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Little Girl Opens Big Bridge

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..


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Sunday, February 18, 2018 
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