Journal Opinion Oct. 12, 2016
The Connecticut River has been a reoccurring topic for “In Times Past.” I have written of its role in the settlement of area towns and of the times it flooded those towns. Columns have included log drives, dams and the shipment of local products to down-river markets.
There have been numerous mentions of cooperation and competition between the valley towns that border opposite sides of the river. While it has been a unifying feature of the valley, it has also been a barrier.
This column deals with the efforts of local residents to bridge that barrier. It surveys the earliest ferries and bridges through the early 20th century. Sources of information are the late Katharine Blaisdell’s Over the River and Through the Years, Book One, local town histories and historic periodicals.
Blaisdell gives very complete descriptions of early ferries and bridges in Book One of her series and those seeking additional information are urged to consult that source. Her book series was widely distributed and is readily available in private collections and local libraries.
There were early bridges built over the Ompompanoosuc, Waits, Wells and Ammonoosuc rivers as well as larger streams and gullies, they will not be covered in this column. Neither will the bridges built by the railroad as it snakes up the valley in the 1840s.
From the earliest years of settlement, residents of the valley have needed to cross the river. While canoes may have served first, commercial ferry operations soon followed.
In 1772, just a few years after settlement, a petition was submitted to the General Assembly of New Hampshire for the “privilege” of a ferry between Newbury and Haverhill. By 1773 at least two ferries were established there, one at Wells River and the other near Newbury village.
In 1775 a ferry was operating between Orford and Fairlee with the charter being granted in the name of King George III. There were at least three ferries operated by Bradford or Piermont residents before the end of the 18th century.
After independence, ferry rights were granted by the state governments. Charters generally established boundaries of several miles in each direction on the river in order to reduce conflicts between charter holders. The first ferry in North Thetford, established about 1780, actually operated without a charter for four years and then, upon petition by 89 men from Lyme and Orford, a charter was granted.
Those seeking and holding ferry rights included some of the significant members of the communities. Capt. Ebenezer Green of Lyme and Thetford, Richard Chamberlin of Newbury and General Israel Morey of Orford are just three of these substantial citizens who saw economic promise in ferry operation.
In March 1900 New England Magazine published an article by Max Bennett Thrasher entitled “A Connecticut River Ferry.” Thrasher described a typical ferry operating between the Vermont and New Hampshire shores during the 19th century.
A typical ferry boat was up to 40- feet long and 11-feet wide and built of “hard-pine planks.” They were built with square ends for running up to the sandy landing areas. They were often tied to a cable and pulley system stretched from shore to shore. While larger ones were used for transporting loaded wagons as well as small herds, there were often smaller crafts for carrying walking passengers. In some cases, where traffic warranted, a second large craft was available.
Passengers approaching the ferry landing from the side where the toll house stood would often find a painted sign board of toll charges. Those who approached from the opposite bank might find a tin horn to “hail the ferryman.”
By the mid-19th century, a typical charge might be ten cents for a wagon and two cents for a passenger. Cattle might be one to two cents per head. The fees varied with higher fees during rough weather or for night crossings. Ferries were not allowed to charge more than the legal fee, but could charge less.
Once loaded, “the ferryman, standing at the end of the boat farthest from the shore, took hold of the stout wire rope to which the big craft hung.” He would walk back again and again using the attached pulleys to move the ferry across the river. Sometime the ferry scows would be maneuvered by a paddle attached to the sides or rear or by simply pulling on a rope to guide the craft to the opposite shore.
After traveling throughout northern New England, President Timothy Dwight of Yale College wrote the following observation in 1796: “Crossed the river at the ferry above the Great Oxbow. The boat was managed by two children smaller that I had ever seen entrusted with such employment. But the expedition and safety with which we crossed the river, proved their perfect competency for their business.”
Transporting livestock sometimes created problems. One ferryman explain the difficulty of ferrying sheep: “sheep are the meanest things to take over. They’s jest as likely as not get scairt and jump overboard, and then its’ nigh impossible to catch them.”
Ferries usually ceased operation when the river froze. The boat would be drawn up beyond the flood zone for storage. In the early years this might take up to ten teams of oxen, but as new pulley systems became available, it could be done with one team of horses.
The crossings were not without danger. In the spring there was floating ice or logs from the great log drives. There was always the danger of floods, freshets or uncertain currents. Extreme drought brought changes in the level of the river, creating problems for the ferryman.
Ferries served the area until bridges began to be built. As with ferries, the earliest bridges were business enterprises owned by individuals or groups of stockholders. Often ferry operators themselves were major promoters.
The first bridge between the two states was built at Bellows Falls in 1785. By 1797 there were thirteen bridges across the river, including one at Newbury village built about 1796.
One of the new bridges was built between Fairlee and Orford in 1802. Dwight, the Yale president, described it as “a neat bridge, consisting of one very obtuse arch supported by trestles.” This bridge was swept away by a “freshet” in April 1809. The next year a new bridge was built, “supported by three wooden piers and extending unarched across the river.”
