Down East 2013 ©
Photo by Michele Stapleton
The first time Andy Lacher reached the top of the Penobscot Narrows Observatory tower, he jumped up and down. Not out of joy, but just to make sure the floor wouldn't bounce under his feet.
"There was no give, no sway like you might feel in the [Seattle] Space Needle," Lacher recalls, "and it was plenty windy that day." Lacher, owner of the BookStacks bookstore in neighboring Bucksport, had good reason to be reassured. He was up there before the observatory was finished, and the only thing between him and the surface of the Penobscot River 420 feet below was a two-by-four railing. "The view was astonishing."
When it officially opened last May, the bridge observatory became one of only four in the world - the other three are in China, Thailand, and Slovakia. The enclosed observation decks atop the western tower awed more than 72,000 visitors last year, almost twice the number that state officials expected, before it closed for the season on October 31. (It reopens May 1.) Some 60 percent of its visitors were from outside Maine, and the observatory, along with its jaw-dropping cable-stay bridge across the Penobscot, quickly became the state's newest landmark.
Visitors access the observatory through neighboring Fort Knox State Park - the admission fees of five dollars for adults and three dollars for children also give access to the fort and its amenities - and enter the tower at its base just above the river's edge. The elevator is the fastest in northern New England, lifting visitors to the tower's upper levels in less than a minute. "When the [elevator] door opens, it can be a little jarring for some people," Lacher notes, "because there's a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the river just three feet in front of your face."
Stairs lead upward to two higher floors and views that on a clear day stretch from Matinicus Rock to Mount Katahdin. Bucksport hugs the river just beyond the end of Verona Island, and Cadillac Mountain rises above the horizon to the southeast. Maps on the walls and a compass rose in the floor help orient visitors and point out various landmarks.
Contrary to popular fears, the view from the top is not the vertigo-inducing experience that can occur on the outer deck of the Empire State Building. There's no wind inside the observatory, no balcony that lets the visitor look straight down, no irrational sense that a misstep can lead to a long fall. Nonetheless, it's not for everyone. "I took a friend of mine, a lobsterman from Matinicus, up there," says Pat McGowan, commissioner of the Department of Conservation, which oversees the tower, "and he got dizzy, had to go back down."
So the choice is up to you. Ride the elevator to the top, or just enjoy these panoramic pictures from the safety and comfort of your armchair. Either way, though, you have to admit: it's one heck of a view.
To view more pictures of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory, click here .
For more information, call Fort Knox State Park at 207-469-7719 or visit www.maine.gov/doc/parks/parksinfo/observatory