Connecting the Great Divide: Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Ewing Narrows Bridge

Essays by Laddie Whidden and Laurie Smith

The Long Reach Mountain Road and Ewing Narrows Bridge

Written by Malcolm B Whidden, Jr. (Laddie)

It was late winter of '62, and feelings were still running strong after the second vote failed to incorporate the Town of Harpswell Neck. The first time was in the '50s when B.N.A.S lengthened the runways and cut off the Middle Bay Road which had been our link to the eastern side of town. This second vote was when an addition was built on the new Harpswell Island School while the Town was still using the old West Harpswell school. It probably made more sense economically but it further strained relations between the two sides of Town.

My father was on the side that wanted to keep the town together and he worked hard to get people to turn out and vote. He had never run for Town Office himself, and I had never even thought of it, although at the first meeting of the District of Harpswell on March 30, 1758, my mother's side of the family was well represented. Captain John Stover as Moderator, Andrew Dunning as Selectman and Town Clerk, William Alexander as surveyor of Highways, and Elisha Allen as Sealer of Leather. Three of my fourth and fifth great-grand parents lived on the shores of what became Ewing Narrows and it is easy for me to empathize with these early settlers that chose this wild and beautiful spot that would someday become part of the Town of Harpswell.

My wife Kay and I lived in a one room log cabin with our two children, Rhonda and Clayton. Much like those early pioneers.

One day two friends came calling. One was a Democrat the other a Republican each as strong in their views as the other. They said: “Laddie, we want you to run for Selectman.”

There were already two others running but they were both in favor of separating the Town. After thinking it over I said, “If the Townspeople want me, I will try it.”

I had no idea what the job entailed. I won the vote and became Selectman in 1962. In those days most of the Town business was taken care of at home unless we were working on taxes, year end books with the auditor, or the budget and Town Meeting Warrant, or an occasional Special Town Meeting. Each Selectman (one from each section of town) took care of welfare of their section. Roads and bridges by Orr's and Bailey Island Selectman; Harpswell Neck paid all the school warrant bills. When my term started in '62 the Town didn't have any office equipment and no regular office help. We would start assessing after April 1st by driving and walking around Town to see if there was any new construction (a lot of it was walking because the roads were not passable).

The assessed value of property was kept in a valuation book with a description of each parcel by who or what it was bounded by on all sides. Resident property was in the front of the valuation book and non-resident was in the back.

Harpswell had been assessing property at around ten percent for several years. This required a high tax rate of around $120.00 per thousand. This valuation made it difficult for a taxpayer to know if they were being taxed fairly.

The Town was having tax maps made in the sixties that were going to make the assessing job a lot easier, but as it was going to take a while to get the new system set up we used the assessed values of 1965 for 1966, which we put on cards for that year. When we did the assessing for '67 we multiplied the old value by a factor of 5 and compared that value with other properties. If they were too high or low we changed them. We were able to lower the tax rate from $120.00 to $27.00 and had very few complaints.

Some will wonder what all this has to do with the Mountain Road or Bridge, but speaking for myself, the last four years gave me the experience that I needed if we were going to be successful in what we were about to undertake.

J. Edward Johnson (Ed) was elected the new Selectman from Bailey's Island at the '66 Town Meeting. The same meeting that voted 136-2 in favor of starting a sinking fund for the Mountain Road and bridge. This was just a small starting step but it gave the backing that the Selectmen needed. Charles (Ned) Frost, the Town Treasurer and Richard Barton, the Town Attorney and I had already talked to the County Commissioners in Portland and to someone from the Dept. of Transportation in Augusta. We found that the Bridge Act was still on the books and was being used, but that there was the requirement that all bridges be built on a state aid highway. We didn't even have a path where the road would have to go. This could have very well stopped us, but I think Ed and I both had a stubborn streak. We were born and raised during the Great Depression, when if you wanted something you had to work hard for it, and a lot of the time you had to make do with what you had. I've always believed that we have an internal guidance system that tells us what to do when you are in a difficult predicament. We are about to see an example of this.

