This abandoned steam shovel rests in the woods not far from where Nine Mile Bridge once spanned the St. John River. (Photo by V. Paul Reynolds)
Although Henry David Thoreau’s book about his venture into the Maine north woods, “The Maine Woods,” is one the well-known books of its genre, “Nine Mile Bridge,” by Helen Hamlin, has always occupied a special place on my book shelf.
I have read it a number of times. In my estimation, Hamlin, wife of game warden Curly Hamlin, must have been an extraordinary woman. For a number of years, she lived through all of the seasons — come hell or high water — at Nine Mile Bridge on the St. John River. In Maine, it really doesn’t get that much more remote. Check it out on a Maine map.
Until recently I had never been to Nine Mile Bridge. By happenstance I had just finished a reread of Nine Mile Bridge when a friend invited me to be his subpermittee on a north woods moose hunt. As fate would have it, another guide friend suggested that the riverside camp site at Nine Mile Bridge might make a good jumping off spot for our Zone One moose hunt.
It took some doing, but we found the riverside camp site at Nine Mile Bridge. There just isn’t an easy way to get there and there is no signage. Between the circuitous route and our wrong turns, it took us most of 12 hours to get there from Bangor. That’s because the bridge, nine miles from Clayton Lake, is no longer there. Only a cable across the river and a few fallen concrete piers remain as testament to the bridge’s colorful history.
Driving in on the old road I got to wondering if any remnants from Hamlin’s era remained. My question was answered soon after arriving at the riverside camp site.
There is an old warden’s cabin nearby that is occupied by a backwoods character nicknamed “Nine Mile Mike.” After meeting him and sharing small talk, you can guess my first question: “Mike, where did the Hamlins live? Is there anything left of their cabin?”
“Nope,” he said,” “The Hamlin place was right over there, not far from where you are camped.”
A retired college professor from Albany, New York, Nine Mile Mike is steeped in local lore and history. Not far from his cabin, there is a sentinel to the past. A rusty steam shovel, 30s vintage, sits alone and out of place among the tamarack and moss-covered fir trees. Mike explained that the steam shovel, which travelled on rails, was used to build the old nine mile road.
Near the abandoned steam shovel is a 1940s era Chevy covered with leaves and other detritus. Surprisingly, the trunk cover still opens and closes sweet as can be. (No bodies or bones in the trunk either).
Surveying the St. John from our campsite, I tried to picture that April day so many years ago when Helen and Curly heard “the faint roar that became thunderous and angry,” and saw “a 10-foot wall of tumbling, cracking, fast-moving ice”… “gathering momentum and throwing two-ton ice floes on the high banks.”
That day, according to Hamlin, a number of trappers scrambled across the bridge to the east side for fear that the bridge would be taken by the ice and they would be stranded. Luckily the bridge held that day, only to be taken out by the spring ice in 1972, never to be replaced.
Yes, Nine Mile Bridge is worth reading. And the physical remnants of Nine Mile Bridge are worth visiting, if you don’t mind a long trip on dusty roads. Of course, you can view it from the east side of the St. John River, but you’d miss the fir-shrouded steam shovel and an interesting chat with Nine Mile Mike.
The author is editor of the “Northwoods Sporting Journal.” He is also a Maine guide and host of a weekly radio program — “Maine Outdoors” — heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on “The Voice of Maine News – Talk Network.” He has authored three books; online purchase information is available at www.maineoutdoorpublications.com.