Moody Bedell and other subscribers raised $3,800 to finance a new bridge at South Newbury in 1805. Other bridges were built between Lyme and Thetford in 1822 and between Bradford and Piermont in 1825.
The bridges that replaced ferries were, at first, built as open uncovered bridges. As floods swept them away or weather took a toll on the exposed wooden timbers, they were replaced by covered bridges.
If a bridge failed, as they often did, ferries were re-established until replacements could be built. In several cases, the need for temporary replacements lasted ten or more years. When the bridge at South Newbury was swept away by a flood in 1841, ferry service was resumed for 18 years before a new bridge was opened.
As with ferries, tolls were collected for all of these bridges. A toll house sat adjacent to one entrance to the bridge and the toll-keeper and his family were on constant guard against those who would sneak across without paying. A fine could be levied against trespassers, one that might be shared with someone who reported the transgression.
In The Vermonter magazine in 1906, Gilbert Davis of Windsor commented on the existence of toll bridges between the two states. Davis was a member of a state commission charged with studying the issue.
Davis stated these toll bridges were, as a general rule, “very profitable investment.” He reported the corporation that owned the Lyman Toll Bridge between McIndoes and Monroe declared a 14 percent annual dividend to its stockholders. “The rates were exorbitant and even the ministers have to pay.“
Davis called for the abolition of the 10 toll bridges that remained between the two states. He concluded “the sentiment against the collection of tolls was strong.” “Locals,” he wrote, “occasionally asserted a sportive independence by chopping down the toll-gate.”
After 1860, residents in both states began to call for free bridges, for freedom to travel across the river without paying. They sought to follow the 1858 example of Hanover and Norwich’s purchase of the Ledyard Bridge and turning it from toll to free. When this transformation occurred the toll bridges were sometimes purchased and sometime replaced.
In March 1895 Orford voters appropriated funds so that the bridge would “now be owned by the town as a free bridge.” Fairlee voters appropriated $500, their share of the $5,400 price. The United Opinion later reported “double the number used the bridge once it was made free.”
The North Thetford Bridge was purchased by the voters of Thetford and Lyme in 1897. The local Lyme reporter commented “for a time, taxes will be higher, but in the end beneficial.”
Davis was one of those who encouraged the legislatures of the two states to come to some financial arrangement to purchase the bridges. He believed it was unfair to leave the financial burden to just the two adjacent towns when the services were provided for all. The states were somewhat reluctant to fully meet the financial commitment required and attempts to get appropriations often met with failure.
In 1906 Henry Keyes of Haverhill purchased the Haverhill-Newbury Bridge and gave it to the towns on condition that they make it a free bridge. In 1911, after years of discussion, Bradford and Piermont purchased the connecting bridge. Bradford’s share was $1,100.
By 1916 the toll bridge between Woodsville and Wells River became unsafe. The decision was made in each town to finance a new bridge just south of the old. Articles in The United Opinion described the decision in Haverhill where it was “widely discussed and the outcome so anxiously awaited.”
The vote in Newbury passed at its annual town meeting. A special train was commissioned by the Boards of Trade of Wells River and Woodsville to carry Woodsville voters to the Haverhill town meeting in North Haverhill. The bridge question was passed by “practically the unanimous decision of the voters of Haverhill.” A new bridge was dedicated in November, 1917.
In the years since, older bridges have been outmoded by modern transportation needs, damaged by flood or replaced by newly designed structures. This column has described in other articles the impact of 20th century floods and hurricanes on the Connecticut River bridges in our region and those articles can be found at larrycoffin.blogspot. com or in the Journal-Opinion archives.
The Connecticut River in our area is bordered by towns that have historic connections with towns opposite them. One has only to think of Wells River and Woodsville, Bradford and Piermont, Fairlee and Orford and Thetford and Lyme to recognize these cross-river connections.
Many readers will acknowledge that they frequently work, play, worship, shop and seek medical assistance on the opposite side of the river. They cross and recross the river so often it loses any sense of a barrier it might otherwise pose. Ferries and bridges have historically played a significant role in creating that state of mind and bridges still do.
Hail the Ferryman. Flat-bottomed ferryboats similar to this one were a major mode for crossing the Connecticut River in our area during the first 50 to 75 years after settlement. Often a traveler could hail the ferryman from the opposite side of the river by blowing a tin horn. Smaller scows were sometimes available to transport a single passenger on foot.
Toll Gate Stands Guard. The toll house and toll gate at Woodsville is pictured here around 1900. The double-decker bridge carried railroad traffic on the upper level and road traffic on the lower. In 1916 the towns of Newbury and Haverhill voted to replace the toll bridge with a newly-built free bridge. (Katharine Blaisdell, Book One)