Twenty-seven years ago, an April 1 flood devastated the Kennebec River valley, washing away among other things the historic Colonial-era blockhouse at Fort Halifax across the river from Colby in Winslow, Maine. On the anniversary of that flood, Assistant Professor of History Daniel Tortora has published a new book, Fort Halifax: Winslow’s Historic Outpost.
Tortora credits two student research assistants, history majors David Thomas ’15 and Colin Hull ’15, not only for doing grunt work such as scrolling through microfilm and digitizing contributed images, but also for writing early drafts, synthesizing ideas for the book, and working with him as a team to get the manuscript ready for print.
“It was incredibly valuable for me,” Tortora said. “I really like working with students, and one of the cool things about this project is that they’re really doing the work of historians.”
While Tortora, who earned his Ph.D. in history at Duke, had the broad overview and particular expertise in 18th-century American history, he said he, Hull, and Thomas complemented one another. Thomas focused on the 1800s, “the lost years” in the history of the Revolutionary War-era fort, and Hull focused on the 20th century, including the 1987 flood and the renaissance of interest that rebuilt the blockhouse and turned the peninsula where it sits into a city park.
Thomas, who spent more than a year working with Tortora on the project, said, “It really showed me what historians actually do when they go into the field.” It wasn’t just analyzing what had already been written, he said; it was trolling through town reports and minutes, interviewing area residents, collecting photographs from local families, and reading reports in the local newspaper.
And it agreed with him. “I intend to go to graduate school in history,” Thomas said, adding that this summer, prior to his senior year, will be dedicated to grad school applications.
Tortora, who also has a book on Cherokee Indians in South Carolina during the French and Indian War on press, said the students benefited from experiencing the attention to detail required to get the facts straight—and to then get the footnotes right according to the strictures of the Chicago Manual of Style.
He noted additional Colby contributions to the project. He and the students interviewed Stan Mathieu ’57, who rebuilt the blockhouse after the 1987 flood washed it off its foundation. They talked with Jack Nivison (father of John Nivison ’82 and grandfather of Lauren Nivison ’11 and Jack Nivison ’14), who taught history in Winslow and supplied photographs. Maine State Historian Earle G. Shettleworth Jr. ’70 and stories written by Colby magazine editor Gerry Boyle ’78, who covered the 1987 flood for the Morning Sentinel, are also cited.
The Morning Sentinel ran a front-page feature story on the Fort Halifax project March 31.
Fort Halifax: Winslow’s Historic Outpost is available through the Colby Bookstore. The 160-page volume traces the 250-year history of America’s oldest Revolutionary War blockhouse and what the fort has meant to succeeding generations of Winslow residents.