When the elevator door slides open at the top of the Penobscot Narrows Observatory, the view hits you suddenly, startlingly. The glass wall of the tower is disturbingly close, and beyond it, the Penobscot River Valley unfolds 420 feet below. For a split second it feels as though you’ve been deposited directly into the clouds. The sensation of freefall is a fitting tribute to the observatory’s tumultuous birth and that of the bridge attached to it.
“I’ll never forget. It was July 11, 2003, on a Friday afternoon at 4:45 p.m.,” says Bruce Van Note, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation, recalling the moment he learned that the Waldo-Hancock Bridge–since 1931 the gateway to Acadia and Down East–was dying and that traffic would have to be restricted. “On a Friday, in the summer,” he reiterated.
The potential peril to Maine’s tourism put the bridge replacement on a fast track like few had ever seen, especially in this part of the coast, where timelessness is a virtue. The bridge would sit at one of the Penobscot’s most idyllic spots: a turn in the river occupied on the west side by Fort Knox, a 19th-century granite fortress, and on the east by the town of Bucksport and the northern tip of Verona Island. Locals understood that the new bridge would have to fit the scene or risk destroying it. “We hired this designer and they had all these fancy PowerPoints and stuff about what [we’d want] the theme of the bridge to be. And the 50 or so locals who showed up said one word: ‘Granite,'” Van Note recalls, laughing. “And it wasn’t even one of the choices that was up there.”
Giving the locals what they wanted would be faster than pushing through another design, so Maine engineers set to the task of blending history with modern engineering. They settled on a cable-stayed bridge, with towers modeled after the Washington Monument. Realizing that there was no reason they couldn’t re-create its observation deck as well, they decided, “Why not?”
The addition transformed the new Penobscot Narrows Bridge into an attraction. The observatory is now part of Fort Knox State Historic Site, and visitors may ride to the bridge’s pinnacle and behold a truly amazing 360-degree panorama: from a northeasterly vista over the village of Bucksport toward the hills beyond, to the misty outline of Cadillac Mountain on the far southeast horizon, to the Penobscot snaking off to the Atlantic through a never-ending forest of evergreens, to a sweep through verdant highlands to the west. The new bridge remains a gateway to this pristine corner of Maine, though by giving visitors such a tempting reason to stop, the designers may have failed at their goal of speeding tourists on their way.