When President Lyndon Johnson was in office there was a Federal Highway Beautification Act. I think they called it the Shellfish Trail that ran down Route 24 on Orr's and Bailey's Islands. State Highway crews worked the length of the Islands marking out lookout areas and places for parking, much of it on privately owned land. They had to hold a public hearing before they were finished. This was held in Library Hall on Bailey's Island and it was a contentious meeting.

This was held just shortly before Ed and I decided to make another trip to Augusta and talk with the Maine State Highway Commissioner to see if there was anything that we could do to get “our” bridge. I can't remember how many times we met with him before David Stevens. The Chairman of the Commission gave us information we hadn't expected to hear. We really didn't know if they would have anything to do with us after the fiasco of the Beautification hearing. I think David Stevens wanted to be sure we were working for the Town on a worthy, much needed project and not for our own benefit. The day he told us, “If you build a road that a car can travel on to the bridge site we will designate it a State Aid Highway.” We knew we had taken a giant step in the right direction!

From what I was told fifty years later by Richard Coleman, one of the engineers involved in this project, it was very unusual to be offered this special assistance.

We hired Howard Babbidge who had worked for the Town on several projects to lay out the right-of-way. He did this with the help and advice of the State engineers. They also hired Sewall Co. of Bangor to fly over and make aerial maps of the area on Long Reach Mountain where the road would go.

The State engineers recommended that we make the right-of-way 200 feet wide in case they had to move it during construction. We did and changed it to 100 feet after the road was built. 50 feet on both sides of center.

Article 48 of the '68 Town Meeting voted to accept the Road over Long Reach Mountain as laid out by the Selectmen. The Town had to pay very little for damages because the land was worth more once the road was built.

Article 49 of the same meeting raised $6,000.00 for the road to continue land clearing and also for a larger culvert to be put in at Strawberry Creek. We had asked for bids on building the road that a car could travel over to the Bridge site. Lewis Stuart, the only bidder, bid $25,000.00. I would make a guess that there were around 9,000 yards of fill and gravel hauled out of that pit on the mountain, so the Town got it's money's worth.

Before Lewis started working on the road we put out word that there would be a clearing bee on the right-of-way I think we had it flagged out 100 feet wide. One of the reasons we held the bee was to show that the Townspeople were behind this project and another was to save money. A good crowd showed up eager to work and it was a lot of fun. I think we cleared 800 feet that first day.

Mary Chipman, a friend and neighbor on Allen Point Road, called the night before and said, “Laddie, stop at the house on your way over,” I did and she had a wooden box with several dozen doughnuts—still warm. She must have risen early that morning. They were a big hit and the kindness won't be forgotten. I think we had one more day of volunteer clearing but had to hire the rest of the clearing done to stay within the road building time frame.

Ed Johnson left office in '69 but we were both happy with what we had been able to accomplish in three years. The Town was about to have a road where it was said by some, “Those boys will never build a road across that Mountain.”

I hope the editor of the newspaper that headlined his editorial with: “The Rubber Booted Selectmen of Harpswell are at it Again” learned a little lesson.

Article 48 of the '69 Town Meeting Warrant: To accept the road from the Bridge site on the West Shore of Ewing Narrows to the Wharf Road. Accepted.

Gustavus O'Gatchell also left office in '69 after serving thirty years as a Selectman. Freeman Davis of Cundy's Harbor was elected along with Jon R. Coffin of Orr's Island.

Ed Johnson and I had already done most of the chainsaw work and assisted with preliminary surveying, so most of the Town's effort shifted to Augusta to make sure the two bills carriying the funding for the road and bridge made it through the legislative process.

There were a couple of other things that demonstrate the relationship we had with David Stevens and the State engineers. Lewis Stuart was working on the causeway and the engineers were making sure the elevation was right. They needed mean low water mark, and where the tide drains a long way out in Strawberry Creek, it would be hard to do from the shore. I had them meet me early in the morning to put them ashore as close as I could to the causeway, then over to where they could see the boat from where they had their transit set up. Then it was back to our house where Kay made blueberry pancakes for a crew of hungry men. (Recently one of those same engineers told me they now rely on GPS.)

