Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Wiscasset Strangler: Why I Hate the ‘Prettiest Village in Maine’ - Dispatches from Maine”

Driving up the Maine coast on US Route One, passing through a hodge-podge of civilization with occasional reprieves as the highway passes through stretches of forests and tidal streams, you eventually come to a sign announcing rather boastfully that you have arrived in Wiscasset, “The Prettiest Village in Maine.”  I don’t think so.  Granted, it is beautifully situated along the banks of the Sheepscot River.  Such an ideal location that when Maine became a state in 1820, the village was considered as the site for the new capital.  But it was passed over in favor of Augusta because it was too close to the sea and therefore difficult to defend (a string of fortifications lined the Kennebec River leading to Augusta).  And today it still has a quaint charm to it.  But so do many other villages in Maine.  I guess it all depends on what one considers authentic quaint charm.  Frankly, the good people of Wiscasset need to take a closer look at their village before making such an outlandish claim.  Wiscasset is far from the prettiest village in Maine.  Not even close!

So what is it if not pretty and charming?  That’s easy.  Wiscasset could best be labeled the worst traffic bottleneck in the entire state of Maine . . . what some have come to call the “Wiscasset Strangler.”  It is difficult to appreciate the village’s charm when forced to sit in miles-long traffic back-ups along northbound Route One among the unsightly periphery of car dealerships, gas stations, motels, etc.  And once into the actual village, one has to wait to creep at a snail’s pace through the two blocks of quaintness before being shunted onto the bridge over the Sheepscot.  Southbound Route One traffic is also frequently backed up beyond the bridge into Edgecomb, but at least there one has some trees and river vistas to divert attention.  Simply put, Wiscasset is a village to be  avoided at all costs, especially during the summer months when an estimated 25,000 vehicles pass through the village daily (even more on weekends).  Contrast this to the 15,000 vehicles during the off season which still seems like a lot to me.

So why is there so much traffic?  It is a simple matter of geography.  Mid-Coast Maine is a series of several broad and lengthy tidal rivers and estuaries with very few crossing points.  Route One north of Brunswick is the only direct coastal route and therefore handles much of the tourist traffic bound for the Boothbay peninsula just beyond the Sheepscot, as well as all those headed farther Down East toward Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park.  One can either take Route One and the aggravating bottleneck at Wiscasset or follow Interstate 295 north to Gardiner or Augusta to cross the Kennebec River before returning to the coast via various blue highways.  This alternative adds about 30 miles and 45 minutes driving time, but the advantages are that there is relatively little traffic and no back-ups while passing through some very pleasant rural countryside few visitors to Maine ever see and some villages that are, in my very humble opinion, just as quaint as Wiscasset.

There is a lot of finger pointing when it comes to the reasons for the Wiscasset bottleneck.  It is not just the fact that there is only one way in and out of town.  There is also a large “S” curve on the edge of the village center where Route 27 along the eastern edge of the Kennebec River valley feeds additional traffic into that already funneling through on Route One.  There is a seldom used railroad spur along the banks of the Sheepscot River on the opposite edge of downtown and one still has to slow down to cross it before inching across the bridge to Edgecomb.  There is the lowered speed limit through town and several cross-walks with which to contend.  Yet for many the main culprit appears to be Red’s Eats, a tiny lobster shack that has been a local institution for almost sixty years.  It seems that everyone who comes to Maine has to stop at Red’s for its lobster roll or its fried clams.  There is no inside seating and very limited cooking space.  So waits can be long as crowds of people orbit looking for places to park, stand or eat.  Why?

I’ll admit it.  I have eaten at Red’s.  Originally established by Allen “Red” Gagnon in nearby Boothbay Harbor in 1938, it moved to the corner of Main Street and Water Street in Wiscasset in 1964 and that is where it has remained ever since.  It was many years ago when we first started coming to Maine regularly in the summer months and it was pretty much de rigeur to stop at this coastal icon billed as the “World’s Best Lobster Shack.”   Hmmmm.  The best lobster shack in the world and the prettiest village in Maine?  Quite a reputation to live up to.  The lobster roll, as I recall, was good and what I had expected . . . chunks of lobster combined with mayonnaise and scooped into a bun.  But the “Best Lobster Roll in Maine”?  I would not go that far.  Over the years I have had several that tasted better and served in prettier environs and for several dollars less than the almost $18 Red’s currently charges.  Unfortunately, those visitors to Maine who stick close to Route One never get a chance to sample some wonderful lobster pounds and shacks not all that far off the beaten track yet far from the traffic, auto exhaust, very limited outdoor seating, and long lines with waits of over an hour that visitors routine experience at Red’s.   

There has long been talk of rectifying the situation.  Perhaps a few stop lights might help space out the traffic a bit.  I seriously doubt this will help and may only add to the frustration of coping with Wiscasset as one watches the lights turn green while the traffic fails to move.  A by-pass option surfaces from time to time although it seems to be dead at the moment and three suggested alternative routes around the town have been tabled.  There are several towns along Route One with by-passes.  If Wiscasset is really that pretty, or has that much to offer, surely folks will take the time to jump off Route One, just as they do in other places, to see what it is all about.  Frankly, I have been driving Route One for almost three decades, and I jump off every chance I get if not avoid it completely.  Some complain that the by-pass price tag upwards of $100 million is too costly.  There are also very real and serious environmental concerns, but something has to be done as the traffic seems to get heavier with each passing year.  Others think the traffic snarls can be eliminated by moving Red’s Eats to another location that can handle the large crowds of diners and the gaping onlookers.  That would help, I’m sure, but I seriously doubt that it will cut down on the heavy traffic that uses Route One to get from here to there along the coast of Maine.

When we first started coming to Maine, I enjoyed driving slowly through Wiscasset as it permitted time to look at the wrecks of the Hesper and Luther Little, two four-masted cargo schooners purchased in 1932 and grounded on mud flats near the bridge where they were left to decay for over six decades.  The years and storms diminished them to almost nothing and finally, in 1998, they were removed to a local landfill where they continue to rot to this day.  The shipwrecks use to draw people to Wiscasset, and you can still find postcards with their once familiar silhouettes against the blue waters of the Sheepscot River.  But now that they are gone, there is even less of a reason to come to Wiscasset.  The wharf where one once went to view the shipwrecks has been taken over by several lobster shacks trying to siphon off some of Red’s business.  And these add to an already terrible traffic gridlock.

This is why I hate Wiscasset.  Perhaps this explains all the homes for sale in town.  Who would want to put up with this mess?  Not me!

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