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Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory

Prospect, Waldo Co., Maine (August 2009)

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Penobscot Narrows Bridge Tower

Penobscot Narrows Observatory

Penobscot Narrows Bridge

The Penobscot Narrows bridge was not here the last time I drove along this stretch of U.S. Route 1 several years ago on the way up the coastline heading towards Bar Harbor. I'd seen a brochure for it a couple of days earlier and decided to check it out. I set off from my base in Rockport destined for the Penobscot River where it passed Bucksport, the site of the narrows and the observatory atop an instantaneous landmark. This is a two-for-one attraction: a single admission provides access to both the Penobscot Narrows observatory and to the historic grounds of Fort Knox, a mid-nineteenth century granite fortification. This is a rather interesting juxtaposition, the modern and the ancient, presented in a side-by-side display. We allowed plenty of time for both attractions and made a full morning out of our visit, starting with the observatory and transitioning to the hillside fortress commanding the river afterwards.

Penobscot Observatory View

Viewing the Bridge from the Top

The bridge I'd driven years earlier, the Waldo-Hancock Bridge, first spanned the narrows in 1931, and underwent a rehabilitation beginning in 2000. Engineers determined that the bridge could not be fixed to modern safety standards a couple of years later. They then shifted their efforts towards keeping it working safely just long enough to replace it. The race towards a permanent solution shifted into high gear and the new bridge, the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, carried vehicles across the narrows only 42 months later. It's amazing how quickly things can get done when there's a reason. If the old bridge couldn't be used it would have result in a forty mile detour via Bangor for this major tourist highway, on a coastline heavily dependent on summertime visitors. It would have been disastrous for the local economy. The 2,120 foot span opened in December 2006 at a cost of $85 million.

The observatory opened the following spring, in May 2007. The bridge is becoming a visitor destination unto itself, not content to simply carry travelers across the Penobscot River Narrows. It provides an experience unlike anything else in the United States. This is the only public bridge observatory in the nation and the tallest of its kind in the world, towering 420 feet skyward and providing panoramic views as far as a hundred miles in all directions. A combined bridge - observatory is fairly rare. There are supposedly similar structures in China, Slovakia and Thailand, so you're going to have to go a long distance if you happen to pass up this opportunity along the Maine coast.

Notice that the old Waldo-Hancock Bridge still stood immediately adjacent to its replacement when I took this photograph from the observatory in August 2009. This view faces approximately east across Verona Island. Notice where the road curves left towards Bucksport.

View from the Penobscot Narrows Bridge

Bucksport, Maine as viewed from the Observatory

An elevator whisks visitor up to the observatory atop the western bridge spire, the one appearing in the photograph at the top of the page (notice the three rows of windows at its tip). The ride lasts only a minute on this fastest elevator found anywhere in Maine. The views are spectacular on a clear day like what we experienced the day we visited. There are markers placed throughout the observatory that point out and identify geographic features in all directions. I particularly enjoyed the view northward towards Fort Knox and Bucksport although I also liked the southern view down the Penobscot with its river traffic. Down below on the western bank I could clearly see where the builders blasted 200 feet of solid rock from the mountainside as they constructed the roadcut to the new bridge. Geologically this is called the Ordovician Penobscot Formation. Every direction provided something different, something fascinating. I could have remained there all morning if only I'd had a little more time.