VERONA – When the new $85 million bridge across The Penobscot River opens for a “Bridgewalk” today, it will be christened as the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory.
But chances are that local residents will call it the “Verona Island Bridge,” just like they always called the old bridge, known officially by the state as the Waldo-Hancock Bridge.
Some of the Verona Island Bridges family joke that the structure should be called the “Verona Island Bridge” forever, as sort of a family honor.
“They should do a movie about that family and call it ‘The Bridges of Verona Island,'” said admiring neighbor Ambrose Burroughs. Every day in the summer he drives by the tiny East Side Road house where an even dozen Bridges children were raised. “All of those kids have done very well. The Verona Island Bridge ties right in,” he said. Naming the bridge after them would be a suitable honor, Burroughs said.
When he hears the structure called the Verona Island Bridge, Zimri Bridges, 74, of Verona Island likes to think they are talking about his family, which helped populate the island.
Now that the bridge a few miles from his house is being completed, Zim is anxiously awaiting the dedication. “My father worked on the first bridge. He dumped the first load of concrete right in the middle of the river. They started in the middle on planks, then worked towards the shore.
“My cousin Georgia was at the dedication of the original bridge. She is now 85 and she hopes to make the dedication of this one. She is in good shape. She still drives every day. They ought to take her across first, riding in a Cadillac,” Zim said.
The Verona Island Bridges clan has quite a history, far predating the bridge.
According to an exhaustive family history charted by Zim’s niece, Rosalie Doughty, the Bridgeses came to “the Colonies” even before the Mayflower. Ancestor Edmund Bridges was born in England in 1612 and came across the ocean aboard the James in 1635, seven full years before those nouveau riche Pilgrims landed in Plymouth in 1642. Edmund settled in Lynn, Mass., and had nine children, nothing unusual in this prolific family.
The family history shows Daniel Bridges fled Massachusetts for York where he married in 1735. The family history mentions the first births on Verona Island as Sarah Bridges in 1856, then sister Crissinda a few years later.
The family members were known as a hard-working lot.
Zimri’s grandfather, also named Zimri, and uncle Decatur bought land and cleared about 600 acres on the island. They also built a wharf (Bridges’ Wharf, naturally). Oscar was so successful in his fishing business that he became known as “The Salmon King.” He took his daily catch to sell to the stores and shoppers in Bangor.
Zimri’s father, Oscar, married Flora on Sept. 21, 1930, and moved into the tiny house on East Side Road. The children started coming … and coming … and coming. Eventually there were 12 children, four girls and eight boys, living in a tiny, two-bedroom house.
“We grew most of our own food in a huge garden. My mother would can quarts of fruits and vegetables and 80 bushels of potatoes would be in the cellar. It was a rock cellar with a dirt floor. It was a different way of living,” he said.
“We had running water, all right. You ran to the well to get it,” he laughed.
The family lived like most Maine farmers of the time. “There was no indoor plumbing. There was a two-holer. One side for the boys and one for the girls,” he said.
The game was so plentiful then that the boys would take the single-shot, .22-caliber rifle and shoot three or four rabbits within sight of the house. Occasionally, venison would appear, miraculously, on the table.
“We had no idea that we were poor,” he said. Everyone else on the island lived the same way … well, with a little more room, maybe. Kerosene lamps illuminated the house until electric power arrived when Zim was 16. “I couldn’t believe it when they turned on that first light,” he said.
Flora Bridges did all the clothes on a washboard for years. When electricity finally came, the first thing the father bought was a washing machine to handle the clothes of the 14 residents.
Like all of his siblings, Zimri was born at home. He was delivered on Christmas Day 1931 by Dr. Foster, the family physician who became quite familiar with the address.
Verona Selectman Lloyd Bridges (imagine the jokes) shared the semi-famous house. “It was no problem. When the grub was put on the table, you sat down and ate, whether it was turnip or potatoes. You weren’t fussy. It wasn’t that bad. Zim got married and left. I went off in the service. It wasn’t like we were all there together all the time,” he said.
The island school was a short walk along a dirt road where all eight grades, with perhaps 30 students, were taught together in a single room. “I think children get a lot more out of that, than they do today. If you wanted to learn faster, you would simply move to another desk,” Zim said.
Discipline was swift and sure. He can remember getting whacked with a ruler for minor transgressions, then beaned with a heavy geography book for a major crime, perhaps teasing the girl behind him.
Although many of the 12 children graduated high school, Zim left in the eighth grade to help his father around the farm. He quickly discovered that working in the woods and on the water was a lot harder than school. But he had to help the family, so it was acceptable.
His father bought an 80-acre woodlot for $400 and paid it off in several years by selling $14 cords of wood. This year, Zim was delivering wood around the island for $175 a cord. “I never thought wood would ever get that high,” he said.
In the 1950s, he took a rare night off for a ride to the movies in Belfast and met a girl named Iris Arlene Gallison from Corinna. She wasn’t even from Verona and thought the tides were a little strange. “The water in Corinna doesn’t go away twice a day,” she said. But they worked out their differences enough to celebrate a 53rd wedding anniversary this year.
To get work, Zim reluctantly moved off the island to Orland to take a job as a lineman with Central Maine Power. He traveled to Augusta to get his GED before CMP would hire him. He later moved to Bucksport, but knew eventually they would come back to “the island.”
When his uncle Decatur died four or five years ago, Bridges bought the place, moved back and rehabbed the house, right next door to the old homestead. Zim stripped the ancient plaster and lath and started all over again. “I knew that if I ever got ahold of a place here, I would come back.”
Back to Verona Island, where the Bridgeses belong.