A Brief History of the Penobscot River and Penobscot Narrows Bridge

The Penobscot River – Before the new bridge

The Penobscot River is the largest river in Maine and the second largest in New England (after the Connecticut River). Its name is believed to be derived from the Native American word penobskeag, meaning "rocky place," or "river of rocks", pānnawānbskek, meaning, “It forks on the white rocks,” or penaubsket, meaning, “It flows on rocks”


The main stem of the Penobscot begins where the East and West Branches join at Medway and flows seaward to Stockton Springs/Castine, where it opens up into Penobscot Bay. The West Branch originates on the Maine-Quebec border near Sandy Bay Township and Penobscot Lake, while the East Branch begins at East Branch Pond, northwest of Baxter State Park.

The native inhabitants of the area of the lower Penobscot were the members of the Penobscot Nation. The Penobscot Nation was a member of Wabanaki Confederacy which included the Abenaki, the Penobscot, the Maliseet, the Passamaquoddy, and the Mi'kmaq tribes. This Confederacy, at one time, controlled much of New England and the Canadian Maritimes.

The first European explorer, David Ingram, sailed up the Penobscot River in the late 1500's. Upon his return to Europe, he reported that, while traveling up the river, he had discovered a city of great wealth, which Europeans believed to be Norumbega, the lost city of gold. Samuel de Champlain sailed up the Penobscot River in 1604, in search of this lost city of Norumbega. Rather than finding Norumbega, Champlain encountered the local Tarratine tribe with whom the Europeans engaged in the financially rewarding trading of furs.

The first permanent European’s didn't settle in the area until 1769, when Jacob Buswell and his family sailed up the river and built their home at the mouth of the Kenduskeag Stream (near what is now downtown Bangor.)

Warpenexped came to the Penobscot River in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. In 1779, the ill-fated Penobscot Expedition, whose purpose was to force the British from Castine, resulted in the American loss of 43 ships and approximately 500 men. This was the worst naval defeat the United States suffered until Pearl Harbor. Thirty-five years later, in 1814, the British returned to the Penobscot River in the War of 1812 and defeated an outnumbered American force in the Battle of Hampden, followed by the British looting of both Hampden and Bangor. For more information on both of these battles visit the Educational Resources section of this website.

Bangor, located on the Penobscot became the financial and commercial center of a region that experienced, during most of the 1800's a lumber and shipbuilding “boom" responsible for creating many fortunes in the area. Though some considered the Penobscot to be “mainly a log driving stream”, sailing vessels were the primary means of transporting people and goods to and from the area during much of this time.

The Steam Era arrived on the Penobscot when the "Maine," began service in 1824. This ship was similar to a catamaran built with two hulls with a paddlewheel between them. It ran from Bath to Bangor with a number of intermediate stops, including Bucksport. As Maine’s population grew, particularly along the coast and rivers, a number of steamship companies were founded to provide services along Maine’s coast and major rivers. (Note in the background of the two photos of the Prospect-Bucksport ferry (below), the coastal streamship docked at Bucksport)

Though the Penobscot River obviously promoted the growth of cities such as Bangor, Brewer and Bucksport by providing a mode of transportation, the river also hindered growth because of the problem of crossing the river. The earlier crossings were by ferryboat until 1832 when the first bridge connecting Brewer with Bangor was constructed. The bridge was destroyed by flood in 1846 and rebuilt in 1847. Ice in the winter also interfered with boat travel on the Penobscot. Due to this ice formation in the river, the head of navigation for the Penobscot in the winter is at Bucksport, about 18 miles south of Bangor—with which Bangor was connected via the Bucksport and Bangor railroad, completed in 1874.

The 1887 Acts and Resolves of the 63rd Legislature of the State of Maine include the Act to Incorporate the Winterport Ferry Company. This company was “authorized to set-up, establish and maintain a ferry across the Penobscot River from Winterport Village to Bucksport Center, so called with a boat or boats to be propelled by steam, wind or horse power or oars, as may be deemed most advisable from time to time”. The fare established at that time was: “For each Foot Passenger, 15 cents; One Vehicle of any kind drawn by one horse and two persons, 75 cents; and for each additional horse with any of the carriages aforesaid, 25 cents, each additional person, 15 cents; for each yoke of oxen with or without cart or sled or driver, 30 cents each; all other neat cattle and beasts of burden, thirty cents each; sheep, swine and smaller animals, six cents each.”


A 1916 Edition of the Handbook of New England mentions the ferry, which crossed the Penobscot from Prospect to Bucksport (the Bucksport and Prospect Ferry Company) just to the left (upriver) of Fort Knox. The fare for this ferry at the time was $1 for a car and two persons, extra persons 10 cents each.

