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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.


Eileen Dondero cuts bridge ribbon in 1923 /

The lost photograph

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. Back in 1998 I called former Mayor Foley (who was then a spry 80 years old) to see if she had a photo of the 1923 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 had disappeared.

"I took it to Washington," Foley said, "when we were trying to prove the Navy Yard was in Portsmouth, because a local person was selected to cut the ribbon on the bridge. I brought it down to [the NH Senator] who was trying to prove it -- I never got it back. When he left, I went down to retrieve it, but his locker was cleaned out and some other senator had taken his place."

I checked the Portsmouth Athenaeum. There were at least a hundred archived photos of the bridge construction, but no little Foley photo. The Portsmouth Public Library had a thick file of newspaper articles on the Memorial Bridge. The Portsmouth Herald in 1923 misidentified the ribbon-cutter as Helen Dondero. The Newburyport News spelled her name "Aileen," but published no picture. We checked dozens of articles, but came up empty.

An uplifting documentary

"Have you seen Sherm's film?" someone at the library asked. Sherman Pridham, now retired, was then library director.

And there it was. Sometime back in the mid 1970s the idealistic young library director had discovered a few canisters of 16mm film. One can, Pridham told me, smelled like a morgue. It contained a rotting silver nitrate reel of the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth parade. Another contained old silent movie clips from the British Pathe News company. Among them was the dedication of the Memorial Bridge shot on film in 1923.

"I didn't know it was Eileen at the time," Pridham said. He sent some of the images to the Library of Congress. All of the film was preserved on video copies and sat on library shelves for another couple of decades. Today you can find archived Library of Congress films simply by clicking on he Internet. But back in the final years of the 20th century, Google was a newborn, and online archives were only a promise of things to come..


Ellie Foley and grandmother Eileen at 75th Memorial BRidge anniversary in 1998 / photo

Fuzzy old freeze-frames

It's pretty fuzzy stuff -- copied from ancient film to a magnetic medium we used to call videotape. But one can clearly make out the massive middle span of the Memorial Bridge being floated into place. The newsreel shows a tiny girl with a big pair of sheers surrounded by men holding their hats. Although Eileen Foley's memory of the event was vivid back in 1998, the film has a memory of its own. A friend of mine ran the short sequence through a snappy digital editing system, then froze a few frames and turned them into computer files. Pulled away from her mother, posing with two governors, the fledgling politician reveals a hint of fear.

Had she seen the films?

"Sherm gave me a copy," the former mayor told me prior to the 75th anniversary ceremony, "but I'm not good at putting it in the VCR. I'm afraid I'll hit a button and burn it up."

So we sat there watching the tape, rarely viewed since the Roaring Twenties. Back before TV, almost before radio, Pathe News reached an estimated 3.5 million neighborhood movie-goers every week. There were far fewer onlookers when Ellie Foley cut the rededication ribbon with her grandmother back in 1998 as the bridge turned 75. There was a gentle cheer and a ripple of applause that drifted into the seacoast breeze. Then a brief parade of antique cars motored across the bridge. For a few seconds, the scene looked hauntingly like the 1923 Pathe newsreel that had moldered for decades on the shelves of the old library.

Since her 1923 debut, Foley told me, she has cut hundreds of ribbons in her lengthy political career. Yet she got a special kick out of this re-enactment.

Bridging communities

"I think the history we choose to tell, shows a great deal about the needs we have," Pridham said. "We invent our history as we need it, and what a wonderful metaphor this is -- a little child connecting two communities."

That's how potent pictures are. They help us see patterns. Pridham’s comments from a decade ago are even more relevant today when the Memorial Bridge may itself become nothing more than photos, films and memories. Some would rather see it go, replaced by a modern bridge or by nothing at all. The cost of preserving historic structures, some claim, is prohibitive. The cost of not preserving them, others believe, is greater still, because without memorials, memory soon fades.

"Today people want the Portsmouth facade, but without all the effort," Pridham said. "Communities are a lot of work. Like bridges, they take a lot of time to build and maintain. Eileen was always willing to do the work…How did she do it? How can we do it again?"

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has named the Memorial Bridge one of the 11 most endangered structures in America. Preservationists claim it is not just an historic bridge of steel, but a vital link between two of the oldest communities in the nation. I like to say it is our Brooklyn Bridge, our Eiffel Tower and our Statue of Liberty -- all rolled into one. And between the lines, it is also a symbol that, in America, a shy little girl in a melon-colored dress may just grow up to be the mayor.

Copyright (c) 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.

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