The Bridge that Opened Downtown
Written in August 2002 for The Public Garden, my bi-weekly column in the Portsmouth Herald
It’s hard to equate in modern terms the excitement generated in Portsmouth and Kittery on Aug. 17, 1923. Though newspaper clippings at the time greatly detailed the big event - the opening of the Memorial Bridge - not even the most optimistic politician or city planner could have imagined the positive impact the new bridge would have on the economy and growth of the city.
Former Portsmouth Mayor Eileen Foley - who at age 5 was selected to cut the silk ribbon, at the middle of the new bridge, signaling its opening - sums it up this way: "The opening of the bridge was really the opening of downtown Portsmouth."
The new $2 million drawbridge connected Portsmouth and Kittery, Maine, at a crucial downtown crossing point, eliminating the need for Portsmouth-side shipyard workers to catch the ferry to the PNSY at the coal company (now the salt pile) on upper Market Street.
A dilapidated toll bridge maintained by the Boston & Maine Railroad - crossing near where the Sarah M. Long Bridge, or Middle Bridge, now stands - became obsolete. Pedestrian sidewalks along the new bridge made it possible to walk from Portsmouth to Kittery.
Several businesses opened when the bridge did, including The Rosa Restaurant on State Street and John’s Barber Shop on Daniel Street. The surge in pedestrian and auto traffic demanded more services, and so sprang a hybrid downtown community composed of businesses and residences.
The carefully engineered Memorial Bridge also adapted to fierce river currents and tides. The middle of the span, powered by two 100-horsepower motors, could be raised to a maximum 180 feet, allowing lofty ships to do business upriver.
This feat was tested for the first time in February 1924, when the four-masted Helen B. Gring of Boston passed through with several feet to spare. It was estimated that as many as 15,000 cars would cross the bridge each day for the city’s tercentenary celebration a few weeks after the bridge opened.
The idea to build the three-span cable drawbridge began in 1917 by both New Hampshire and Maine legislators. The cost of building this top-of-the-line span was shared in equal parts by the states of New Hampshire and Maine and the U.S. government. At the time, there were only two other bridges of its kind - in Portland, Ore., and Jacksonville, Fla.
In 1920, contractors in Boston were selected to build the piers and abutments for the bridge. The piers were positioned in bedrock, at some points going as deep as 82 feet below the high-water mark. These necessary foundations required 14,000 barrels of cement, 6,000 tons of sand and 12,000 tons of gravel. Several homes were torn down to make way for approaches to the bridge. By December 1922, the last of the three metal spans - each of which measured 300 feet - was floated into place by the American Bridge Company.
In late August of the following year, opening ceremonies attracted more than 5,000 people, gathered at either end of the bridge. Several dignitaries, including Gov. Brown of New Hampshire and Gov. Baxter of Maine, were in attendance.
An old clipping reads: "The governors met at the boundary line of the middle span and shook hands. There was the tooting of auto horns; boats in the river blew their whistles." Then little Helen "Eileen" Dondero, later Foley, cut the pink silk ribbon, inaugurating the bridge into service.
"I don’t really know why it was me cutting the ribbon that day," said Foley from her Portsmouth home. "My father, Charles Dondero, worked at the Internal Revenue and my mother was at home with us girls. This was years and years before she became Portsmouth’s first female mayor. I do remember wearing a crepe de chine dress with tatting and that a woman fetched me from my mother at the Daniel Street side of the bridge and brought me to where the ribbon was to be cut. I also remember that after cutting the ribbon Governor Baxter held me in his arms."
Later, the delegation would enjoy a lobster dinner in celebration.
Foley added that a collection of materials from opening day, including the ribbon she cut and relevant newspaper articles, was framed, which years later she gave to Sen. Tom McIntyre in Washington, D.C., to bolster his research on ownership of the bridge.
"When he lost his election, his office was cleaned out," she continued, "and that framed piece with all of the bits about the bridge were lost."
Another news clipping reporting the opening reads: "Traffic was opened and immediately a pandemonium broke forth and an avalanche of traffic moved in both directions. Boys on bikes (from both sides of the bridge) rushed forward to see who would be the first to reach the opposite shore."
Portsmouth’s two other bridges would come much later. The Sarah M. Long Bridge opened in November 1940, and the $50 million six-lane Interstate 95 bridge opened in 1972.
Postscript: The Memorial Bridge was dismantled in the winter of 2011-12 and will be replaced with another, more modern bridge.