By Tim Plouff
State Route #9 crisscrosses Maine from the New Hampshire border all the way to New Brunswick in the east. Yet the best driving part is the 90 miles winding from Brewer and the mighty Penobscot River in Central Maine, through northern Hancock and Washington Counties to Baileyville on the St. Croix River next to Canada on what is widely known as the infamous Airline road.
This rollicking, frequently hilly, and often panoramic stretch of serpentine tarmac highlights parts of Maine’s very rural blueberry barrens, countless streams and spring-fed ponds, plus peat bogs and thick forests, as well as endless blue sky. And there are lots of critters too.
The Airline Road was initially a rough, muddy cart trail for settlers looking for new lands after the Revolutionary War in the early 1800’s. “Upriver towns” (the upper branches of what became the Union and Machias rivers) sprung up on the many fast-running waters, self-sufficient farmers running sawmills, grist mills, and working the land.
The Airline soon became a shorter route to Calais and Canada than Maine’s meandering Route One coastal route. Small improvements led to better water crossings and corduroy roads actually saw improvements that allowed swifter horse and carriage travel. The road gained even greater notoriety with an 1858 New York newspaper story and photos highlighting the perilous stagecoach travel on the Airline, with passengers shooting at marauding wolves. Stagecoach inns in Clifton, Aurora—with bullet holes still visible in the Silsby House bedroom doors, Beddington at the half-way point Schoppee House, and elsewhere, the Airline trip became an adventure. Beddington became even more famous in 1975 when CBS did a story on the town’s first telephone service.
The Airline Road also serviced the crews that performed the Great Coast Survey—essentially the very first confirmed land surveys of the Eastern United States. Triangulating from Lead Mountain and other notable peaks, the five-mile-long Epping Baseline was established and later confirmed as accurate by GPS in 1991.
The Airline wasn’t entirely year-round passable until 1950, when much of it was finally paved. The meandering two-track path of the road however challenged every driver, dipping down large valley’s, climbing long grades around twisting hills, and always with a huge center crown that threatened heavy loads. While often dreadful for three seasons of the year, with moose, deer, and bear frequent victims of travelers, winter driving could be downright frightening.
By the 1980’s and into the 1990’s, Canadian trucks were becoming a much larger component of the increasing levels of traffic. One infamous company, with its distinctive yellow tractor-trailers, became known as Killer-Bees for their frequent crashes. The Maine Dept. of Transportation was faced with massive improvements as the Airline Road was becoming an essential east-west commercial corridor.
The road got moved, it got widened, and many of the former hazards were slowly erased as the character of the road dramatically changed over the next two decades. Landmarks like the Whalesback, atop a long esker overlooking several ponds, and the incredibly steep Day Hill with its transmission-destroying grade were enhanced enough to no longer strike fear in the hearts of average motorists.
Today, the Airline has great sight lines, strong bridges, and numerous passing lanes for easing past truckers and campers. East of Clifton, the pace swiftens as the houses become fewer. The road still climbs and bends around the stunning scenery, with numerous recreational diversions if you stop and inspect, yet the modest speed limit, 55-mph for the most part, allows riders to enjoy the drive as much as serious drivers.
On the numerous open stretches, for miles at a time, it is not at all uncommon to find yourself in a pack of other travelers, trucks included, cruising along as if on the interstate. And at other times, the road invites you to test your will against ‘Johnny Law’, giving free reigns to your vehicle and savoring what the road’s surface can provide in sensory feedback for those nerves at the base of your spine.
The perfect road for your Mustang GT, or Mazda Miata, or Dodge Challenger Hellcat, or any Porsche, the Airline Road encourages engines to sing the song of mechanical freedom, for drivers to reach for nirvana behind the wheel, with all of your senses alive.
The Airline Road can still bite you hard, but it will bring a giant smile to anyone who relishes the art of a perfect drive.