Thousands of Mainers toting cameras, warm gloves and fond memories of the Waldo-Hancock Bridge arrived on Saturday to walk the 2,120-foot length of the new Penobscot Narrows Bridge.
Sara Blodgett Page, 88, traveled from her home in Kennebunk to bid farewell to the old Waldo-Hancock bridge that held so many warm childhood memories.
As a girl, Page would fall asleep at night in her Bucksport home, mesmerized by the lights of the old bridge. From the comfort of her childhood bedroom, Page studied the headlights of the night traffic traveling to and from the island Verona Island.
“It will hurt to have the other one go down because of all the memories, but it’s progress,” Page said.
Page’s connection to the old bridge runs deeper than her late-night gazing. During the opening remarks on Saturday, she was honored for her role in the 1931 ceremonies for the newly-built Waldo-Hancock Bridge.
Seventy-five years ago, decked out in her blue- and white-striped dress and bouquet of red roses, she hoisted the American flag at the opening and for that became part of the bridge’s history.
The masses gathered on Saturday to celebrate the future rather than reflect on the past.
“I felt there would be a lot of interest, but I didn’t know what to expect,” David Cole, commissioner of the Department of Transportation, said Saturday afternoon. “But this was overwhelming.”
School buses shuttled anxious spectators through the dense traffic as vendors selling hot dogs, fish chowder and ribs lined the approach to the bridge on Verona Island.
The $85 million cable-stayed bridge with its observatory that sits 420 feet in the air is one of just three bridges in the world that have an observatory built into the design. The other two are in Slovakia and Thailand.
The bridge was constructed in half the time it usually takes for a project of its magnitude. Ground was broken in December 2003. Cianbro Corp. of Pittsfield and Reed & Reed of Woolwich collaborated in construction of the cable-stay structure that is expected to open to traffic in December.
Once the fog cleared Saturday morning, local residents began snapping photos to commemorate the new chapter of the area’s history.
“We have been coming down almost weekly to see the progress,” Del Ann Rowe, 66, of Winterport said.
Rowe’s grandson, James Legere, 3, did not have much to say about the festivities, but a concerned look crossed his face when his Boston Red Sox hat was blown from his head.
“Someday when they are building the next one, he can say I walked that one with my grandparents,” Rowe said with a smile as she replaced her grandson’s cap, this time with a snug fit.
As boats, led by the schooner Bowdoin, paraded along the Penobscot River under the bridge, Tyler Johnson, 10, of Prospect leaned against the bridge’s median to steady his hand in snapping the perfect photo.
But when asked his favorite part of the day, Johnson answered that it was undeniably “the food.”
Others must have agreed with young Johnson, since Sara Channell of the Cedar Cottage Bakery had sold more than 350 pastries by noontime. Channell brought 500 confectionery goodies to the event, including croissants, cinnamon buns and whoopie pies, which she and her daughter Helen, 14, baked at their home business in Sedgwick.
“There is perfect weather and I’ve had nice steady business all day,” Channell said. “This event brought all the community together.”
Ron Hopkins, 71, of Searsport ran into some old friends on the bridge and reminisced about the winters he spent shoveling snow from the sidewalks of the Waldo-Hancock Bridge. Although the work was tough, he said he never thought about the danger. “I was 16. You don’t think of that at that age,” he said.
In the afternoon, protesters marched across the bridge in support of the Sail Inn, the restaurant demolished last week by the state as a part of the bridge construction. Parked in the lot left vacant by the restaurant was a pickup truck with a sign that read “Hey Governor, Remember This: What is your family restaurant worth?”
The state took the restaurant property by eminent domain in 2003, and the Dyer family, owners of the establishment, contested the state-offered amount. The case is expected to go before a jury this fall.
Gov. Baldacci attended the ceremony, as did several other state and local representatives, including Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. All sang the praises of the bridge and its anticipated contribution to the region.
“What we are witnessing today is Maine’s can-do attitude reaching the highest of heights,” Snowe said in the opening ceremonies.
“Building bridges and meeting in the middle not only works; it garnishes results,” she said, adding with a chuckle that she should take the concept with her back to Washington and work on building a political bridge.