A swing bridge is a pretty unique structure, with the roadway pivoting on a central platform in the middle of a river, allowing water traffic to travel on either side of the fulcrum when it’s open, and automobile traffic to pass when it’s closed.
A while ago, as I paddled under the swing bridge linking Southport Island to the mainland in Boothbay, I started to wonder how many of these utilitarian bridges actually existed in Maine and where they might be. It also occurred that whatever ones existed were in some pretty places, and visiting them would be well worth the trip.
How right I was! But planning a trip, once I located them, was going to require making a pretty important decision … which I made one day last week.
Once I found that Maine’s four swing bridges (not to be confused with “swinging” bridges, like the pedestrian one linking Brunswick and Topsham) were located within a circumference that would require a 200-mile round trip from my midcoast home, the decision revolved around whether to hop on the motorcycle or take the Jeep with the kayaks so I could see the structures from water level.
I opted for the former and what a great decision it was.
First, a bit about Maine’s swing bridges. The four are the aforementioned Southport Island Bridge; another in Boothbay allowing traffic to access Hodgdon Island; one in South Bristol passing over a 20-foot gut under Route 139 to Rutherford Island; and another over the Crooked River on the State Park Road at the Songo Locks, allowing boats to access Sebago Lake from Long Lake and Brandy Pond to the north.
The four represent the two technologies that are represented in swing bridge engineering: mechanical and manual. The Southport Island and South Bristol are examples of the former, in which motors swivel the road, while Songo Locks and Island are mechanical, turned with muscle power. Up river from the Songo Locks bridge, the mechanical swing bridge that had carried traffic on busy Route 302 for years and allowed big boats like the Songo River Queen to travel south to Sebago Lake was replaced in 2012 with a permanent structure.
Manual bridges are pretty unique among the roughly 70 swing bridges still operating daily in this country. Maine’s bridges have the advantage of being located in four scenic spots, and visiting them all in one day was a piece of cake.
The trip west in the early morning was a nice cruise through Gardner, Lewiston, Poland Spring and Naples on my way to the Songo River Bridge, accessed by turning onto the Sebago Lake State Park road.
A picnic area overlooks the bridge and the locks, and the calm morning air stirred barely a ripple on the placid stream under the bridge. It made me wish that I had the kayak.
Then it was down through busy North Windham, across to Gray and Yarmouth, and up the coast through Wiscasset and down to Boothbay.
The Hodgdon Island Bridge, Maine’s other manual crossing, is operated by hand to allow the passage of boats, and it made for a wonderful side trip off the Town Common in Boothbay.
The fourth visit was to South Bristol, downriver from Route 1 in Damariscotta. Perhaps the most famous and oft-photographed swing bridge in Maine (for good reason), this so-called “bobtail swing bridge” was built in the 1930s, and has served Rutherford Island for many years. An operator opens the bridge for boats, as travelers wait in the scenic village.
But there’s no joy in South Bristol, as the deteriorating structure is slated for demolition, to be replaced by a draw bridge proposed by the Maine DOT. Residents of Christmas Cove on Rutherford Island, where most of the summer folks live, hired an independent architect to come up with a smaller, more palatable design in keeping, they felt, with the quaint surroundings.
Whatever the outcome, that swing bridge as we now know it, is destined for replacement, so get down there this summer or fall to see one of Maine’s small wonders while you still can.
John Christie is an author and year-round Maine explorer. He and his son Josh write in Outdoors about places to enjoy the beauty that only Maine has to offer. He can be contacted at: