A Big Bridge and a Little Girl, 1923
Ghostly images show our 5-year old
The 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 10am 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.
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 become the symbols that 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 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.
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.
"I took it to Washington," she says, "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. The Portsmouth Public Library had a thick file of newspaper articles on the Memorial Bridge. The Portsmouth Herald misidentified the ribbon-cutter as Helen Dondero. The Newburyport News spelled her name "Aileen," but still no picture. The reference team had already checked the Globe without luck. A dozen magazine articles.
"Have you seen Sherm's film?" someone at the library asked.
And there it was. Sometime back in the mid 1970s an idealistic young library director had discovered a few canisters of 16mm film. One can, Sherm Pridham told me, smelled like a morgue and contained a rotting silver nitrate reel of the Treaty of Portsmouth parade in 1905. Another contained old silent movie clips from the British Pathe News company. Among them was the dedication of the Memorial Bridge in 1923.
"I didn't know it was Eileen at the time," Sherm 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.
It's pretty fuzzy stuff, but there's the massive middle span of the Memorial Bridge being floated into place. There's a tiny girl with a big pair of sheers surrounded by men holding their hats. Although Eileen Foley's memory of the event is vivid, 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. The result, unless someone else comes forward, are the first still images of the moment seen in 75 years. Pulled away from her mother, posing with two governors, the fledgling politician reveals a hint of fear.
Has she seen the films?
"Sherm gave me a copy," the former mayor says, "but I'm not good at putting it in the VCR. I'm afraid I'll hit a button and burn it up."
So here they are, seen for the first time since the era of the silent films. Back before TV, even before radio, Pathe News reached an estimated 3.5 million neighborhood movie-goers every week. By next week the local stations will have the old footage and the new "photo opportunity" at the rededication. After Ellie Foley cuts the ribbon with grandmother, a hoard of pre-1923 cars, trucks and motorcycles are scheduled to cross the bridge in a scene straight out of an old Pathe newsreel. Eileen Foley, who says she has cut hundreds of ribbons in her lengthy political history, has got to get one huge nostalgic kick out of all this.
"I think the history we choose to tell, shows a great deal about the needs we have," Sherm Pridham told me as we waxed philosophical the other day. "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 photographs are. They help people see. That's why it was worth two days to rediscover these blurry images. The insight they provide is crisp.
"When was the last time you saw a community." Sherm continued. "Today people want the Portsmouth faÇade, but without all the effort. 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. We need to ask her how to build a community. How did she do it? How can we do it again?"
All that wisdom from a hazy picture of a girl in a melon-colored dress.
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© 1998 SeacoastNH.com
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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