Gary Anderson

Gary Anderson

My introduction to Maine was by way of walking from the Greyhound bus stop in downtown Portsmouth across the original Memorial Bridge, seabag in hand, completing my journey to a new duty station at the naval hospital in Kittery.

Upriver, the modern but distinctly less picturesque design of the Piscataqua Bridge was still under construction. On the other side of the world the endless insanity of the Vietnam War raged on. Looking downriver to the nearby shipyard, surreal in its casual everyday yet-otherworldly display of real-life submarines, I could only marvel at my good fortune in being in a place where a quaint two-lane truss bridge would halt U.S. Route 1 traffic by raising its center section when ships needed to pass. Crossing that bridge provided an epiphany that has informed my love of Maine’s Brigadoon-like charm from that day to now.

Whenever I drive from Bath to Topsham, I prefer to cross the Androscoggin via 201 rather than the 196 bypass. The bypass’s bridge is perfectly fine in its performance as a means from here to there. When I do travel it I fully enjoy its unobstructed view of the river, sky and surrounding shores. Yet, something about it always seems completely detached from those surroundings. Crossing it always reminds me of a generic “someplace,” a sameness one might experience anywhere outside of Maine. In its sterile functionality, it completely bypasses the unique historically rich aesthetic experience of its upstream aged competition.

Crossing the “Green Bridge” is to enter a 815-foot time warp connecting the once thriving mills on either side of the river to their present day incarnations. The scenic raw power of the passing water, hurriedly glimpsed through the structure’s triangular framing, never tires in affording a romantic link to the past. One need know nothing of any specific history to experience a harkening back to a simpler time.

Google searching “Frank J. Wood,” I was surprised by two things. I couldn’t find any reference beyond it being the bridge’s official name and, whomever he was or however he distinguished himself, he now has many dedicated friends on Facebook who greatly admire the landmark still honoring him. Be that as it may, the distinctive style of its engineering and historical integration with its surroundings has made it an iconic reminder of Brunswick’s and Topsham’s industrial heyday. It’s hard to imagine any other design being so well suited to furthering a quality of place that is deemed a desirable subject by artists and photographers near and far.

Portsmouth well understands both the aesthetic and straight-up economic value of retaining an historic quality of place. When its own iconic truss bridge needed replacement it didn’t hesitate to promote a state of the art modern engineered replica, thus maintaining the same vital visual character of its downtown’s history-laden aesthetic appeal to both residents and tourists. The benefit of doing so was so obvious that New Hampshire provided full state-level funding for it themselves, even though Maine remains a half-owner. Despite Maine’s failure to step up to the plate, traveling across that successful similar-for-same replacement immediately transports me back to my initial encounter with Maine’s boast of being the way life should be rather than just more of the same, bottom line dictated, cultural monotony experienced elsewhere.

Those hereabouts doubtful of the merits of aesthetic value in calculating cost vs benefit need not look as far as Portsmouth for an example. They only need to drive next door to Harpswell.

One would think granite cobwork construction would last far longer than riveted steel or concrete, yet the world’s only cribstone bridge, constructed in 1928, needed replacement or repair far sooner than the Frank J. Wood Bridge, built in 1932.

The Green Bridge’s dynamic visual complexity can make for somewhat distracted driving, but that pales in comparison to the truly precarious journey one makes crossing Bailey Island’s one of a kind vehicular gauntlet. One might want to admire the passing view but the harrowing narrow passage, rebuilt in all its white-knuckle uniqueness, remains the more compelling focus of one’s attention. Those set against the Green Bridge’s repair or replication can hardly argue that doing so would be be any more arduous or quixotic than the far more impractical cost-benefit decision to maintain the Cribstone Bridge’s singularly challenged, yet all so memorable, utility.

Quality of place is inextricably part of our collective quality of life. Maine’s much bandied about moniker of Vacationland speaks volumes as to the realization that this state’s greatest calling card, and invitation to return or permanently reside, is what remains of its natural and historical charms.

Posterity will find little charm in the austere bare-bones just-get-by choices our present-day social contract repeatedly opts for, leaving behind very little of any real cultural aspiration or accomplishment.

If we truly wish to make America great again, or greater still, then look to what we treasure of the still cherished and enviable aspects of our past and try to replicate that “do it right,” rather than bare-minimum, consideration for those that follow.

Gary Anderson lives in Bath.

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