For more than five years, Waldo and Hancock counties have been connected by two bridges — one, no longer in use, that brought travelers from one side of the Penobscot River to the other for 75 years; and another, towering over the older one, that is meant to last well into the 21st century.

Come this fall, though, the 81-year-old Waldo-Hancock Bridge will be in the beginning stages of demolition, a $7.6 million project that MDOT Project Manager Douglas Coombs said will take place in the shadow of its modern replacement, the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory.

“The staging should start by the end of August or the beginning of September,” said Coombs.

By April 2013, Coombs said, the historic suspension bridge will take its place in Maine’s history books along with the newspaper clippings, photographs and personal stories that it inspired since its completion in 1931.

The 2,040-foot-long span expedited travel for those who needed to cross the river, replacing a ferry system that was used to shuttle cars across the waterway. But by 2003, the bridge had deteriorated to the point that state officials declared the problems were too great and too costly to repair and recommended the bridge, which opened to big fanfare during the Great Depression, be replaced.

The demolition project, which is slated to go out to bid in June, is expected to be one that is slowly executed, as Coombs said it will entail far more than merely allowing the span fall into the river below.

“It won’t be some type of big implosion,” said Coombs with a laugh.

Handle with care

The demolition will occur in phases due to factors that are both environmental and man-made in nature.

Coombs said the actual demolition of the span won’t begin until Oct. 1 due to the presence of Peregrine falcons and ospreys that have nested atop the peaks of the old bridge. The late autumn start date is intended to ensure that the project would not interfere with the rearing of any new chicks that the birds — particularly the endangered Peregrines — may produce this year.

And Coombs said there is also the seasonal use of the observatory on the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, an attraction that remains open to visitors through the end of October.

“We’ll start work on the Verona side first,” said Coombs. “And as soon as the observatory closes November first, we’ll pick up on the Prospect end at that point.”

MDOT is aiming for an April 30, 2013 completion date, and Coombs said the focus will then turn to cleaning up the areas on both sides of the river and adding landscaping. That process is expected to be finished by June of 2013.

The demolition process itself, Coombs said, will be done piecemeal.

“The bridge will be taken down in the opposite manner of how it went up,” he said.

That will be accomplished by stabilizing the towers and then removing the decking, piece by piece. The cables will be the next portion to come down, Coombs said, followed finally by the massive steel towers.

To avoid issues such as potential lead paint contamination of the river, Coombs said whichever contractor is selected will be required to take special steps whenever any steel cutting needs to take place.

“The paint must be removed and contained, and then the pieces will be lowered down to barges,” said Coombs.

Coombs said that method is known as a salvage demolition, and it was the chosen alternative over other ways of removing the span. Initially, the plan was to take out the bridge decking completely, leaving the cables and towers in place and tilting the towers toward the respective shores on either side. From there, Coombs said, the plan was to pop the cables and then complete the dismantling of the towers.

But after considering another environmental factor — an endangered species of sturgeon that is known to move through the Penobscot River during the late summer and early fall — Coombs said MDOT went with the salvage option to reduce disruption to the waterway.

Preserving pieces of the past

While the Waldo-Hancock Bridge will be gone, Coombs said there will still be tangible reminders of its lengthy presence in the region.

The old bridge footings will remain in place, and Coombs said some of the concrete components on either side of the river will be buried or covered with the aid of landscaping. The two footings, or piers, that will remain in the river itself will have navigation lights installed on them, and Coombs said the state is working with the U.S. Coast Guard to accomplish that.

But on the Prospect side of the river, Coombs said the plan is to keep some of the abutments and pier foundation intact so that those who visit the neighboring Fort Knox State Park or the Penobscot Narrows Bridge Observatory will be able to get a glimpse of what once was.

“The thought process behind leaving the abutments and some of the pier foundation in the viewing area on the Prospect side was to make it so people will be able to see what was there,” said Coombs.

Interpretive panels will also be installed on the Prospect side of the river so that visitors to Fort Knox can learn more about the older structure that, for a time, lived alongside its impressive replacement.

And those aren’t the only pieces of the Waldo-Hancock Bridge that will outlive the superstructure itself — Coombs said MDOT had initially offered the two 40-foot-tall flag poles that grace each side of the span to the counties on each side of the river. Since then, Coombs said, the towns of Prospect and Verona have each requested one of the poles for display in their respective communities.

Coombs said the Waldo County Commissioners have approved the request from the town of Prospect, and MDOT is still awaiting word from Hancock County Commissioners regarding the request from Verona town officials.

In addition, Coombs said portions of the bridge cables will be gifted to the Bucksport Historical Society.

“All we ask is that they be placed somewhere in the town with a plaque that explains what it is,” said Coombs of the salvaged portions of the span.

Looking astern

While thousands of visitors have seen the view of the Penobscot River from the Penobscot Narrows Bridge Observatory, which rises more than 400 feet above the water’s surface, few had the same experience from atop the peaks of the Waldo-Hancock Bridge.

The late Sara Blodgett Page was one of them.

In October of 2004, VillageSoup interviewed Blodgett Page about how she and her brother Fred were permitted to climb the catwalk to the peaks of the bridge before it was opened to traffic. Blodgett Page passed away in Kennebunk in early 2010 at the age of 92, according to an obituary published in February of that year.

