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Deer Isle Bridge in Maine

As graceful a bridge that I ever set my eyes upon, the Deer Isle Bridge (officially known as the Deer Isle-Sedgwick Bridge) surprisingly caught my eye as I was driving around coastal Maine one Saturday afternoon. About 35 miles south of Bangor, Maine, the Deer Isle Bridge connects the Blue Hill Peninsula of Downeast Maine with Little Deer Isle over the Eggemoggin Reach on ME 15 between the towns of Sedgwick and Deer Isle. It should be noted that Little Deer Isle is connected to Deer Isle by way of a boulder lined causeway, and there is a storied regatta that takes place on the Eggemoggin Reach each summer. But the Deer Isle Bridge holds many stories, not just for the vacationers who spend part of their summer on Deer Isle or in nearby Stonington, but for the residents throughout the years and the folks who have had a hand bringing this vital link to life.

The Deer Isle Bridge was designed by David Steinman and built by the Phoenix Bridge Company of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, opened on June 19, 1939. If you are thinking that the Deer Isle Bridge looks similar to the late, great Waldo-Hanock Bridge in Bucksport, Maine or infamous Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Tacoma, Washington, you may be on to something. The sleek design of the bridge's towers are due to the aesthetic style of the day as well as the economic concerns of the Great Depression era. The main span of the 2505 foot long bridge, with its cable suspended, 1080 foot long main span between the towers and 484 foot long approach spans have a grade of 6.5% and a vertical curve of 400 feet at the center of the span. This was a design decision in order to reduce construction costs by minimizing the length of the approach spans.

If you are noticing any further similarities to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, as early as 1939, an aerodynamic instability of the Deer Isle Bridge was noted, so the design correction was that ties were placed between the cables and the stiffening girders at mid span. Steinman had encountered similar problems on two of his own suspension bridges and had tamed the sway (to some extent) with simple fixes: a couple of clamps to hold the main cable in place and a few wire ropes strategically rigged to steady the roadway. Similar improvements were made on the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge in New York City. The Deer Isle Bridge has structural similarities to the Tacoma Narrows bridge and thus was especially applicable. While Steinman did not design the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Steinman had contacted Lacey V. Murrow, chief engineer of the Washington Toll Bridge Authority, offering his services to correct the bridge flaws, as he had done with the Deer Isle Bridge. Steinman’s letters after the bridge collapse noted, a bit smugly, that Murrow had turned him down.

Whether or not Steinman’s solution could have saved the Tacoma Narrows Bridge is debatable. However, the Deer Isle Bridge, while smaller, has some striking similarities to the ill fated Tacoma Narrows Bridge. While the Deer Isle Bridge still stands today, eighty years after it opened, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed to the water before its first birthday. When it came time to design the Mackinac Bridge, often seen as one of Steinman's crowning achievements as a bridge designed, David Steinman learned from his design flaws on the Deer Isle Bridge and the mistakes made with respect to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. This is significant because it helps tell the story of David Steinman. Someone studying the Mackinac Bridge and the excessive safety factor built into its design can look to the Deer Isle Bridge and gain some insight into why these bridges have stood the test of time.

In typical Yankee fashion, the Deer Isle Bridge stuck stubbornly to its original design. On occasion, the bridge has oscillations similar to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Drivers noted that the Deer Isle Bridge has occasional bounces and that the front tires of cars even started to come off the surface of the bridge. In 1941, in the final report on the Tacoma disaster, engineers compared the vertical and twisting motions of seven modern suspension bridges. Only the Deer Isle Bridge’s oscillating waves were anywhere near so severe as those of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Steadied by the cables in Steinman’s design and additional fixes that have come to the bridge over time, the Deer Isle Bridge holds on. Sure there is the occasional bout when the wild Maine weather strikes. On February 3, 1972, the infamous Groundhog Gale hit the bridge at 90 miles per hour, caused wild oscillations but amazingly little serious damage. Even so, officials closed the bridge temporarily and decided the bridge needed more shoring up and added another set of fixes. Workers installed six stronger cable ties, further clamping the main cable to the roadway, also adding metal plates to the top of the stiffening girder and stiffeners between the roadway and the wall. These fixes improved matters somewhat but did not eliminate the oscillations. In 1978, Joan Mondale, wife of Walter Mondale, then the Vice President of the United States of America, was stranded on Deer Isle for several hours when the bridge began swaying dangerously in what news accounts described as a “light breeze.” Additional attachments, or fairings, were added to the Deer Isle Bridge in 1993, and that has calmed the sway of the bridge down. Now, there are sensors and a camera installed along the bridge to watch for any trouble spots that may pop up.

