By David M. Fitzpatrick
Of The Weekly Staff
In the rush of building the internationally famous Penobscot Narrows Bridge, and in the flurry after that with the plans to disassemble the old Waldo-Hancock Bridge, it’s possible many people missed another project that’s currently in the works.
On the Prospect side, a historic overlook is being constructed on the former bridge abutment. The abutment, beyond which the road left land and became a bridge, will be transformed into a park where visitors can learn about the historic Waldo-Hancock Bridge. And an added bonus is that the overlook’s construction may actually be cheaper than demolishing the abutment.
“To rip something like this out and to do site work to put it back to grade and to make it safe — it might be a trade-off,” said Kent Cooper, landscape architect for the Maine Department of Transportation. “It was a better decision to save it and let it be part of telling the history.”
The Penobscot Narrows Bridge has received widespread acclaim and earned both awards and the bragging rights of the highest public bridge observatory in the world. But what many people don’t realize was that, in 1931, the Waldo-Hancock Bridge was the superstar of its day that won awards and acclaim far from the Penobscot River.
“When that bridge was done, it was the modern, state-of-the-art bridge,” Cooper said. “The Penobscot Narrows Bridge, in comparison, is kind of modern Space Age technology.”
While the public eye has been on the bridge demolition, which has involved three cranes and a barge moored beneath the rapidly vanishing Waldo-Hancock Bridge, the overlook project has been somewhat unknown. But its construction is underway, and it should be finished when the bridge demolition is completed around July 31.
The abutment’s concrete deck is in bad shape, so part of it will be redecked for safety and permanency. The concrete pillars will remain, but the rusty old chain-link fence will be replaced by pedestrian safety rails. The resurfaced pavement will feature room for seven car spaces, two large-vehicle spaces, and a bicycle rack. Grassy areas, landscaping, and boulders will beautify the area. Several interpretive panels on the railing will tell the story of the old and new bridges.
“People will be able to park there and go out and look down at the river and start to understand the history of the old bridge,” said Cooper.
The original Waldo-Hancock Bridge was built at a cost of $846,000 and opened in 1931. At the time, it was quite a showpiece. It was designed by legendary structural engineers and bridge builders Holton D. Robinson and David Bernard Steinman (who also designed the Deer Isle Bridge).
The bridge quickly caught many eyes. In addition to the 1931 dedication plaque, the bridge was honored with twin plaques from the American Institute of Steel Construction — it won first place in the Class B division, earning the “Annual Award of Merit – Most Beautiful Steel Bridge.” The American Society of Civil Engineers also placed a plaque near the site.
The park will feature all the original plaques. The 1931 dedication plaque was all but forgotten since a lane-widening project in the 1960s eliminated the bridge’s sidewalks. It and the AISC plaques are being restored and repainted thanks to the skilled folks at the MDOT’s truck shop. And the ASCE plaque is being recreated, the original having been lost in the past decade.
Benches in the park will be made out of granite blocks donated by Fort Knox from its stockpile, in keeping with the park’s historic focus, which comes thanks to a long public process before the construction of the new bridge and what to do with the old one. The public meetings, which included many entities including the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, at the time decided on the design of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge included many things. One of the choices, for example, was the decision that the new bridge would use granite to reflect Fort Knox.
Also part of the process was what to do with the old bridge. In the early stages, some people wanted it to remain as a footbridge. That wasn’t feasible, since the bridge’s condition necessitated its demolition; there was no way to finance extensive maintenance, either.
But nostalgia ran strong; people didn’t want that old bridge to be forgotten. That resulted in the plan to develop a historic overlook to tell the story of old bridge.
The MDOT plans a media event for the overlook’s opening this summer, after demolition and construction are complete.