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Cribstone Bridge Spans History and Cultures

Story posted August 30, 2006

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Toby Crawford '07

Tobias Crawford '07 got his first glimpse of Harpswell's famous cribstone bridge from a sea kayak during his first year pre-orientation trip in 2003. He returned to it this summer from another perspective: as a Rusack Undergraduate Research Fellow studying the bridge's storied past from a sociological and historical perspective.

The cribstone bridge, which connects Orr's and Bailey Islands, is reputed to be the only one of its kind in the world and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is built solely of granite hunks piled into a "cribwork" formation, with spaces to allow the tides to pass through.

After spending so much time at, on, and even under the latticed bridge, Crawford said he fell in love with the beauty of the structure — its shape, its rustic simplicity, the unique design that has long inspired tourists, painters, and photographers.

As he began to uncover pieces of its controversial beginnings, however, he started to see it as a historical relic of a highly complex structure of social, economic and political forces at play in this area of mid-coast Maine.

"That's what's so interesting about bridges," Crawford said. "They create land. Once you build a bridge, an island isn't an island anymore.

"The cribstone bridge changed the community after it was built," he said. "Its construction was coincidental with the advent of the automobile, a decline in shipbuilding, and an increase in summer vacationers. The bridge was a boon for summer tourism."

Crawford spent the early part of the summer doing archival research, poring over annual town reports, newspaper articles, and court records dating back to the 1880s. He then interviewed Harpswell residents about their own recollections of the bridge and the stories they had heard from their parents and grandparents.

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The 1,150 foot-long cribstone bridge was built in 1926-1927. Photo courtesy of Harpswell Historical Society.

"I'm most interested in how the idea of the bridge has evolved in the minds of Harpswell residents," Crawford said. "In the 1880s, when the state Legislature originally approved the project, the correspondence was all about money. In the 1920s, it was all about what it means to live in Harpswell. It is an interesting progression."

At the heart of the controversy is the structure of the town of Harpswell. It is made up of many islands, the most populated of which are Harpswell Neck on the west side and Orr's and Bailey Islands to the east.

The town is still governed in much the same way it has been for hundreds of years: All major decisions are made by a majority of voters at the Annual Town Meeting. In 1912, voters approved the construction of a "road" from Orr's Island to Bailey Island. They did not approve construction of a "bridge" per se, though many assumed that would be part of the deal because the road would need to somehow cross the spit of ocean named Will's Gut, which passes between the two islands.

Residents of Harpswell Neck opposed the project because they didn't want to help pay for a bridge that would benefit only the other side of town. Various iterations of the decades-long fight would make it all the way to the state Supreme Court at least three times before the issue was finally resolved.

In his research, Crawford found that residents had a deep sense of nostalgia for the past, but that their perceptions didn't always coincide with historical reality.

"They remember Bailey Island as this place full of Mainers, but more than half the landowners were paying non-resident taxes when the bridge was built," he noted. "There was steamboat service from Bailey Island to Portland, so they were more connected to Portland than they were to Harpswell Neck.

Crawford plans to continue his research as part of an honors project this year. Meanwhile, the cribstone bridge is once again the subject of controversy, as residents debate the merits of widening it.

Crawford said he will not delve into that in his research, because he wants to maintain a historical perspective rather than looking forward, but he is fascinated by the emotions the bridge conjures. A local meeting over the summer drew dozens of people arguing against the widening because it would change the look of their bridge.

"The main concern is that they love their bridge," Crawford said. "It seems so unintentional. The engineer didn't intend to design something that would make people fall in love with it ... but it is a timeless object."

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