Demolition underway at historic Waldo-Hancock Bridge

Posted Jan. 05, 2013, at 5:34 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 06, 2013, at 2:37 p.m.

VERONA ISLAND, Maine — Two months after demolition prep began, pieces of the historic Waldo-Hancock Bridge are beginning to disappear.

A barge from Staten Island, N.Y., accompanied by two tugboats, made its way through Bucksport on Saturday afternoon en route to Brewer, where it will pick up a huge crane integral to the removal of the 81-year-old suspension bridge.

Observant motorists will have noticed a large section of the bridge’s deck, at the Prospect side in Waldo County, has been gone since early December. The span of steel and concrete was the first piece of the bridge removed by a demolition crew from S&R Corp. of Lowell, Mass.

The bridge, which spans the Penobscot River between the Hancock County town of Verona Island and the Waldo County town of Prospect, was built in 1931. Because of its deteriorating condition, the state decided to replace the bridge in 2003. The towering new Penobscot Narrows Bridge was completed in 2006, ending the elder structure’s 75-year tenure.

Since that first span was removed in December, crews have been cutting the roadway into smaller pieces to facilitate their removal in the coming months. Taking down the driving surface is the first in a three-phase demolition plan expected to be finished by the end of July.

The bridge’s demolition comes more than five years after its replacement, the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, was opened to motorists in 2006. S&R submitted the winning bid to Maine Department of Transportation in August: Demolition and debris removal for $5.35 million.

The barge and crane will be positioned underneath the bridge where, in the coming months, pieces of the bridge will be cut away and lowered onto the ship, which will bring them to the Verona Island side of the river, said Philip Roberts, the Maine Department of Transportation’s head engineer on the project.

There, another crane will lift the debris off the barge and drop it at a demolition area, where crews will break it into small pieces to be trucked away and recycled or used as construction fill.

The demolition work is going mostly according to schedule, Roberts said. But work day cancellations caused by cold weather have resulted in crews making up time on Saturdays, a scheduling maneuver Roberts anticipates to continue through the winter.

Roberts said the deck’s removal will be quite literally a balancing act.

“There’s a process to go back and forth, from one end to the other, to keep the towers balanced,” he said. Demolition crews will take pains to ensure that as sections of the bridge come down, the towers aren’t weighed down more on one side than the other, which could test the strength of the nearly century-old steel.

Once the concrete road surface and steel trusses are gone, workers will begin removing the bridge’s main suspension cables and, finally, the two 206-foot towers.

Last week, workers began drilling 16-foot holes into the concrete piers that anchor the towers. Each hole will be fitted with additional supports to ensure the towers withstand the demolition process.

Roberts said the process of reinforcing the towers is a slow one: “Some of the concrete is rotten and some is good, so getting the core out has been rough,” he said.

Crews could not begin to take down the bridge until late fall, when endangered peregrine falcons and osprey, which nest on and near the bridge, left for warmer skies.

In recent years, two osprey nests have been relocated from the bridge to nest stands on either side of the Penobscot River. A third nest will be relocated to the Verona Island side by the time the birds return in the spring. A falcon nest on the west tower will be relocated to a cliff face in Prospect.

Roberts said all the demolition work will take place off-road, meaning the removal of the old bridge shouldn’t impact traffic on the busy U.S. Route 1.

Sentimentalists and historians also will be happy that the 81-year-old bridge won’t disappear completely: The concrete piers that support the bridge’s towers will remain in the water and the construction of a “historic viewing area” on the Prospect side, complete with information about both bridges, mean the bridge won’t be easily forgotten.

Plus, Verona Island and Prospect will each get a piece of the bridge to call their own: Both will receive one of the flagpoles that topped the bridge. The poles were removed in December and are being sandblasted and readied for display.

Roberts also said curious onlookers will have plenty of time to check out the bridge’s demolition, from viewing areas at the banks of either county.

“It’ll be a very slow process, so if anyone’s interested in seeing it, we welcome them to come down,” he said.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.