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The Cliff Walk at Fort Williams Park, Cape Elizabeth

Updated: Feb 17

A fascinating history that includes a mysterious ship wreck, a former casino and theatre, a mansion damaged by fire, and an old military base. Plus, of course, stunning views and the most photographed lighthouse in the world. This place may be a tourist attraction, but it deserves the hype.

Lighthouse and beach at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, Maine

I'm sure many of you have been to Fort Williams Park, but you may not have explored the cliff walk...or the curious history behind this park. I'm here to tell you about both.

I tend to avoid tourist destinations and Fort Williams is no different. But I found myself here recently with some friends and was reminded of how much this park has to offer. During this same visit, I also became intrigued by the story of the Annie C. Maguire, a ship that had crashed into the rocky cliffs near the lighthouse on Christmas Eve 1886. The tribute to this shipwreck has been repainted on the rocks for well over a century. My friend mentioned a podcast called Dark Downeast, which she had just listened to about the mystery behind this shipwreck. Aw, synchronicity. It's a true crime podcast that digs into the murders and missing persons cases, survival stories and mysteries of Maine and beyond. Here is the episode that dives into the story of the Annie C. Maguire Shipwreck. Was it an accident or a crime? I still don't know after listening to this episode, but it did make the trip more interesting for my ten year old, since I played it in the car on our way to this adventure.

Located at 1000 Shore Road in Cape Elizabeth, the Cliff Walk begins (or ends, depending on where you start) at Portland Head Light. The .4 mile, one way gravel trail is rated "easy", although the snow and ice may affect this rating for now. The path winds along scenic cliffs and historic remains of Fort Williams, including the various batteries to explore. Views of Ram Island Ledge Light and Casco Bay Islands can be seen on a clear day. An article in the Portland Press Herald on 12/27 talked about Cape Elizabeth's plans to improve views and safety along the Cliff Walk. The project will extend the southern section of the walkway along the rocky edge of the bay near the lighthouse and create a walkway across the top of a berm for a safer ocean overlook.

The park includes: picnic sites, grills, playing fields, tennis courts, a playground, beach, sledding hills, historic buildings and the oldest lighthouse in Maine. It is open year round, sunrise to sunset. Dogs are allowed on leash, aside from designated off-leash sections. The park is owned by the town of Cape Elizabeth in collaboration with the nonprofit Friends of Fort Williams Park. It draws about 1 million visitors each year from all over the world.

Find the trailhead sign to the left of the lighthouse. This path will eventually lead to Ship Cove, a small, cozy beach with a killer view.

Once you've enjoyed your salt air refill, head over to the old Goddard Mansion. Here is a picture I took of it in warmer months.

The only parts of this impressive mansion that remain are the exterior walls made of Maine stone. This building predates the fort. John Goddard was a local businessman who made his fortune in the timber trade. He purchased the Cape Cottage Hotel in 1853 with the intention of placing his dream home on the adjacent land. He hired architect Charles A. Alexander to design and build the mansion in 1858.

Now for a little side history on this Cape Cottage Hotel...did you know this hotel once existed along the ocean cliffs here? Me neither. Even more fascinating, it burned down in 1894 and was replaced with the Cape Cottage Casino and Theatre. The casino included a world class restaurant and entertainment. It was one of several amusement parks developed in the late 1890's by Portland's electric railways, and designed by John Calvin Stevens. Conveniently located at the end of the Cape Elizabeth branch of the trolley line, it provided a destination, just like the Riverton Trolley Park. Once the casino closed down with the development of the car, it was downsized from 3 floors to 2 (how does that work exactly??) and remodeled into a private residence. Today, it serves as the home of the Maiden Cove Children's Center on Cottage Lane. I'll bet John Calvin Stevens didn't see that one coming! He was probably too busy to worry about the outcome of his masterfully crafted buildings. I mean, how did he even find the time to eat and sleep? One thing I do know, he was a productive man, with a capital P.

Such a winding tale I'm telling, back to John Goddard. He died in 1870 and his mansion was acquired by the army in 1900. It was used as headquarters for non-commissioned officers, sergeants and their families. It suffered damage by fire several times and by the time the town acquired it in 1962, it had seriously deteriorated. The interior debris was burned in a controlled fire in the 1980's and only the walls remain today.

If you continue up the road to the right of the mansion, you will wind up at an old fort to explore. Some of the graffiti here is x-rated. It's nothing my ten year old hasn't seen, but you may have younger kids. In which case, they may not know what they're looking at anyway...or be able to read for that matter. Just giving you the heads up. ;)

There is SO much to explore and do here. Bring a sled, bring a mug of hot cocoa and make an afternoon of it!

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Sarah Holman
Sarah Holman
Jan 05, 2022

nicely written. Thanks.

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