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A Big Bridge and a Little Girl

Eileen Foley Aged 5 and 80 / and

Ghostly movie images from 1923 show a 5-year old future mayor at her first ribbon-cutting. Not only did Eileen Dondero Foley dedicate the Memorial Bridge as a child, but she rededicated it 75 years later with her grand-daughter. The second girl’s name? You guessed it – Eileen Foley.



EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is reprinted as it appeared online here in August 1998, just prior to the ceremony honoring the historic lift bridge. A few years after this article appeared, the bridge was automated. Its future survival is now a topic of discussion. Sherm Pridham has retired from the Portsmouth Public Library and, at this writing, Eileen Foley is still going strong. – JDR

Memorial Bridge /

he Memorial Bridge is 75 years old this week. Since 1923, the 800-ton slab of road linking Maine and New Hampshire has been raised and lowered over the Piscataqua tens of thousands of times. Like clockwork, in every season in all weather, the giant low-tech roadway climbs another 150-feet above the swirling river. It hovers there as traffic backs up in Kittery and Portsmouth. The highway hangs above the sailboats, power craft, tankers and tourist ships, then, it its own sweet time, falls slowly back into place.

The Memorial Bridge is beautiful, as bridges go, and each time it stops the cars and lets a ship glide underneath, it telegraphs a message from the past. "Slow down! Look to the river," it says," as loudly as bridges speak. "Remember where you came from."

Next week, at 10 am on August 25th, the flat green steel bridge gets a birthday party. Traffic will stop for an hour. Local dignitaries will make speeches and a five year old Ellie Foley, grand-daughter of former Mayor Eileen Foley will cut a ribbon to rededicate the old bridge. That Kodak moment, I'm proud to say, is one of the best public relations ideas I ever had. Here's why.

On August 17, 1923, a five-year old Eileen Dondero cut the first silk ribbon -that opened the $2 million Memorial Bridge. She wore a light melon- colored dress and held a giant pair of scissors in her tiny hands. In the company of the governors of New Hampshire and Maine, little Eileen Dondero took the first official ride high above the river and back as 5,000 onlookers waited for the chance to rush across the new bridge. Eileen's mother soon became the first woman mayor of Portsmouth. Years later, Eileen would take her place.

A 5-year old future mayor Eileen Dondero cuts the ribbon opening the new elevating Memorial Bridge in 1923.

Modern history has as much to do with photo opportunities, as it does with facts. I learned that from my father, who was a Marine on Iwo Jima during World War II. The real raising of the American flag, he said, was not nearly as dramatic as the one staged later for the cameras of Life magazine. Before cameras, we had history painters who gave us their imagined views of Washington Crossing the Delaware, John Paul Jones raising the flag on the Ranger, Lincoln at Ford's Theater, the signing of the Declaration, or the Pilgrims at Thanksgiving. Like Jesus at the Last Supper or Moses parting the Red Sea, these tableaux are burned into our brains. Without photographs, we get fantasies. Both photos and fantasies shape our vision of the past. The more pictures we get, the clearer the past becomes.

Modern roads have stolen our memory of the river's power, but Kittery was once another kingdom. The two states were divided by a dangerous river. If you wanted to get from one state to the other before 1923, you took the toll bridge way down Market Street for two cents. You took the train or the trolley. If you wanted to work at the Navy Yard, you took a ferry. From the air, you can see how little land there is around here. Badger's Island, first footfall in Maine, is a spit of a thing. New Castle is practically all water. Roads and bridges changed everything, and because it rises and falls like the tides, the Memorial Bridge is the last one that dares remind us how things used to be. Bridges used to be run by people. People used to live in small communities and respect the power of the river.

Former Portsmouth Mayor Eileen Foley and her five year old granddaughter Ellie Foley rededicate the Memorial Bridge in 1998. / J. Dennis Robinson photo

The Piscataqua is one of the fastest running tides in the country. I finally learned that fact one day when the seven mile-per-hour tide grabbed my rowing shell and sent it spinning toward a bridge. I lived by letting go of the oars and letting the river take me where it wished. Resistance was futile. I looked, a bystander told me later, like a toothpick in a toilet. I've been more respectful of the Piscataqua ever since. Almost every day I walk from Portsmouth to Kittery and watch the dark river spin beneath me. Though worn and peeling, something about the humanity of that old steel structure requires my presence.

It is called Memorial Bridge in honor of the soldiers who died in what was then called the "great war." Plans for the new bridge in 1919 shared front page headlines with the demise of hostilities with Germany. The building of the bridge connecting downtown Portsmouth and Kittery would change everything. As an engineering feat, it was amazing enough. The footings of the bridge are sunk as much as 82 feet into bedrock below the river. Six thousand tons of sand and 14,000 barrels of cement were used to pin the steel footings in place. The three spans are 300 feet each. In the original bridge, two concrete counter weights balanced a million pounds of road , pulled up and down by 64 cables in just a couple of minutes. In a busy day, the road might make 20 trips in an eight hour shift.

The symbolism of all that moving steel being set in motion by a five-year old girl who would one day become mayor is hard to miss. But the Kodak moment was absent, so I called our 80-year old former mayor to see if she had a photo of the christening. She answered the phone on the second ring.

"I had a beautiful picture of it. The governor was holding me. I had it framed with a piece of the ribbon I had cut," Eileen Foley told me. "I had a story from the Boston Globe too."

But the only known picture disappeared.

CONTINUE the "Big Bridge and Little Girl"

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