For the residents of Stonington, Deer Isle and Little Deer Isle, the opening of the Deer Isle Bridge changed the way of life on the island forever. Before the bridge opened, most supplies came by steamer from Rockland, or by a ferry service operated by generations of the same family on Little Deer Isle. The bridge changed the region’s economy and culture. It changed the direction toward which residents looked for mainland connections, making it more part of the Blue Hill Peninsula than Penobscot Bay, allowing for residents to more easily partake in shopping opportunities in Blue Hill and Ellsworth. After all, while Rockland was only 20 miles away by ship, it is an 80 mile drive by car.

While the bridge brought a freedom of mobility that allowed residents to join the 20th Century love affair with the automobile and the open road, Deer Isle was not exactly a remote, isolated outpost. Settlers began to arrive on Little Deer and Deer Isle before the American Revolution. At the time the town was incorporated in 1789, it included Little Deer Isle, Deer Isle, and Isle au Haut, seven miles to the south of Stonington at the southern tip of Deer Isle and still only accessible by boat or airplane. A ferry service linking Little Deer Isle to the mainland began in 1792, when John Scott was employed by the town to row travelers across Eggemoggin Reach. The ferry remained the main contact with the outside world until the discovery of granite on the island in the middle of the 19th Century. This development changed transportation patterns for Deer Isle residents. Steamers were soon transporting granite and carrying passengers and supplies west across Penobscot Bay past Vinalhaven and Islesboro to Rockland. All the while, ferry service continued across Eggemoggin Reach. But by 1900, the arrival of the automobile led to dissatisfaction with the limitations of the ferry service. By the end of the World War I, the number of vehicles on Deer Isle had increased to the point where the ferry had become inadequate and residents were starting to look for solutions.

First, the suggested solutions called for an improved ferry service, not a bridge. In the mid-1920s, a movement began on the island to seek improved ferry service off of the island. Much attention was already been given to good roads, while private interests have envisioned possibilities for the island's future. However, a serviceable and efficient ferry was not in the cards in the 1920s. It wasn’t until the Great Depression, and the founding of the Public Works Administration in 1933 and the Works Progress Administration in 1935, that federal funding became more available. If state or federal funding had been available to improve ferry service in the mid-1920s, the bridge might have been delayed by many years.

In April 1932, Deer Isle resident Alex McGuffie wrote a letter to the editor which ran in the Portland Press Herald. McGuffie described Deer Isle as the second largest island on the coast of Maine, with “two towns on it and an auto for almost every person here,” and likened the ferry operator to a jailer. “Here is a chance for the State of Maine to put a lot of the unemployed to work and give us what we ought to have at the same time. We want a bridge!” wrote McGuffie in his letter.

This was one of the first public calls for a bridge, and then in the following summer of 1933, the Lions Club of Stonington held a field day and invited local representatives and politicians of note, including the Governor of Maine Louis Brann, as well as Congressmen John Utterback and Edward Moran. The Lions Club, lead by Frank McGuire and Roy Small, were a driving force behind this successful effort to get a bridge built. It was also at that time when members of the Deer Isle and Stonington communities formed the Bridge District. The respective Chambers of Commerce of Blue Hill and Ellsworth were quick to come out in support of the proposed bridge, with each town realizing they would benefit greatly from the island having a bridge to Sedgwick. Residents would no longer travel to Rockland for shopping, but rather to Blue Hill and Ellsworth, plus tourists traveling to the island would pass through their towns.

The Deer Isle-Stonington Press ran an impassioned editorial in late 1933, urging people to contact local representatives to vote for a bridge project. “It is high noon for the Bridge Project! Strike now! Get the bridge now, or wait, possibly for generations,” read the editorial. “The State wants it, the people need it. The federal government has the authority to grant it, the funds to build it, and the desire to help. Labor is abundant, cheap, and eager for employment…Don’t delay! Strike now!" Unfortunately for those in favor of the bridge, it would take four more years of petitioning the state and federal government before funds would be secured for the bridge, and then another year and a half to construct the bridge.

The need for a bridge was twofold, that a bridge was necessary for the health and safety of its residents and that a bridge was necessary for the economic growth of the island and its development as a tourist destination. It was the rhetoric describing the island as a tourist haven and untapped coastal gem that eventually won financial support from the state and federal government.
Efforts for the construction of the bridge were led by Frank McGuire (who was later called the “Father of the Bridge”) and other locals. McGuire pushed the PWA to approve the project, stressing to PWA representative James Shea in 1933 that absence of a bridge had a “crippling influence on the island.” However, not everyone was in favor of the bridge. While the Bridge District and the “bridge boosters” on the island liked to claim that everyone was in favor of the bridge, there were naysayers. Even The Deer Isle-Stonington Press painted those opposed to the bridge in 1935 as a “handful of yachtsmen from parts removed from Deer Isle, including Boston, New York and Hartford.” There was also an 11th-hour effort by a former state senator from Skowhegan and critic of the bridge effort, Blin Page, to kill the project, but those efforts had failed.