Another time I had gone to bed when the telephone rang, it was David Stevens. He said, “Laddie, I think you should talk to the House Chair of the County Government Committee.”

I did talk to him and found out that he was from 'up in the County' and represented Presque Isle, Marr's Hill and Mapleton, the same towns my great-grandfather represented nearly 100 years ago. I can't be certain it helped, but the County budget bill passed with an authorization for $300,000 for the Ewing Narrows Bridge.

The hearing on this bill was held before the County Government Committee in room 122 of the State Office Building on March 24, 1971. There was a big turnout from the Town of Harpswell. I remember the room being packed, and the line so long for those in favor waiting to speak, that everything I had planned to say had already been said. The small vocal opposition that we expected was there but they were outnumbered.

The State's million dollar share was included in the State Highway Commission's biennial financial construction program which was awaiting financing by the Legislature in 1971.

We didn't really have a lot of opposition to the two bills in the Legislature because we had sponsors on both sides, helped by our speaking with key Legislators.

Harpswell approved it's $53,900.00 share at Town Meeting in 1971 to be paid back over 10 years.

On July 10, 1976, the Ewing Narrows Bridge was dedicated. Featured speakers during the brief ceremony were Commissioner Roger Mallar and former Commissioner David H. Stevens who stated “...this bridge has been the dream of residents for years.”

After the symbolic ribbon at the halfway point on the 675 foot bridge was cut, a marching band of local young people led a procession of residents across the bridge.

History of the Mountain Road—Great Island, Maine

Dictated by Edward Johnson, Selectman in 1966 at the time of the Ewing Narrows Bridge,to Laurie Smith.

In 1965, the ruling selectman, Laddie Whidden, Paul Murray and Gus Gethchell proposed that a study be done to determine the effects of the construction of a bridge across Ewing Narrows—a move to not only join the 2 peninsulas of the town physically but also to encourage a feeling of unity - one town rather than 2 separate “sides”. The proposal was in response to two areas of concern.

A Split of the community of the Town: In the early 1960’s a petition was circulated by Walter Norton suggesting that the town separate - the Harpswell peninsula would join with the town of Brunswick and Cundy’s Harbor and the Islands would join then with West Bath. Although this petition was met with discord, it was an indication of the unrest that often ran through the town.

A geographical Split: The 2 sides of town are separated by a bay which at the narrows is almost in spitting distance but could only be reached by going through 10 miles of Brunswick.

Historically, the towns’ people of Harpswell have had to go the distance to be together in one place. In the 1930’s, the annual town meeting was held at Red Man’s Hall on Orr’s Island. This involved a boat ride across the bay for those living on the Harpswell side. Although the residents living on the Islands and in Cundy’s Harbor could travel on land, there were very few vehicles and the roads were less than desirable—especially during mud season in March. Tractor drivers were hired by the town to wait at strategic points along the road and tow cars out when they became stuck. Town meeting was an anticipated social event because it not only involved the meeting, but the ladies of the order of the Pocahontas and the ladies of the church provided a meal and the day ended with a dance. Then all attendees had to make the long trek home again.

Traveling to Harpswell and Brunswick before the Brunswick Naval Base was constructed in 1943, involved crossing into Brunswick at the Gurnet Bridge and taking the 2nd left known as Buttermilk Bridge onto Coombs road. The road went across behind where the base is now, which at the time was all blueberry fields, past Storer’s Farm and a small cemetery. There you could turn right and come out by Moodyville on Garrison Street which runs parallel to upper Harpswell Street; or you could turn left and come out at Dyer’s corner across from the entrance of the Middle Bay Road.

Construction of the base affected the approach into Brunswick, relocating it from Garrison Street to across from the southern end of the Brunswick Commons on Harpswell Street.

In 1949, the base was extended further closing the Coombs road route and forcing traffic further north—creating Cook’s Corner. Now the ride from Land’s end on Bailey Island to Pott’s Point on the tip of Harpswell Neck took almost an hour by car including the trip through Brunswick; yet the two are separated by about a mile and a half of water.

