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Little Girl Opens Big Bridge

Illustration by Dan Blakeslee of girl opening Memorial Bridge in 1923 / SeacoastNH.ciom

In 1923 a five-year old girl cut the ribbon to open New Hampshire’s Memorial Bridge to Maine. That little girl grew up to be mayor of Portsmouth. She had a grand-daughter who re-dedicated the bridge 75 years later. Today, that bridge is among the most endangered historic structures in America.  

Illustration by Dan Blakeslee

The Memorial Bridge is on the edge of extinction. The fateful decision -- whether to scuttle or save New England's first and oldest lift bridge -- will be made in 2010. Currently a study is underway to determine whether this beleaguered landmark makes the grade with the Maine Department of Transportation. New Hampshire is on board. Both the governor and the head of the Granite State DOT are pledged to restore the 1923 bridge. But this time it takes two states to tango. Whether a bridge linking the oldest town in New Hampshire with the oldest town in Maine carries water in Augusta, remains to be seen.

Memorial Bridge Opened by 5-Year Old Future Mayor

Since 1923, the 800 ton slab of road linking Kittery and Portsmouth 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 at both ends. 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. "Remember where you came from."

The ribbon cutting

In August 1998 I reported on the 75th birthday celebration of the green steel bridge. Traffic stopped for an hour. Local dignitaries made speeches and five year old Ellie Foley, grand-daughter of former Mayor Eileen Foley cut a ribbon to rededicate the old bridge.

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 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, Mary Dondero, became the first female mayor of Portsmouth. Years later, Eileen too was elected mayor.

Plans for the new bridge in 1919 shared front page headlines with the demise of hostilities with Germany following World War I. 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.


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Friday, February 23, 2018 
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