Blodgett Page, who participated in both the dedication of the Waldo-Hancock Bridge in 1932 and that of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge in 2007, told VillageSoup about the day a young engineer named Mr. Grondquist asked she and her brother if they would like to take the climb to the highest points on the suspension bridge. She was 13 years old at the time, and Blodgett Page didn’t think twice about taking the man up on his offer.

Grondquist, Blodgett Page recalled, was a friend of her father, state legislator Frederick S. Blodgett, who represented Hancock County on the Bridge Commission.

“It’s a narrow catwalk, with one cable on either side for handrails. Now, of course, you couldn’t do something like that, but I don’t remember being scared at all. I probably did it in a skirt, too. We didn’t wear pants much in those days,” remembered Blodgett Page.

According to information provided on the MDOT website, the Waldo-Hancock Bridge served as a solution to the interruption that Route 1 travelers faced when they reached the riverbanks. Before the bridge was built, those passing through would need to use a ferry service to get from the Prospect side to the Verona Island and Bucksport side of the river, a situation that MDOT described as “an inconvenience that slowed travel and community growth.”

“At the time, the ferry between Bucksport and [Prospect] could no longer handle the volume of traffic using Route 1,” stated the MDOT history of the bridge. “Instead travelers drove north, far out of their way, to cross the river at the Bangor-Brewer Bridge. A site was chosen between Prospect and Verona Island and construction began in late 1930. It would be Maine’s first long span bridge.”

On Nov. 16, 1931 the Waldo-Hancock Bridge was opened to traffic, and it was formally dedicated at a ceremony in June of 1932. The $846,000 cost of construction was covered completely by tolls, which were collected at a toll station that remained operational until Oct. 31, 1953. The toll was removed when the bridge debt was paid off, according to MDOT.

Bridge facts

Maine Memory Network, a project of the Maine Historical Society, has catalogued many newspaper clippings, photographs, and other pieces of information pertaining to the 81-year-history of the Waldo-Hancock Bridge. In addition, the MDOT website carries a brief history of the historic span, as well as some data about its modern replacement, the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory.

Here are a few facts about the long-standing landmark and its newer, larger neighbor, as presented at mainememory.net and maine.gov/mdot:

• On April 13, 1929, the Maine Legislature approved “An Act to Provide for Building a Bridge Across the Penobscot River, at or Near Bucksport to be Known as the Waldo-Hancock Bridge.” It included provisions for four people (plus the State Highway Commission) to serve as directors, who had the authority to plan and manage the project, as well as acquire property for the job. The act also authorized tolls to be collected at the span until the expenses associated with constructing the bridge were met.

• The Waldo-Hancock Bridge was formally dedicated at an on-site ceremony on June 9, 1932.

• The main span of the bridge is 800 feet, with a height of 135 feet above the mean high water level.

• The two concrete piers in the river rise 29 feet above the water, and extend 45 feet below the river surface.

• The steel towers are 206 feet high.

• The suspension cables are more than 9 inches in diameter.

• According to a clipping from the June 10, 1932 Kennebec Journal, the Waldo-Hancock Bridge — designed by Robinson and Steinman of New York — was recognized for being the most beautiful bridge constructed in the United States in 1931 at a cost of less than $1 million. Although $1.2 million was appropriated for the project by the Maine Legislature, the span was completed at a cost of $850,000.

• The Waldo-Hancock Bridge underwent repairs to the roadbed between 1959 and 1961.

• A Jan. 15, 1959 memorandum of examination from Bridge Maintenance Engineer Ray A. Tentmel noted how vandals had damaged some parts of the bridge. In his report, Tentmel wrote, “The iron door to the chamber in the Verona Island abutment has been used as a rifle target, resulting in half of the ventilator being entirely removed and the half remaining being damaged from bullets. Bullets striking the concrete wall inside the chamber have barely missed the wall switch. Rifle damage to highway traffic signs at the prospect approach were also observed. Complete removal of two navigation lights had already been reported and orders have already been placed for new ones.”

Having served Route 1 travelers since it opened to traffic in 2006, the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory has captured the interest of both locals and visitors, as each year, thousands come for a birds-eye view of the Penobscot River from the height of the span’s glassed-in observatory deck.

The following are some facts about the new bridge that have been pulled from the MDOT website and VillageSoup archives:

• The Penobscot Narrows Bridge was celebrated at a pre-opening festival called Bridgewalk in October of 2006; was opened to traffic Dec. 30, 2006; and was formally dedicated June 23, 2007.

• The top deck of the observatory sits 437 feet above the Penobscot River, or about the height of a 43-story building;

• Under good conditions, the view from the observatory extends out 40 miles or more in some directions.

• The cost of construction was approximately $85 million.

• The bridge is one of three cable-stayed bridges in the world with an observatory, and the only cable-stay span in Maine.

• The observatory welcomed its first visitors in May 2007.

• According to VillageSoup archives, the Penobscot Narrows Bridge has been honored with several awards, three of which came before the span was opened in late 2006. In November 2004, Roads and Bridges magazine named the bridge the first-place winner in its annual Top 10 list. In May 2006, the magazine included the new bridge in its Top 25 Bridges of the Last 100 Years, and in June 2006, the new bridge received the Federal Highway Administration’s “Strive for Excellence Award” for innovation.