By: Tim Plouff
If Maine’s unofficial designation as Vacationland is accurate, then Route 1 is the highway, the thoroughfare, the main artery that forms the funnel for all of the tourists and commercial activity that supports Vacationland’s countless enterprises. Route 1 is the corridor that makes Maine’s economy hum.
Originally part of the Atlantic Highway that stopped in Calais Maine in 1922, Route 1 officially became the primary North-South East Coast road in 1926, connecting Miami, Florida and Fort Kent, Maine. Passing through Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Richmond, connecting to Jacksonville and Miami to the south, the road has evolved between narrow two-track paths to multi-lane highways.
Today, Route 1 stretches all the way to the end of the Florida Keys, ending in Key West after traversing 2,370-miles—the longest North-South road in America.
With two sunny, clear, fall days available, we opted to take the two pony cars up Route 1 from Ellsworth—the crossroads of Downeast Maine as well as the gateway to Acadia National Park—through Downeast Maine past Machias and Calais, turning north at the Canadian Border to head up to Houlton and the vast Aroostook County. With driving partners Nat and Diane Smith never covering this rural route further than Calais, we hoped for memorable stops, dramatic vistas, plus some colorful fall displays.
Our Tuesday departure from end-of-season traffic-choked Ellsworth was accompanied by only 47-degrees. Still, the tops went down on both Nat’s Camaro SS and our Mustang GT. We each have aftermarket wind blocker panels—well worth their price for the comfort provided—plus the warming sun made open motoring more than prudent.
Heading east, many sections of Route 1 have seen regular maintenance, including recent paving applications. The exceptions proved to be a truly rough stint through Columbia Falls and Jonesboro, causing each car to buck and pitch over surfaces that have not weathered well at all. Past the blueberry barrens, and just before Machias, the surface improved.
Our first stop had be Helen’s Restaurant in Machias—for pie, barely an hour into the ride. We elected to do take-out for savoring later, because if we sat down this early in the trip, the morning would be shot eating pie after delicious pie. Helen’s pie is truly destination food.
Forty minutes later we peeled off Route 1 in Pembroke after dozens of miles of re-built road and fresh tarmac. The pace had picked up too with the improved road, as traffic was negligible. Just a few miles south from Route 1, we opted to visit the Reversing Falls town park, which overlooks the vast drainage of Cobscook Bay from a narrow purview. With tides as high as 18-feet here, there is a lot of roaring water to watch funnel out of the sprawling bays and coves tucked behind Lubec and Eastport—the two eastern-most towns in the US. A perfect ‘summer’ lunch in the sun helped to defray the angst of our now filthy cars after four miles of very dusty dirt road.
Turning northwards at Perry, we cross the 45th parallel and gain great views of Passamaquoddy Bay, Canada’s Deer Island, as well as St. Andrews as we draw close to Robbinston and the historic St. Croix River settlement from 1607 at Red Beach.
More construction in Calais delayed our pace, but once past this small but bustling border-crossing point for New Brunswick we make a quick pit-stop at the last major retail complex for the next 50+ miles in Baileyville—at the junction of Route 1 and the east-west Route 9, the famous Airline Road. Eight new Tesla charging stations sit vacant, while there are lines at the twelve gas/diesel pumps.
The cars are running perfectly, their V-8 engines throbbing melodiously with the cool, dry air. Absent the digital interventions of more recent sports cars, our Mustang and Camaro’s analog driving experience offers the tactile feedback that makes such road trips rewarding to experience, even when not plying the ‘go’ pedal. We have generally behaved thus far, but north of Princeton, the houses, driveways, and other roads pretty much end as millions of trees dominate the view. The wide-open corridor before us invites a swifter pace. We oblige.
At Weston, two close stops answer the question of why did people settle in this vast, rural part of the wilderness—tanning. The ample hemlock bark created vast tanneries that treated local and imported leather for decades over a hundred years ago, while the expansive local lakes catered to the fishing sportsmen that soon “discovered” the area. Before them, this lakes region was home to multiple native-American tribes, where at Peekabo Mountain—now with a rest stop—they could gauge their overland route to Mt. Katahdin—57-miles to the northwest as a crow flies. We have a perfect view of the mountain—as well as the lakes, at another rest stop a few more miles north.
By Houlton, the confluence of Interstate 95-traffic, as well as the County Seat for Aroostook, traffic is heavier—but much lighter than what we have in Ellsworth. We search for the remains of the former Littleton Covered Bridge, destroyed by a vandal’s fire, but come up with only more road dust as the potato harvest is in full swing and plumes of dry grit fill the air on every road as truck after loaded truck hauls the harvest to huge storage barns.
After viewing some of the planet monuments along Route 1 here to keep passengers interested on the straight and narrow stretches of the main road in The County, In Mars Hill we elect to pursue 1A north to Fort Fairfield. Rolling hills, huge fields of potatoes, as well as the first wind towers in Maine, atop Mars Hill Mountain, are but a few of the visual scenarios as we rubber-neck our way north.
After a quick stop at the Fort Fairfield blockhouse, its west into the setting sun (and cooler temps) to Presque Isle for our hotel. Day one totals 287-miles and 25.3-mpg in the Mustang.
There is frost on the cars Wednesday morning, but this is a convertible trip so the tops are lowered and we set out. An extended visit with old friends from work at the local Shell station allows the temp to climb a bit, but we still gather quite a few stares as we exit town for Caribou and Van Buren. We are all toasty inside our pony cars.
Potato fields dominate the skyline again—with views that go 30-40 miles east and west. We can see into Canada, over the St. John River, as we glide along the border into Grand Isle, Madawaska, Frenchville, and finally Fort Kent. Huge Catholic churches dominate even the smallest villages—on both sides of the river.
The towns in this part of ‘The Valley’ have seen their heyday pass. Route 1 serves its purpose, but it also shows neglect. The ride is rough again, and the shoulders are broken in many parts, while heavy trucks have little alternative as they service the massive Twin Rivers paper mill in downtown Madawaska.
Another blockhouse in Fort Kent tells the story of how the Aroostook War with Britain was settled without loss of life in 1839, as the Webster-Ashburton Treaty finally established the US border along the St. John River between Maine and Canada. A giant levee also designates how the St. John almost wiped out Fort Kent in spring flooding in 2008.
A half mile up the road, next to the bridge for the border crossing with Clair, New Brunswick, is the end of Route 1. A granite monument depicts the history—and helps to highlight the importance of this very important road.
We point the ponies south, down Route 11 along the Fish River Scenic Byway—an exciting roller-coaster ride through more scenic Maine countryside. We make more stops, enjoying lunch at the overview for Eagle Lake, traverse more dramatic vistas, and meander among some of the local roads as we make our way back to Presque Isle to complete the section of Route 1 we circumvented on the way up the day before. After fueling up in Houlton, 25.2-mpg and the cheapest premium gas price paid in over a year, we exercise the Chevy and Ford a wee bit on the trip down the superslab back to Bangor. Three-hundred and forty-four miles for the day is the report back home.
The Camaro and Mustang proved excellent companions. Comfortable, great visibility, and entertaining for the pilots—and we think, the navigators as well. Ford and Chevy have been building competent pony cars for over 50-years. What better cars to run down the Last Mile of Route One in New England, as we approach the 100th anniversary of this legendary route.
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