Fifty years ago, the new 4-lane highway was snaking its way along the Connecticut River. Interstate 91 eventually extended 177 miles from the Massachusetts line to the Canadian border. It was part of the greatest building project in human history. It changed the area forever. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act of 1956, he saw the possibilities of economic development, improved highway safety, and freedom from highway congestion. Amidst the Cold War there were defense implications as well.
The highway was constructed from the Massachusetts' line to the southern St. Johnsbury exit and there it connected to the highway being built from the Canadian line.
Moving north, I-91 opened locally in stages, reaching towns as follows: Thetford and Fairlee 1971, Bradford 1972, and Wells River 1974. A temporary exit from the north to Rt. 5 opened at East Ryegate in 1971 as the highway was being constructed south from St. Johnsbury. The 15-mile section between Bradford and Ryegate did not open until 1974. The section between East Ryegate and Barnet was completed in November 1977.
The exact route of the highway was the subject of considerable debate in the early 1960s. There was a rerouting effort that proposed to have the highway built up the middle of the state closer to Rutland in an “effort to serve more people.” There was an additional proposal to have the new highway be built on the east side of the Connecticut River. Another proposal committee encouraged a plan that moved the route from Bellows Falls to Bethel and the “around robin hood’s barn” to St. Johnsbury. However, that route was discarded because it would delay construction by a minimum of three years and result in a net increase in cost.
As Sohlberg points out, The route chosen up the Connecticut and Passumpsic valleys "was due to a decision to have the road connect population centers and avoid New Hampshire."
As the plans for the highway were initially announced, most residents “were either accepting or resigned toward the approaching juggernaut.” Others reacted differently. Conservative Hartland resident Herbert Ogden “saw the highway as a scourge that would destroy many of the good aspects of rural life in the Valley.” In 1962, the impact of the highway raised fears in Thetford. One resident said, “You are trying to build too much of a highway. We don’t need it that big.” The fears were somewhat reduced when the plans showed the route to be between East Thetford and Thetford Hill rather than through the farmland further east. In response to some criticism, one highway department spokesman suggested that if Thetford people did not want an interchange, it might be possible to eliminate it from the plan. That, of course, didn’t happen.
One of the most intense route disputes was in Fairlee. That community fought to save both its village and Lake Morey by unsuccessfully suggesting several more westerly routes than the one that exists today. A town meeting vote confirmed the community’s support for a route west of the Palisades. The location of the Fairlee exit was also debated. The original plan had the exit opposite the road to Orford. Some proposed that it be in Ely. The location of the exit at Lake Morey Road was a compromise. Based on construction costs, the so-called red route through the village eventually won as it was the only route acceptable to federal officials.
In Bradford, one proposed route would have built the interstate in the meadows east of the village and then on to the higher ground near Fairground Road. That was discarded for the route though the Waits River intervale. The proposal to have the highway reduce to two-lanes north of the Bradford interchange was discarded as well.
The proposed route to Route 302 east of Wells River was built away from Route 5 along less populated and relatively undeveloped sections near West Newbury. There were also competing routes further north between the 302 interchange and Glover.
In 1968, the Vermont Highway Department announced that building of the highway in the Bradford-Newbury area would be delayed for up to 3 years because of a federal freeze on funds and its desire complete I-89 first.
As plans for the highway required the acquisition of private property in the right of way, the state offered each landowner an allowed amount. After unsuccessful price negotiations, the state always had the right to acquire the property by eminent domain. In Fairlee, buildings in Adam’s Square and along the proposed route were removed. In January 1969, the Highway Department offered these buildings for sale. The minimum bids ranged from $50 for a small garage to $600 for a 7-room house. The Fairlee Hardware store that sat at the corner of Route 5 and the Lake Morey Road was advertised for a minimum bid of $400. All sales were contingent on the new owners moving the building to a new location.
Some landowners sought higher amounts by appealing to the Orange County court. In October 1968, local highway necessity cases included 80 property owners and 75 interested parties. Some cases went to jury trials. In 1969, one Thetford couple was offered $3,500 for their 13 acres of land, but a sympathetic jury awarded them $6,800.
