September 28, 1999
Water Issues Flood The Town Of Rye
By Steve Jusseaume, Staff Writer
From a fishing village populated by 842 souls soon after Capt. Martin Pring first sailed down from the Piscataqua River, the town had grown to 1,142 people by the beginning of the 20th century.
This century has seen the population shoot up, doubling by mid-century and then doubling again by 1975. Today, the permanent population of the town is at least 5,000, and in the summer months much higher. According to Frances Holway, editor of an anniversary booklet on the town printed in 1976, the town began to grow slowly at the beginning of the 20th century when an electric car line was built from Portsmouth to Hampton in 1900, going right through the center of town.
That same year the state started construction of a boulevard along the shoreline. "The electrics made it possible for youngsters to go to Portsmouth High School and their fathers to take jobs at the Navy Yard. which was booming as part of the great arsenal of democracy," Holway wrote in 1976. Ice cutting on Brown’s Mill Pond, Drake’s Pond near Washington Road, and Eel Pond, soon thrived as an industry when someone discovered sawdust could preserve ice, and now residents could purchase food in Portsmouth stores, take it home and put it on ice.
A community of summer homes along the ocean also took root, with those residents feeling more affinity with the residents of the great summer estates located at Little Boar’s Head in North Hampton, than with the farm folk inland. Those coastal residents had already built a church, St. Andrew’s-By-The-Sea, on land donated by the Philbricks, owners of the Farragut, and by 1903 had formed a golf club and laid out a golf course -- The Abenaqui. In 1905, the Rye Beach Precinct was incorporated. In town, the village was also growing. In 1910, the last surviving child of John Rand donated land in the town center for a new library (a former library had been lost decades before). In 1911, it opened as the Mary Tuck Rand Library. (A major renovation project on the library was just recently completed, and the more modern building is still located on the same land, next to the current fire station.)
Rye’s hotel-era lasted a few years, but soon declined because tourists found other areas more fashionable, though old-timers continued to sit on the front porches of the Farragut well into the century. A group of businessmen opened the Stoneleigh Manor on Central Road in 1918, but it could not compete with the ocean views the Farragut offered. It was subsequently sold and used as a military school, then a girl’s college. For close to half a century, beginning in 1948, it was owned and occupied by the Franciscan Order, until its tragic demolition in the mid 1990s.
Gradually, the electric car gave way to the automobile. In 1925 the town took over the battery shed and turned it into a town garage where new snow plows would be housed, in addition to other equipment needed to maintain the roads. Small-town life changed in other ways. After the Washington Road school burned down in 1932, the School Board sold the town’s other three schoolhouses and consolidated education in one building where each grade would have its own room, a novel city-type idea at the time.
Photo on right: First hydrant at the beach.
[Courtesy photo/Hampton Water Works]
When World War II broke out, the beachfront changed dramatically. Blackouts were ordered, and the federal government closed off Route lA north of Walls Sands and took over the private residences at the north end of the coast. It also built Fort Dearborn in the Odiorne Point area. Access to the beaches was cut off, gas rationing was instituted, and barbed wire guarded approaches to the shorefront. The restrictions ended with the end of the war, and the shore- front once again became populated.
The town’s first fire engine was bought in 1946, a full-size 400-gallon capacity pumper. Not long after, one of the worst fires in the century broke out in south- ern Maine, and Rye firefighters, along with others of the three states, raced to Biddeford to help. After fighting the blazes for three days and nights, the men came home and organized the Rye Volunteer Fire Association which offered them professional training. Responding to the building boom of the post-World War II 1940s, zoning ordinances were enacted to prohibit construction of one contractor’s plan to build "cracker box" houses along Wallis Road, and in 1952, a town-wide zoning ordinance was approved by voters. Fire prevention continued into the 1950s. A new fire house was built in 1955 and the town purchased a second pumper capable of carrying 600 gallons of water. Three full-time firefighters manned the station.
The 1950s brought drastic growth to the town. A new air base in Newington and the fact that automobiles offered people the opportunity to live in Rye and work elsewhere contributed to the growth of the town. The Central School was enlarged into a junior high school and a new elementary school was built in town. By 1957, the incoming first- grade class at Rye elementary had to be divided into three sections.
In 1960, the town voted to assign numbers to houses to make addresses more specific, and the next year $370,000 was spent by the town, state and federal government for harbor improvements. In 1962, a new gymnasium, with a regulation basketball court, was built at the junior high school and was used for town-wide meetings as well as sports. The Fire Department kept growing, and by 1975, with the acquisition of a new tanker and a new engine, the total water-carrying capacity of the department’s apparatus totaled 2,800 gallons. The old 1946 pumper was finally retired.
Through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, more and more land was subdivided, and more houses built, causing the population of Rye to creep higher and higher. By 1970, the population of the town readied 4,086; by 1980, 4,508; and by 1990, 4,612. With that growth, the tax base continued to rise, and more services were added. In 1948, the town hired only one police officer, and the average tax bill was $84. In 1974, taxes averaged $743 on smaller lots of land than earlier. By 1974, six full-time police officers were employed by the town.
By the mid-1970s, the school population in Rye was 535 students, taught by 31 teachers. Two hundred-fifty Rye students attended Portsmouth High School. In 1976, the Police Department consisted of a chief, five full-time officers and 19 special officers. The Fire Department, meanwhile, consisted of a chief, two fire wardens and five full-time firefighters.
In the 1980s, zoning and building codes were updated in response to continued residential growth, and the town found it had to solve a major problem, that of sewerage disposal. The state had mandated that the town build a waste water treatment plant, however in 1989 the voters rejected a primary treatment facility, and other plans had to be made.
That same year, though, the town arranged with Hampton to construct a connector from Rye Beach to Hampton along Route lA, and at a special town meeting the plan was approved, solving that problem. With years of contaminants filtering into the marshes along the coast, however, the wetlands along the ocean road were found to be seriously deteriorated, and in the early 1990s the Conservation Commission hired Normandeau Associates Inc., to come up with a plan to restore the marshes. That plan, developed and initiated, is just now beginning to pay dividends.
Meanwhile, the town continued to grow. In 1996 the Police Department responded to 126 accidents, issued 1,394 motor vehicle warnings, 396 summonses, and made 180 arrests. The Fire Department handled 307 fire calls and logged 290 runs. Meanwhile, in 1996 the Building Department issued 235 building permits, worth an estimated $15 million.