How the Abol Bridge Opened Up the North Woods to a New Kind of Economy

Lots of history has flowed along the West Branch of the Penobscot River.

Katahdin, as seen from Abol Bridge
Katahdin as seen from Abol Bridge
By Will Grunewald
Photos by Chris Shane
From our August 2023 issue

For lumberjacks schlepping through the north woods back in the day, crossing the west branch of the Penobscot River was no easy task. At various points along its banks, the means of moving everything from supplies to timber to horses to humans included, at one time or another, a highline pulley system, a cable ferry, rafts, bateaux, and floating bridges. Spring freshet reliably wiped out any fixed structures, and anything that floated was useless when the water was choked with logs during the drives. Waiting for the winter freeze and then walking across was the surest way to get from one side to the other.

a thru-hiker in the 100 Mile Wilderness
For northbound thru-hikers, the West Branch of the Penobscot represents the end of the 100 Mile Wilderness. Up next: Katahdin.

Not until the early 1950s was a permanent solution arrived at, when the Great Northern Paper Company built the 300-foot-long Abol Bridge, near where Thoreau once camped on his way up the river. Originally, the bridge was a link in a network of old tote roads. In 1972, the year after the last West Branch log drive, Great Northern Paper completed the Golden Road, stretching the 96 miles from Millinocket to the Quebec border, and Abol Bridge turned into a thoroughfare for logging trucks.

The Appalachian Trail joins the road just a few hundred yards upstream from the bridge, and the bridge has come to mark the northern terminus of the 100 Mile Wilderness, Baxter State Park lies on the other side, and many a thru-hiker rests up at the Abol Bridge Campground & Store before venturing onward to Katahdin. A pedestrian walkway adjacent to the bridge has turned into a destination in its own right. It’s now a popular spot to take in a grand view of Maine’s tallest mountain, and, in that way, it represents one small part of the north woods’s fits-and-starts shift from an extractive economy to a recreational one.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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