Sunday, October 9, 2011

The unique Cribstone Bridge to Bailey’s Island was born out of a blood feud but it is now a cherished symbol of Harpswell.

 Since it is summertime in Casco Bay, many readers of The Notes will travel over or under this famous Bailey’s Island landmark that has just survived three years of rehabilitation by the Department of Transportation. As a resident of Orr’s Island, I can attest that all three of the Rt. 24 bridges from Cook’s Corner to Bailey’s Island offer dangerously distracting views in opposite directions. To add to the fun, two of the bridges take sudden dips and curves as they follow the original line of ledges. Then the road suddenly rises up to leave a little headroom for fishing boats. In fact, you might want to hold off texting how pretty it is until you’ve cleared the SAD 75 school bus that’s probably on the bridge with you. 

 In 1821 the northern end of Orr’s Island was linked by a bridge and causeway to Great Island––more than a century before the cribstone bridge connected the southern end of Orr’s to Bailey’s Island in 1928. This delay was no accident. In a small town like Harpswell, costly proposals that involve major changes in how things get done are guaranteed to rile up a whole string of town meetings. Consider, for example, the recent dust ups over constructing an L.N.G. terminal and consolidating the town’s two schools. 
The unique design of the granite cleverly absorbs the force of ocean waves and
reduces the current flowing through the main channel.
 The first serious design for a bridge to Bailey’s Island was drawn up in 1880 by George L.Vose who was highly respected as a professor of civil engineering at Bowdoin. It was Vose who rejected the popular notion that the bridge had be constructed of local stone combined with sections perched on driven piles. He argued that piles could not be driven into the ledges that fringe Will’s Gut and that the local stone was unsuitable for the causeway because it was “too friable.” He went on to suggest that curving the bridge to follow the inner line of ledges would reduce the amount of granite needed for the causeway.

 Over the next forty years, the arguments for and against the bridge were so intense that the issue had to resolved in court several times. Harpswell historian Richard Wescott called it a blood feud. Understandably, the voters on Bailey’s Island were generally in favor of the bridge, while other folks argued it was simply too expensive for a small town to finance such a big project. Nevertheless, by the 1920’s popular support began to shift toward the bridge. Gasoline engines not only brought a flood of tourists, but they also made it possible for fishermen to put out to sea without having to carry a sailing rig through Will’s Gut. In addition, state and county financing for big transportation projects became available after 1920.

 In 1926 and 1927 the cribstone bridge was pieced together out of Pownal granite that was hauled to a landing on the Cousins River in Yarmouth (now the site of the Muddy Rudder restaurant). Frank Knight, who is 102, told me that he worked on this project and that the same vein of granite used for the bridge was also used to construct Yarmouth’s Catholic Church.

 The final design of the bridge closely followed Vose’s original plan, but it reduced the number of openings through the span from three to one. The distinctive criss-cross of granite slabs (the “cribstones”) allows the tide to swirl through the bridge instead of acting like a huge dam and sluiceway. This greatly reduces the impact of storm surges and also considerably weakens the intensity of the current that flows through the single narrow opening. In this way the unique design of the bridge works with nature instead of fighting every big green wave that rolls in from the North Atlantic. Personally, I also like the fact that not long after you cross the cribstone bridge, the highway comes to an abrupt end. In an age of endless choices and committees to discuss options, there is something refreshing and unambiguous about a road that simply stops in the ocean. When it comes to life on islands, the sea always gets the final word.

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