Why the state won’t blast these roadside rock ledges in Ellsworth

Agassizcan3

Stunning? Grand? Majestic?

Hardly.

As unassuming as they may be, the rock ledges on the western side of Route 1A in Ellsworth, near the Rt. 179 intersection, do have protected status.

It is easy to drive past the ledges, which are gray and low to the ground, and never notice them. One exposed portion comprises part of a driveway to a local home. Driving by at 35 mph (the posted speed limit), there is little about them to catch the eye of a passing motorist.

Orange traffic barrels temporarily placed on the ledges make them more visible now. The markers have been put on the exposed rock as part of a road widening project that is expected add a middle turning lane to Route 1A between the YMCA and the bridge over the Union River. Other improvements, such as reconfiguring the intersection of Shore Road with routes 1A and 179, and building a new entrance to Ellsworth High School opposite Forest Avenue, are part of the same project.

Signs duct-taped to each of the orange barrels read:

PROTECTED LEDGE

CAUTION!

DO NOT DISTURB

Needless to say, not every Maine Department of Transportation road improvement project offers such protection to nondescript protruding bedrock by the side of the road. The reason these formations are getting preferential treatment, however, is because they are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. I am not making that up.

The ledges, officially known as The Agassiz Outcrop, are named after an 19th-century Swiss scientist known for his expertise in fossil fish and glaciation.

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was a well-known naturalist in Europe when he became a professor at Harvard University in 1846. During the years he spent in the United States, he helped establish both the Smithsonian Institution and the National Academy of Science, according to this National Park Service document.

In 1864, during a trip to Maine to study the state’s geology, he came across the exposed rock near Ellsworth Falls.

At time, the prevailing theory of what had shaped Maine’s geology was that the state once had been covered with water. Agassiz, however, argued that the grooves or striations carved into the surface of the rocky ledges in the area were caused by glaciers that migrated from northwest to southeast across the rock’s face during the most recent ice age. The outcropping, and others in Maine cited by Agassiz, helped establish glaciation as the now-accepted theory for how the state’s geological features came to be.

The rocky ledges were proposed for National Register of Historical Places status in 2002, and were approved for the designation in February 2003, according to MDOT.

With the road project, that part of Route 1A will shift a few feet to the east to ensure that the widened highway does not encroach upon the low rocky ledge.

State transportation officials say much of the road work will be done at night. Both lanes of traffic will remain open during the day, with traffic restricted to one lane of alternating directions from 7 p.m.to 6 a.m. in some locations in the construction zone.

There will be no work on weekends during the summer. The project is expected to be completed by the end of June 2017.

agassiztruck

Traffic passes the protected Agassiz Outcrop rock formation next to Route 1A in Ellsworth on June 22, 2016.

 

Bill Trotter

About Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors. He writes about fisheries, marine-related topics, eastern coastal Maine communities and more for the BDN. He lives in Ellsworth. Follow him on Twitter at @billtrotter.