As the number of motor vehicles increased in the late 1920’s it became clear that the ferry would not continue to be an effective means for handling the ever-increasing traffic flow traveling to and from Downeast coastal Maine.Click here for a 1925 video of the Bucksport Ferry crossing the Penobscot near Fort Knox

In 1929, voters authorized $1.2 million to build the Waldo-Hancock Bridge. The new bridge was named for the two counties it connected. The $1.2 million was repaid by a 35¢ toll each way (equal to $4.20 today). Construction began in late summer of 1930 and continued throughout the winter.

old bridgetoll house


The bridge was opened to traffic on November 16, 1931, allowing US 1 to bypass Bangor (the old route became US 1A) and was a toll bridge until October 31, 1953. David B. Steinman of New York designed the Waldo-Hancock. He described the trusses as "a new artistic type emphasizing horizontal and vertical lines" that were compatible with the "rigor of the natural rocky setting, the stern lines of adjacent Fort Knox, and the background colonial architecture in the adjacent towns.” (Maine D.O.T.)

old bridge side

Why a new bridge?

In 2002, cablethe Maine Department of Transportation began a major overhaul of the main suspension cables and bridge deck. While repairing the cables, in mid-2003 severe corrosion and deterioration previously hidden from view was discovered. Engineers determined that the cables were too badly corroded and that the bridge would need to be replaced. As a safety measure, the weight limit of the bridge was immediately reduced from 100,000 to 24,000 pounds.


Over the next four months, new strengthening cables were designed, manufactured and installed. This was a first in that such a procedure had never been previously accomplished on an existing suspension bridge. Half of the bridge’s weight was transferred to these cables. This enabled the Maine DOT to raise the weight limit of the bridge, first to 80,000 pounds and then to 100,000 pounds. Keeping the bridge operating was extremely important to the area (and Downeast Maine) because the shortest detour via Bangor/Brewer was 41 miles long and expensive in lost time and consumed fuel.

The new Bridge

Choosing a design was a challenge for a number of reasons. Many who treasured the old Waldo-Hancock Bridge, although realizing that a new bridge was necessary, wanted a traditional looking bridge to replace it. Input from a number of community “workshops” suggested that a “granite” theme be incorporated into the design of the bridge to help connect it to Maine, its rockbound coastline, and nearby Fort Knox.

In searching for a “historical” design for the bridge, the Maine DOT decided on modeling the main support towers of the new bridge after the obelisk shape of the Washington Monument and like the Washington Monument, include a visitor’s observatory at the top. The choice of modeling the new towers after the Washington Monument was relevant for a number of reasons:

1. Some of the granite used in the construction of the Washington Monument came from nearby Mount Waldo.

2. Mount Waldo granite was also used in the construction of nearby Fort Knox

3. Lt. Col.Thomas L.Casey, who was the officer-in-charge of construction at Fort Knox from August 1861 to November 1867, was also was in charge of the resumption of the construction of the then only partially built Washington Monument in 1876. He was responsible for placing a sturdier foundation under the partially completed (173-foot tall) monument, which was considered quite the engineering feat at the time. He was also responsible for altering the original design of the Monument, which was to be a nearly flat-topped obelisk, surrounded by a circular colonnade, to the design we see today which is meant to resemble an Egyptian obelisk (sans hieroglyphics).

pylonswashington mon

Construction of the new bridge began with the ground breaking on December 3, 2003. Two Maine contractors, Cianbro Corp of Pittsfield and Reed and Reed LLC of Woolwich joined forces, with Figg Engineering Group FIGG, an engineering firm based in Tallahassee, Florida, that created a novel system for routing stay cables from one end of a bridge deck, through the bridge’s pylon, and then down to the other end of the deck in a way that allows for relatively easy inspection and if necessary replacement of the cable system. Together they built this beautiful and unique $85 million bridge in record time. The old bridge was closed and the new bridge opened for traffic on a snowy December 30, 2006. CLICK HERE FOR A VIDEO OF THE OPENING OF THE NEW BRIDGE The Penobscot Narrows Observatory, the tallest Bridge Observatory in the world open to the public, was opened on May 19, 2007. Over 71,000 visitors visited the observatory in its first season of operation.


Photo Credits: East Branch Penobscot Rapids Photo by Hal and Nanook; Destruction of the American Fleet at Penobscot Bay, 14 August 1779, oil painting by Dominic Serres (1722-1793) courtesy of National Martime Museum, London; Bucksport-Propect Ferry Photos courtesy of Friends of Fort Knox Photo Archives; Photo of Waldo-Hancock Bridge construction, toll booth, scenic view, replacement cables and panorama courtesy of Maine Department of Transportation. This page written/compiled by Roger Bennatti