In 1935, a statewide vote was held to approve funding for the project. State voters overwhelmingly approved the project, but when the PWA list of projects was released later that year, a bridge for Deer Isle was not on the list. Finally, in August of 1936, Governor Louis Brann visited Deer Isle to announce a grant of $315,000 and a loan of $385,000 for the construction of a bridge. This may have been a moment of celebration for those in favor of the bridge, but it took almost a year and a half of red tape—sending out the project to bid, trying to find WPA-approved laborers, needing the legislature to up the bond approval as costs began to escalate, and applying for deadline extensions—before a suitable bid was finally accepted and approved by the PWA on December 15, 1937. After 16 failures and revivals, the bridge was finally to be built. In the meantime, a bill was passed in early 1937 that stated no ferry could operate in competition with the bridge once it was built.

Construction began in earnest in February of 1938. The bridge was finished and formally opened at a dedication celebration on June 19, 1939, when Maine governor Lewis O. Barrows cut the ribbon stretching across the entrance to the $900,000 project. Bands played, automobile horns honked, and thousands of spectators roared their approval. Oscar Shepard wrote in the Bangor Daily News, “As the bright bit of silk touched the floor of the bridge, it was an island community no longer.” Barrows gave the keynote address, and speaker after speaker paid tribute to the spirit of the individuals who had made the bridge a reality. Congressman Ralph Brewster summarized the import: “After 175 years of geographical isolation, Deer Isle today becomes a part of Maine and of America."

Having the Deer Isle Bridge around was a game changer for residents of the island, but was not without its drawbacks. Unless you were around in those days, it is difficult to realize how important it was to have this bridge. One drawback to the bridge was that there wasn't a single skunk on the Deer Isle until the bridge was built. Apparently skunks don't swim! For about 22 years, there was a toll levied to cross the bridge, but it was a small price to pay when you consider the alternative. Crossing by car ferry was inconvenient, if not dangerous. 

For over 20 years bridge tolls were considered prohibitively expensive, and were an ongoing cause of irritation to island residents. The round trip toll of $2 represented a significant portion of a paycheck when many people were earning less than $30 per week. There was also an extra passenger charge as well. The $2.50 charge for trucks discouraged land shipments for years. As a result, for a long time after the bridge was built, granite still was shipped by barge or schooner to Rockland, Boston or New York. Then there’s the story of two drunks who drove up to the bridge and tried to cross without paying because they were broke. They were stopped when their car hit a fence just past the toll house. The toll collector later said, “If only they’d told me they didn’t have any money, I’d have let them across.” Tolls were gradually reduced until 1961, when an irate crowd of Deer Isle residents packed the Legislature’s Highway Committee hearing room in Augusta to lobby for the final removal. In the face of heavy pressure, a bill was passed, removing tolls from the bridge on September 15, 1961.

Today, crossing the Deer Isle Bridge on ME 15 is a fun little treat. Most people now do not know of a life without the Deer Isle Bridge and it is a vital link from Deer Isle to the Blue Hill Peninsula and beyond. While life on the island seems to be quiet and peaceful, both residents and visitors can seamlessly travel on and off Deer Isle. Perhaps they are aware of the efforts of those who came before them in getting this bridge built, perhaps they are not. But for now, enjoy some pictures of the Deer Isle Bridge and its surroundings.

Causeway between Little Deer Isle and Deer Isle on ME 15
Catching a glimpse of the Deer Isle Bridge from Little Deer Isle.
Eggemoggin Reach.
Approaching the causeway to Little Deer Isle from Deer Isle on ME 15 northbound.
Boating is a a long time necessity, economic driver and leisurely pursuit along the Eggemoggin Reach.
Boat dock on Little Deer Isle.
Starting to cross the Deer Isle Bridge heading back to the mainland.
Deer Isle Bridge heading northbound.

How to Get There:

Sources and Links:
Deer Isle Bridge (Deer Isle-Sedgwick Bridge) -
A Bridge That Didn’t Collapse - American Heritage's Invention & Technology
The Deer Isle-Sedgwick Bridge:  An Historic Connection to the Mainland - Deer Isle Cemeteries
The Year Steel and Cable Changed Deer Isle - Island Journal
How the nearly 75-year-old Deer Isle-Sedgwick Bridge came to be - Penobscot Bay Press
Deer Isle-Sedgwick Bridge -
Eggemoggin Reach - Deer Isle, Sedgwick, Maine, USA - Bridgemeister

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