As a new selectman elected in 1966, Ed Johnson was asked by Laddie if he thought the proposed road was a good idea—Ed agreed. He was soon to meet Dave Stevens in another unrelated event—a man who would be a key player in the bridge project.

  • In 1965, the State highway commission proposed to create a series of public scenic pull-offs along route 24—from Great Island to Bailey Island. The federal government would foot the bill under the Highway Beautification Act, a project of Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson. Residents of the town were against the proposal - to seize land for the turn-outs and add picnic tables, parking and public bathrooms- fearing it would attract hordes of tourists to the area and change the atmosphere of the islands.

  • Ed Johnson’s found his first assignment to the town was to form a committee, refusing this proposal, and hold a public meeting at the Orr’s Island Schoolhouse. The meeting was attended by a crowd of angry townspeople, himself (the only selectman) and 3 representatives from the state—one of them being Dave Stevens. Although this first meeting of Ed and Dave was under less than hospitable conditions, a working relationship developed between the two and Dave Stevens would prove to be instrumental in realizing the Ewing Narrows Bridge for the town.

  • Prior to the Beautification project, Dave Stevens had been introduced to the politics of Harpswell when road improvement was to be done on the Harpswell side from in front of the Kellogg Church and south. A tree had been planted by the Garden Club in front of the church and at the time of the road expansion was about 10 years old. A representative of the club, Ann Frances Hodgkins refused to have the tree cut for the road expansion and improvement. Dave Stevens’ comment—“You’ll never get another cent from the state for the town of Harpswell!”

Laddie and Ed made several visits to Dave Stevens in Augusta and they were finally given a glimmer of hope when they were told to put in the road over the mountain, a requirement by the state to get a bridge. The people of the town proved their merit by rallying to support the effort. Land owners on Great Island in the area of the road site to be cleared were pleased because the road raised the value of their property. Only one person asked for compensation due to property damage. Residents on the Harpswell side were compensated when Dave Stevens upgraded their end of Mountain Road from a dirt road to a paved State-Aid Road. Those residents opposing the road and bridge were most often concerned of the cost; however, personal taxes were increased by less than 2 dollars. The initials road construction involved cutting the wood, spear-headed by Ed Johnson and a culvert for Strawberry Creek which Laddie Whidden spear-headed.

Volunteers were recruited to cut the trees and gathered on the Great Island side, clearing—ft. the first day. The cutting continued on and off for the next few weeks before the project was hired out to speed the project along. The cut wood was left for the taking. Gus Getchel—the selectman against the bridge- received much of this wood for his stove when his nephew Dwight Lucas hauled it home to him.

On the first day of clearing, Lewis Stewart had gone to Sears and bought a new chain saw. Arriving at the sight and eager to use his new tool, he cranked and cranked, but to no avail. The brand new chain saw would not start. As often happened with Lewie, his temper got the best of him and he swung the chain saw over his head, throwing it out into the bushes with some choice words. Curious, another volunteer retrieved the chain saw from its resting place and discovered that Lewie had failed to turn it on before cranking! On another day, a generous Lewie went to Brunswick and bought 50 or more hamburgers with his own money for the volunteers for lunch, but when he returned to the job site, he found everyone had gone home!

Finally, one evening, Dave Stevens awoke Ed from a sound sleep and said in his gravelly voice, “Do you still want a bridge.” Ed explained that he was no longer a selectman and no longer had a say in the project. Dave replied,” I’m going to ask you one more time, do you want the bridge?” Ed said, “Well, yes.” Dave said, “I’m meeting with the County Commissioner and I’ll tell you how it’s going to be. I want the bridge—you want the bridge—and the County Commissioner doesn’t have a damn thing to say about it!”

Ed received a second call from Dave when it was time to determine that the Mountain Road met state road standards. Raymond Wilson, who lived on Orr’s Island and worked for state, was to check it out. Dave said, “Raymond is on his way home from work and will meet you at 4:00 to drive across to the narrows and back. He will decide if the road is acceptable.” Ed and Raymond made the ride and Mountain Road received its approval.

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