Maine Road Trip: Route 1: Many Names, One History

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  • BY: EDGAR ALLEN BEEM

Images Courtesy Maine Historic Preservation Commission

U.S. Route 1 in Maine is 527 miles of pavement that snakes its way from Kittery to Fort Kent, the northern terminus of the historic road that begins (or ends) 2,390 miles south in Key West, Florida. Though Route 1 is old, established, and familiar, it is also a dynamic highway that refuses to lie quietly in its bed. It’s always on the move, often at the center of controversy.

The initial construction of what would become Route 1 can probably be traced to 1653 when the Crown Commissioners of Massachusetts ordered that decent roads be built so they could get to the Province of Maine to hold court. Towns naturally balked at building what became known as the King’s Highway, so it remained wheel ruts and horse paths well into the eighteenth century.

When Maine became a state in 1820, it inherited five turnpikes, sections of which would become parts of Route 1 — the First Cumberland Turnpike in Scarborough, Bath Bridge and Turnpike, Wiscasset and Woolwich Turnpike, and the Camden Turnpike.

The official designation as U.S. Route 1 took place in 1926, right in the middle of Maine’s early twentieth-century road building boom. Between 1914 and 1935, the state of Maine spent $134 million building 1,427.86 miles of state highways as Maine was entering the automotive age. “There is a growing sentiment in many sections of the state,” wrote Maine’s highway commissioner Paul D. Sargent in 1909, “that the future development of our tourist and summer resort business depends largely upon the development of our system of trunk line highways.”

During the 1911 State Senate debate on establishing main trunk line highways, however, not everyone was as bullish on road building as Commissioner Sargent. Senator W.M. Osborn of Pittsfield, for one, found the highway plan “a rash and uncalled for proposition.”

“Only a small part of the people of Maine ride in automobiles, less than 3 percent,” Osborn argued, “and only a very small portion of those who do use automobiles will be able to travel very much on the trunk line of highways. . . . The people who work for a daily wage and the farmers of the state will not receive practically any benefits from the road.”

Governor Percival Baxter, on the other hand, could clearly see the motorized future in 1923 when he spoke to the annual banquet of the Maine Automobile Association in Portland. “In 1913,” Baxter said, “good roads were few and far between. Today, it is universally agreed that there is no branch of the state’s work more important or more vital than that of providing suitable highways for our people and our industries.”

The governor was pleased to report that the Kittery-Portsmouth Memorial Bridge, the lift truss span that would carry New England Interstate Route 1, also known as the Atlantic Highway, across the Piscataqua River from New Hampshire, had been completed that very year. Extrapolating from the 46,450 cars that crossed the bridge in its first week of operation, Governor Baxter speculated that 1,388,970 cars a year would cross the new bridge. (Memorial Bridge was closed for reconstruction in 2011, temporarily displacing Route 1 to the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge [see page 66].)

The route that U.S. Route 1 follows was largely determined in the 1920s by E.W. James, chief of design for the federal Bureau of Public Roads. In a letter dated February 21, 1967, James described how he selected the route the road would take: “I got at once in touch with [Paul Sargent, Maine’s highway commissioner] on my proposed numbering scheme,” wrote James, “putting pressure on my proposed Route No. 1, which I suggested as the first road along the Atlantic side of the U.S.A., following as far as possible the old, historic Falls Line roads. As soon as I mentioned the Falls Line Route, Sargent said he was with the whole idea, and that the Falls Line Route really began up in Maine, at Fort Kent on the Canadian border.”

The Falls Line marked the farthest point a cargo ship could penetrate the coast before running into falls and rapids, necessitating that goods be transferred to wagons. So U.S. Route 1 would initially follow the Falls Line where docks and warehouses and coastal towns had long been established.

Contemporary Route 1 is a contentious roadway, changing names and routes and its very nature from mile to mile and year to year. Route 1 has often been in the news because of spirited debates over whether to widen 1.6 miles of the roadway through the midcoast town of Warren, where a dozen anti-widening protesters were arrested in 2002, and whether to bypass scenic downtown Wiscasset, a well-known Route 1 bottleneck in the summer. The Maine Department of Transportation gave up on the Wiscasset bypass in 2011 after decades of studies, discussions, meetings, and proposals.

Change has been a constant, whether it’s just a name change, such as designating the section from Ellsworth to Danforth as Downeast Coastal Route 1 in 1998, or an actual route change, such as that through Portland in 2007.

Route 1 in Portland used to come in over the Veterans Memorial Bridge and then proceed down Valley Street, turning right onto Park Avenue, left onto Forest Avenue, and right again onto Baxter Boulevard before heading north out of the city. In 2007, however, U.S. Route 1 was relocated from surface streets to run over Interstate 295, an administrative nip and tuck that shortened America’s number one highway by a full 1.2 miles.

In parts of Aroostook County, Route 1 is a secondary road. In Camden and Wiscasset, it is Main Street. Between Brunswick and Bath, it is a four-lane highway. And in York County it can be a slow-moving tourist trail.

“Route 1 is a road in constant transition,” says John Dority, who retired in 2009 as the Maine Department of Transportation’s chief engineer after a career of fifty-four years. “In a lot of states, Route 1 has lost its interstate transportation reason for existing. Here in Maine, it’s kept its identity, but it’s different in every geographic part of the state.”

Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance writer from Yarmouth who has been contributing to Down East since 1983.

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