The State Finally Acquires the Mile Bridge

Chapter 2 -- Part 2

Back to previous section -- Forward to next section -- Return to Table of Contents
Although the street-railway tracks were removed, another part of the system was still in use daily, the old Mile Bridge. By the 1930s, town and state officials and Beach businesspeople were attempting to solve the problems of the bridge. Although hailed as a major engineering feat when opened to the public in May 1902, the Mile Bridge soon proved to be a maintenance nightmare and a firetrap. Just seven months after completion, the bridge was reported to be sinking because severe winter storms had washed away sand from the pilings, weakening the structure. The bridge was soon repaired, but similar storms continued to batter the wooden structure. In January 1918, two sections of the bridge, totaling some 600 feet, were washed away entirely, for a loss of $30,000. Repairs lasted until May, when the nearly complete structure was hit by a fire, destroying 125 feet of the new construction and closing the bridge again until late June. After this storm damage, the railway company, which owned the bridge, sometimes used dynamite to blast away ice from around the bridge pilings.

The wooden decking was ideal for catching discarded cigarettes, which fell into cracks, often smoldering into flames. In 1935, for example, between June 23 and September 3, the town report indicates firefighters were called 14 times for bridge fires. The Union suggests the total was nearer 200 times, and Hampton firemen recall old timers saying they were often called to the bridge several times a day during the summer. The State finally placed a fireproof filler between the planks, and by 1937 bridge fires were down to just a few each summer.

Of more concern to the Beach by the 1930s, perhaps, was the matter of paying tolls on a privately owned bridge. Businesspeople felt that motorists were balking at paying tolls and were staying south of Hampton to avoid the fees. When the bridge was first opened to the public, pedestrians and bicyclists paid 5 cents each; a horse attached to a carriage was 5 cents, and the same amount was charged for passengers; carriages with two or more horses were 10 cents, as were loaded wagons; but cattle, sheep, or pigs were only 1 cent. Trolley passengers traveled free as part of their fare.

In 1907, when the street railway began to have financial troubles, there was local lobbying for the State to take over the bridge from the Granite State Land Company. Instead, the company agreed to end tolls during the winter months. In 1916, led by motorist groups and local businesspeople, there was another push for state ownership of the bridge when proponents called for the coastal route to become a state boulevard. While the railway was proving to be financially unsuccessful, the bridge was making money. In 1915, 5,000 autos crossed the bridge during Carnival Week alone, and the tolls amounted to $11,000, with less than half of that spent for expenses. Reluctant to sell the bridge, the company set a price of $75,000, approximately the original cost, though critics estimated the bridge needed some $50,000 in repairs. The State refused the offer, but local demands continued, especially after the trolleys ceased operations in 1930 and the company ran the bridge as a profit-making venture, earning more with the bridge than it had made when running the whole street railway.

The situation became serious in 1930, when the Massachusetts Northeastern Street Railway went into receivership. Since the receivers were apparently making a 90 percent return on investment (the bridge was netting $25,000 annually), the attorney general ordered the tolls to be lowered and the State Supreme Court ruled that the Public Service Commission could set bridge rates. The court determined that 10 cents per car was fair, while the receivers wanted 5 cents per car and 5 cents per passenger. The company appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which upheld the New Hampshire court, and the receivers decided to sell. In October 1933, the governor and the council approved the purchase of the bridge for $140,000, about half the receivers' original asking price.

Realizing it had made a wise purchase, the State decided to collect tolls all year, instead of dropping the winter tolls as the railroad had done. In 1935, tolls were increased for the Hampton and Dover Point bridges. The old toll of 10 cents, with five tickets for 35 cents, was changed to 15 cents and fifteen tickets for $1.00, a move to help regular bridge users and also to make each bridge self-supporting.

Although the bridge was usually a serious subject, it figured into one of Hampton's most unusual election bets. In 1932, while chatting with a group of locals in Fred Lorenz's Market at the southern junction of the boulevard and Ashworth (then Marsh) Avenue, Bill Dow of Seabrook predicted that Herbert Hoover would win reelection over challenger Franklin D. Roosevelt. Captain George Everett Knowles and others disagreed. After deciding that money was too scarce to bet, the men determined that the loser would have to walk backward across the bridge from Seabrook to Hampton. In December, after the election, accompanied by 3,000 people and preceded by a 10-person German marching band hired by Lorenz, the 255-pound Dow made his long backward walk in 23 minutes, "which is considered remarkable." Dow carried a sign saying, "I voted for Hoover," while Lorenz carried a sign proclaiming, "I did not." On reaching Lorenz's, there was an impromptu celebration that lasted the rest of the afternoon.

Election bets aside, however, the condition of the bridge was worsening and its narrow width resulted in a number of accidents. By the late 1930s, it was evident that a new bridge was needed. In 1939, the Legislature passed a $35,000 appropriation for a new bridge, assuming that federal funds would also be available. America was worried about war at this time, so federal public works money for the bridge was not made available. In early 1941, nevertheless, the Legislature passed a $650,000 bill to provide funds for bridge construction for a new seawall extending from Haverhill Street to the Ashworth.

World War II--with its demands on steel, concrete, and construction workers--doomed the new bridge project, although a new bypass was built on the Seabrook side of the old bridge, replacing 600 feet of the structure with a gravel road. The old timbers were used to repair the rest of the bridge, and so it remained until after the war. The $212,000 seawall construction began in July 1946, with the 3,500-foot barrier with boardwalk completed in the summer of 1947. In September 1946, the State accepted a bid of $577,860 for the substructure of the 1,300-foot bridge.

The bridge substructure was built by T. Stuart & Son of Watertown, Massachusetts, and the superstructure was constructed by Phoenix Bridge Company of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. About half of the 65 men who worked on the bridge were local. On December 15, 1949 -- almost a year behind schedule because of delays in steel delivery--the new bridge opened with no ceremony. The toll collectors simply moved from the old collection booths on the Seabrook side of the bridge to the new booths.

In April 1953, the bridge was named for Lieutenant Neil R. Underwood, an army pilot and Hampton Beach resident who was lost in World War II.

The shifting sands of Hampton River caused many problems with the old bridge, but the new one was thought to be safe until one day in May 1957 when a section of the bridge dropped 5 inches. One of the supporting tiers was damaged and the bridge was closed for a few weeks while temporary repairs were made with $50,000 approved by the governor and the council.

In October 1964, during a small ceremony, Hampton's John Gambole paid the last toll on the bridge as the State declared that tolls had raised enough money to retire the bonds issued to build the bridge.

With the 10-cent toll removed from the bridge, traffic increased dramatically. In July 1964, there were 307,918 toll payers; with free passage in July 1965, 441,000 vehicles crossed the bridge. In 1984-85, some $2.5 million was spent to give the bridge a new deck and railings, a modern bridge house for the draw operators, and a complete coat of paint. At that time, the State rejected ideas for a new wider bridge, predicting the cost at some $10 million.

Back to previous section -- Forward to next section -- Return to Table of Contents