old Fort Western
Descendents from the original Plymouth Colony tried to settle the area that was called Cushnoc — now Augusta — and called themselves the Kennebec Proprietors. However, they were unable to do so because the King Phillip war erupted in 1676 — the first in a series of wars in New England. The Province of Massachusetts was worried the French would meet up with several tribes of Indians and wipe out all the English settlements. The proprietors approached Royal General William Shirley and made a proposal: If the Province of Massachusetts built a provincial fort at what is now Fort Halifax, it would build a fortified storehouse at Cushnoc as long as Massachusetts would man both forts and General Shirley accepted. Construction for both forts began in 1754.
The purpose for building those forts was two-fold — to encourage resettlement of the Kennebec River and to provide necessary stores to Fort Halifax. Provincial stores would come up the Kennebec River and be unloaded and stored at Fort Western. The English capture of Quebec in 1759 reduced the threat of war in the Kennebec Valley. Within a year, the number of soldiers was reduced to 10. Fort Western continued as a supply depot to store the Indian trade goods destined for Fort Halifax. The English gained control over the Kennebec Valley, and by 1767, the forts became militarily obsolete and Fort Western was decommissioned in 1767.
Fort Western was a complex with a storehouse and a home for Captain James Howard and his family. Lathe said the north end has tenement apartments. “It was Augusta’s first store — it was the heart of everything back then,” she said, adding, “There are block houses on each corner — one has a beautiful gift shop, another has a cannon.”
Today, the city owns the property and the old fort hosts lots of school kids, summer camps, tours and other events. The fort is open daily from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. July 1-Aug. 31 and from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday through Monday Sept. 1-Oct. 31. Admission is free to Augusta residents.
Old post office and courthouse
Another important feature of Augusta is the Old Post Office and Courthouse. The historic former federal government building at 295 Water St. in downtown Augusta is one of Maine’s “finest surviving examples of Romanesque Revival architecture.” Built in 1886-1890, it was listed on the National Historic Register in 1974.
Designed by Mifflin E. Bell, it is a symmetrical two-and-a-half story granite structure with a central tower, flanked on either side by a wall and a smaller tower.
Lathe said it is no longer used as a courthouse, but the post office is still there alongside several other businesses. The inside has a marble staircase, and there are lights on the building that are lit up for different events and themes.
Government, recreation and housing
Augusta has a population of around 19,000. Mayor David Rollins and an eight-member council — four ward council members and four at-large council members — set policy while the city manager deals with the day-to-day operations.
William “Bill” Bridgeo has served in that role for 23 years — the longest in the history of the city — but has announced plans to retire in September.
Dozens of lakes and streams and the Kennebec River create a natural environment with a high quality of life. The Capital Area, as the seat of state and city government, offers a thriving economy and opportunities for new business development. There is also plenty of opportunity for year-round recreational activities.
One area — Capital Park — is called “one of the crown jewels in the state of Maine.” The 34-acre lot includes the Capitol grounds. When it was first developed, 20 acres were fenced off to keep out cattle and were planted with rows of forest trees.
Lathe also highlighted Bond Brook Recreation Area for its network of trails that are also great for cross-country skiing and snowboarding. “It’s beautiful,” she said.
The 200 acres that make up Viles Arboretum — previously Pine Tree State Arboretum — began life in 1835-1905 as a state hospital farm. During the 1890s, agricultural labor therapy was popular, and patients helped work the farm.
In 1981, the Maine Forest Service began development of the arboretum. In 1982, a nonprofit corporation was formed. During these early years, Elsie and William Viles organized a group of friends and interested individuals to lead the way forward, and the couple provided significant financial support. The name was changed in 2010 to honor the couple.
Lathe said, “Elsie Vile and her husband were big philanthropists — they did a lot for Old Fort The Downtown Riverfront District has been revitalized with trails, shops and Western and the arboretum.”
She said the arboretum has its own board and holds summer camps, plant sales and more.
Adjacent to Vile Arboretum is soccer and softball fields.
Restaurants include Cushnoc Brewing Company — a brewery and pizza place offering wood-fired pizza — Oak Table & Bar and Riverfront BBQ. A unique shop is Merkaba-Sol & The Chocolate Shoppe.
Lathe said when the chocolate shop closed, Merkaba-Sol took it over. The shop has metaphysical supplies like Himalayan salt lamps and unique gifts from around the world.
There are five distinct residential areas in Augusta. Northeastern Augusta has rolling farmlands and several tree-lined ponds and extends to the northern end of downtown. Southeastern Augusta has established in-town neighborhoods, convenient to major regional medical centers, and extends to the rural eastern side.
The capital area is an excellent in-town neighborhood, and a variety of multifamily units surround the scenic, historic center of Maine’s state government. The West Side has elegant historic single-family homes and multifamily options in Augusta’s most historic in-town neighborhood with easy access to downtown and a major transportation corridor. Northwestern Augusta begins with the “Sand Hill” neighborhood in town with single and multifamily housing; it extends westward toward Augusta’s fastest-growing commercial district and pristine rural farmlands.
One of the bigger employers in the city is the state of Maine. Lathe estimated the population triples during the day as workers come into the city. Other big employers are Maine General, the Cancer Center and the University of Maine, Augusta.
If visiting the Pine Tree State, be sure to visit the capital city of Augusta.