Civil War-era suspension bridge well worth the ride

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The Wire Bridge in New Portland, Maine, was built during the Civil War. At 150 years old, it's the last of its kind in the U.S. and maybe the world, and it's still going strong. It's also a great spot to visit on a motorcycle ride. (PHOTO BY DAVID M. FITZPATRICK)
The Wire Bridge in New Portland, Maine, was built during the Civil War. At 150 years old, it’s the last of its kind in the U.S. and maybe the world, and it’s still going strong. It’s also a great spot to visit on a motorcycle ride. (PHOTO BY DAVID M. FITZPATRICK)

If you’re familiar with Portland, Maine, but not familiar with New Portland, Maine, you might be in for a surprise. Portland, Maine’s largest city, has a population of 66,281 and all the urban amenities you’d expect. But New Portland, which is about two hours north of Portland, has a population of about 715. Despite the small crowd living there, this little hamlet even has three villages—East New Portland, West New Portland, and North New Portland. That’s a lot of geography for such a little place. This town is in Somerset County, which has just over 52,000 people in 4,094 square miles. By comparison, Portland is in Cumberland County, which has just about 286,000 people in just 1,217 square miles.

As you might imagine, the two communities couldn’t be more different. New Portland is a quiet town, and to be honest you might ride through it and not notice that there was anything to notice. But New Portland has one of the coolest sights to see anywhere in Maine.

Across the Carrabassett River off Route 146 is the Wire Bridge—a cable suspension bridge that has stood since the Civil War. Construction on the bridge began in 1864 and was completed two years later; it was one of four such bridges in Maine, and one of many in the United States, but today it is the only one remaining in the state, and apparently in the country. Some sources report that it might be the last of its kind anywhere in the world.

The Wire Bridge, built in 1866, is the only one of its kind left in the U.S. and maybe the world. (PHOTO BY DAVID M. FITZPATRICK)

The Wire Bridge is a marvel of engineering. This is no Golden Gate Bridge, mind you; it has just two towers, one on either side of the Carrabassett, and the span between them is just 198 feet. But this beauty features timber towers clad in cedar shingles and standing atop granite bases, and it’s replete with steel cables from which hang the bridge deck. Each vertical cable holds up one side of one crosspiece—sort of like railroad ties—and atop these crosspieces are the perpendicular deck boards. Ride across it, and you’ll feel it sway—and see it sway. Stand on it, and you’ll really feel it. Plant your feet and push side to side and you can make it sway.

This stone, wood, and steel masterpiece stood for nearly a century before the 99th Maine Legislature acted to preserve and renovate the bridge, a task completed in 1961. According to the New Portland town Web site, that work included capping the tower bases with concrete, rebuilding the towers, replacing the original steel suspender rods with the current steel cables, and laying down a new timber deck. The deck was replaced again in 2009-2010. But 150 years since its original completion, the tower framing timbers and the main support cables are original. How’s that for durability?

The Wire Bridge is a popular tourist draw, and there isn’t a nice day that you’ll go there on a motorcycle and not find other bikes there; when I visited for this piece, with my wife Elaine on the back of the Shadow, a small herd of Harleys arrived. It’s admittedly precarious when you’re steering your bike across a surface that is swinging back and forth, especially at that moment when your front tire leaves the moving deck and for a split second you feel your tail end moving independently of the front wheel. But it’s completely worth it for this impressive sight.

Here are two videos of the bridge. The first begins with me standing on the bridge while it’s moving; my wife, Elaine, was standing behind me shifting her weight from side to side to get it moving. Yes, it’s that easy. The next view is off the bridge:

This briefer video is from off the bridge as a car crosses:

You can park on either side and walk out onto the bridge—and if you really want a fun feeling, stay on it when a car crosses. Stand up on the side beam and hold on to the cables; don’t fall into the Carrabassett, because although it isn’t a long way down, this is a shallow river with a lot of rocks. When the car passes, you’ll get quite a feeling of motion.

If making yourself motion sick sounds like a cheap thrill, I can assure you it’s more than that. But it is cheap, since there’s no fee, and if you appreciate a good piece of engineering and a great historical tale, it will be a thrill. Pack up lunch on the bike, head down to the riverside, and take a zillion pictures of the bridge to post online. Once you’ve been there, you’ll be recommending to everyone you know—whether they go by two wheels or by four.

The Wire Bridge is easy to find. No matter how you come into New Portland, once you’re on Route 146, just look for the signs. Ultimately, you’re heading to Wire Bridge Road—pretty easy to find, although GPS software and online maps sometimes have a hard time pinpointing it. The bridge has a posted 3-ton limit, so one car at a time. You can do a few bikes, but take it slow and don’t grandstand.

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