PROSPECT, Maine -- When people Down East talk about their state, one rarely hears chest-puffing rambles about how Maine has the biggest, the tallest, the widest, or even the best of anything. Mainers just don't seem to brag.
But soon, where the beautiful Penobscot River winds around sturdy Fort Knox on its rush to the Atlantic, the locals can lay claim to some unique bragging rights. That's because an $85 million bridge over the river is nearing completion and it appears destined to make the Bucksport area more than just a bucolic pass-through on the way to Bar Harbor.
For starters, the Penobscot Narrows Bridge will replace the charming but deteriorating Waldo-Hancock Bridge built in 1931. What will make the new span special -- even more than its impressive cable-stay design, a first for Maine -- is an observatory that will be perched 420 feet above the river on top of the bridge's west pylon.
The bridge observatory will be the first in the Western Hemisphere and the third in the world, after Slovakia and Thailand. And the 13-by-25-foot standing area will instantly become the tallest occupied structure in the state.
To Maine tourism officials, that will be a view from a bridge worth stopping for.
``I think it's going to be quite the draw," said Tom Doe, 58, the project manager for the Maine Department of Transportation.
When he uttered those words in his laconic Maine way, Doe was leaning against a two-by-four that served as a temporary railing on the cluttered concrete deck of what will become the observatory. More than 40 stories below was the deep blue of the Penobscot, and all around was a stunning 360-degree panorama of pine-covered, hill-studded, mid-coast Maine.
On this day, a slight haze cooked up by unseasonably warm weather obscured some of the distant landmarks. But on a clear day, the sightseers who step out on the glass-enclosed deck will be able to see 100 miles away -- to Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, the Camden Hills, Mount Katahdin, and to islands past the river's mouth in spectacular Penobscot Bay.
Below them will be an eagle's-eye view of Bucksport, the granite walls of 137-year-old Fort Knox, and the ribbons of cable that flow from two pylons to the bridge's deck below. Even handicapped visitors will be accommodated on an elevator and lift that will whisk tourists to the observatory.
To reach the deck during construction, visitors used a flashlight to climb hundreds of metal stairs inside the pitch-dark pylon. The final two stories were scaled in the open on a wooden ladder. After the observatory is open, the stairs will be used only for emergencies, Doe said.
Vehicular traffic is expected to begin using the 2,120-foot-long bridge by mid-December. The observatory is scheduled to open next spring and will remain open each year until Oct. 31. A bridge walk is planned Saturday, complete with marching bands.
``We're very hopeful it will become an attraction for the area. We think it's going to be an enhancement for Fort Knox, for sure," said Alvion Kimball, who operates the nearby Orland House Bed and Breakfast. ``We're billing it as the nation's first tall man-made rural observatory."
Visitors will be able to spot eagles and osprey soaring near the observatory at certain times of the year, Kimball said. ``You won't see that outside the Bunker Hill Monument," he added.
Thousands of visitors are expected to stop at the bridge, which will carry Routes 1 and 3 across the river between Prospect and Verona Island, and dramatically increase attendance at Fort Knox, a bastion finished in 1869 with granite quarried from nearby Mount Waldo . Visitors will be able to buy a $5 ticket at the fort that will be good for both attractions.
The combination ``will appeal not just to history buffs, but to people who like getting to the top of anything," said Carol Morris, a Department of Transportation spokeswoman for the project.
Kimball, who is chairman of the BridgeFest Committee for the Bucksport Bay Area Chamber of Commerce , said that similar attractions around the nation are being studied to determine how best to regulate the flow of visitors.
``The Washington Monument, the St. Louis Arch, the Space Needle in Seattle, and the Bunker Hill Monument -- these are some of the precedents around the country we are going to learn from," Kimball said.
Leon Seymour, executive director of the Friends of Fort Knox, said he anticipates that the observatory will double the number of visitors to the fort, at least in the first few years.
``We're hoping that we'll go up to 80,000 or more people. You'll get a lot of folks driving up that will want to see this new attraction," Seymour said. ``And you'll get a lot of local Maine folks that will want to come on down, too."
The observatory and new bridge, Seymour said, could entice motorists to use the coastal route to reach Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park instead of staying on Interstate 95 . He said there has been anecdotal evidence that tourists and others began using the less-scenic route when safety concerns began to be raised about the old Waldo-Hancock Bridge.
``Maybe now," he said, ``they'll rethink their travel plans." The future of the old bridge is a topic of discussion. It could cost $12 million to $15 million to dismantle.
The observatory already is causing a spinoff effect, Morris said, citing plans for a grand opening in June that will engage many communities along the river.
``I think they are seeing the bridge as a major opportunity," Morris said of local businesspeople. ``Our hope is that it becomes a regional catalyst."
The promise of a boost in tourism and related economic development helped overcome the early objections of area residents, who told project managers they did not want a bridge built to modern design. Granite, like that used in Fort Knox, was their first choice. But they were told that building a bridge completely out of granite in today's dollars would be astronomically exorbitant .
By using a bit of local history, the designers hit upon something that both satisfied residents and enhanced the bridge's architecture. By making the pylons resemble obelisks, the area's connection to the Washington Monument was reinforced. The nation's most famous obelisk, Morris said, is partially constructed with granite quarried from Mount Waldo.
``We said, `How's this?' " Morris recalled. ``They got pretty excited."
The design team included Figg Bridge Engineering of Tallahassee , which co-designed the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston. The cables, which resemble the shape of a sail when seen from the side, seem particularly appropriate for locales with such a rich maritime history. Figg also designed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge , another cable-stay span that crosses Tampa Bay at St. Petersburg, Fla.
Even Doe, who described his career as ``building stuff," seemed impressed by what he had accomplished. ``I've never built a building 400 feet in the air before," said Doe, a 1971 engineering graduate of Northeastern University.
``This is the first cable-stay bridge in Maine," Doe said, repeating one of its signature attributes. ``And it'll probably be our last."
Contact Brian MacQuarrie at email@example.com.