Penobscot Narrows Bridge: Well Worth a Visit
A peculiar, but familiar mania overcame me at the Penobscot Narrows Bridge in Prospect. It strikes every time I see Katahdin and once it gripped me so strongly on the cliffs of Cornwall, England, that I took virtually the same photo about 100 times. But the new bridge is the only man-made object in Maine that’s so stunning you couldn’t capture its impact in 1,000 photos.
Opened in May 2007, the bridge already has won many awards and been listed in a registry of the top 25 bridges in the United States. More than 70,000 people visited it last year and many writers have weighed in on its attractions.
So you may already know it has a 420-foot observatory with a 100-mile view on a clear day. It’s not the tallest bridge observatory in the world, just the tallest publicly accessible bridge observatory. The observation deck on the Rama VIII Bridge in Bangkok is 525 feet tall, but not open to the public. The facts about the bridge are endless, but still hypnotic. My favorite is “the total bridge weight is about 10,500 African elephants (roughly 126 million pounds).”
The Penobscot Narrows Bridge is far more than just a pretty picture. It’s also being woven into Maine life. You can see that clearly if you search the Maine Newsstand database (http://libraries.maine.edu/mainedatabases), which stores daily newspaper stories. There already are many entries, even though it took time to settle on that name. Other candidates were the Down East Gateway Bridge, Fort Knox Bridge and Master Sgt. Gary Ivan Gordon Bridge, for the Medal of Honor winner who died in 1993 while protecting the crew of a downed Black Hawk helicopter in Somalia.
The majority of stories were from the Bangor Daily News, including a classic of the little-did-he-know genre. In 2001, a legislative panel voted down a bill to build a new bridge and even the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Donald Berry, R-Belmont, said he was “confident the state Department of Transportation's $25 million rehabilitation of the 70-year-old suspension bridge will remedy some of the structure's problems.”
The rehab plan, of course, didn’t work, so the new $85 million bridge now towers 300 feet over the old bridge, whose fate remains uncertain. Some ideas have been bikeway, pedestrian walk, solar and tidal power center, but the most unusual was the Department of Homeland Security notion to blow it up, just to see what it would take to knock down a suspension bridge.
The new bridge has grown beyond its own stories and is showing up in many contexts. It’s a backdrop: “While the sun was setting over the nearby Penobscot Narrows Bridge on a recent late-August afternoon, it is beginning to rise on a new football season at Bucksport High School. (BDN)”
Sometimes it’s a scenic place marker. “The Penobscot Narrows Bridge gleamed silver in the sun. The water of the bay was inky blue. I was on my way to be a guest of the Witherle Library knitting group (BDN)”
It’s a metaphor for a complex project. In a June Press Herald story, Jim Hanley of Pike Industries called the I-95 construction between Gardiner and Topsham, “the Waldo-Hancock bridge of the road-building world for us.”
It’s the centerpiece of Verna and Ken Cox’s self-published book "Samantha's Bridge Project," about a fifth-grader researching local landmarks and it’s a selling point for a housing complex for the elderly, where large windows “provide some of the apartments with views of the new Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Fort Knox.”
Sadly, there are also some darker themes. A 17-year-old Orland boy was killed in a fall from the bridge in March, while in January a man managed to swim to shore after he jumped off the bridge. Another depressing storyline is the legal battle waged by the Dyer family, which owned the nearby Sail-Inn Restaurant for more than 50 years. On June 26, the Maine Supreme Court ruled that DOT didn’t exceed its authority when it took the restaurant (now demolished) and five acres by eminent domain. Dick Dyer, brother of former Sail-Inn owners Paul and Bobby Dyer, called the judgment “infuriating, at best,” in a story in the VillageSoup/Waldo County Citizen Reporter.
On a more cheerful note, Damon Holmes and Ann Drinkwater, a local couple, got married in the bridge observatory on July 28, 2007. The groom told a BDN reporter he was feeling a little anxious as he climbed to the top, but “it wasn't the height. It was the getting-married part.”
The fear-of-heights motif figures prominently in stories and is quite evident at the observatory itself. Guide David Veno chooses his words carefully to minimize the scare factor. “I usually don’t say how high it is. I tell them the elevator goes 10 1/2 miles per hour,” Veno said. “That doesn’t seem to scare them as much as 500 feet per minute.” He also assures them they don’t even have to get out of the elevator at the top. Daniel Belton, stationed at the upper elevator door, reports that most do get out, “but some go right back in.”
One woman parked herself on the beautiful rose compass (based a map by Samuel De Champlain, who sailed by in 1604) embedded in the observatory floor. She told her husband it was the place for scared people to stand. So I watched for about 30 minutes and she was right. While their friends and relatives rotated from wall to wall, exclaiming about the wonderful view, the scared folks headed straight for the compass, as if it provided some special protection.
There’s also an ain’t-it-odd storyline. Blasting near the bridge revealed “a granite seam in the ledge that looks remarkably like a human footprint, toes and all,” the BDN reported on July 21, 2007. Some connect the image to a Native American legend about the spirit Glooscap taming the winds around the Penobscot Bay area. The footprint nicely complements another local legend concerning a leg, which marks a Revolutionary War gravestone in a nearby Bucksport, thanks to a curse cast by a condemned witch.
So I encourage you to see the Penobscot Narrow Bridge for yourself. In addition to a stunning visual experience, you can get in on the ground floor of a Maine legend. But if you don’t want to leave the elevator, it’s quite all right.
Roberta Scruggs has been writing about Maine's environment for more than two decades.