The cost of the highway, paid for by 90% federal funds, was about $1 million per mile with some sections, such as the one between Fairlee and Bradford, costing more. That is significantly less than it would cost today. It was also faster than it would be today. That the project was completed in a little more than a decade was “an amazing achievement.” Several reasons for this the fact that land was cheaper in the building period. With fewer regulations on building projects, construction outfits were “up and ready to go once their bids were accepted.” Using a “cut and fill” technique, the road advanced, often filling ravines and wet areas with till. Bridge construction was much faster than could be achieved today.
When the highway was completed, the impact was almost immediate. The changes were positive for some and not for others. Some families lost their homes, and, to the extent the highway negatively impacted businesses, their jobs. Some farmers lost land or found their property divided. Some residents had their wells affected by the construction. As with the railroad and major highways earlier, some communities thrived and others were bypassed. As traffic was reduced on Rt. 5, some businesses languished. The transfer of the Tween Lakes Motel in Fairlee to a residential facility is a good example of impacted businesses. As traffic increased, highway commercial areas developed around some interstate exits.
The best example in the Upper Valley is the commercial development in White River and along 12A in West Lebanon near the junction of the two interstate highways. While the exit at Thetford did not significantly change the immediate neighborhood, the one at Fairlee precipitated several new businesses immediately off the exit, including service stations, a grocery store and a hardware store.
In Bradford, the growth of new businesses on the Lower Plain was directly influenced by the nearby interchange. In the years before, and after its completion, the businesses were developed or enlarged on the Lower Plain and in the nearby Pierson Industrial Park. Access to the interstate with shorter travel times and lower transportation costs enhanced businesses such as Copeland Furniture and Farmway.
The increased traffic at the junction of Rtes. 5 and 25 in Bradford led to the installation of the first traffic signals in Orange County. There were also warnings that exiting traffic at Bradford would use the Creamery Bridge road to the village increased congestion. At Exit 17 on Route 302 east of Wells River, the P & H truck stop and the adjacent Newbury Industrial Park met the public and commercial needs generated by the interstate.
During its construction, the highway between Fairlee and Bradford employed 110 workers. The completed highway had a profound impact on employment, not only at the new or enlarged businesses adjacent to the exits, but also for those who lived locally and worked in larger communities. UVM Professor Frank Bryan referred to the creation of bedroom communities as “the divorce of work and home.”
Previously people were more likely to live and work in the same place. By 1976, one-third of Thetford’s labor force worked in the Hanover-Lebanon area. As many of these positions were well-paid, it enhanced Thetford’s contributions to the economy. This trend was replicated in other towns in the area. New park and ride sites along I-91, and morning traffic heading south from area town, show this connection is still strong.
There was concern that the highway would create an over response to “Vermont, The Beckoning Country.” The locally-produced theater production “The Blog That Ate Vermont” explored these fears. In 1964, 14 area towns formed the Central Connecticut Valley Association to help encourage regional resources, conservation and development projects. At the initial meeting 150 area residents met at Thetford Academy. Over the years the organization was involved in projects including developing employment opportunities and recreational access.
The Upper Valley was more accessible to large urban populations within a day’s drive. This greatly enhanced the number of new full- and part-time residents and tourists. Between 1960 and 2007, Thetford saw a 165% growth. In the period between 1970 and 1980, Fairlee grew by 27% and Bradford by 43%. Bryan commented that the influx of new faces meant that “’Where are you from?’ is a much more common question when meeting fellow residents than it was in the past.” Today, the obituaries of local residents reflect how often many “are from away.” Before 1970, one would rarely see any but white faces in Bradford or Wells River-Woodsville.
The enactment of Act 250, along with local zoning ordinances and subdivision regulations, was a response to the influx of new residents and the development of the second home industry. While these made sense to many, others valued property owner rights too much to accept centralized planning.
There was also a dramatic increase in “so called bridge traffic,” non-Vermont traffic that was just passing through. In many ways, Vermont was a central park between Boston-New York and Montreal-Quebec City. Tourists bound for the White Mountains enhanced the traffic exiting at Wells River. It was not just Americans using the new highway. There was a significant increase in the amount of Canadian traffic. That included personal vehicles and large trucks carrying raw materials and finished goods.
The highway, with its higher speeds, also had an impact on shopping patterns. Trips from the local area to businesses in the Lebanon area and beyond were significantly more common. Area residents were more likely to travel 20 or more miles north or south for dining or shopping. Conversely, residents from aw3ay made trips to Bradford for dinner at Colatina Exit or to shop at Farmway. Likewise, quick access to Dartmouth Hitchcock reduced the travel time for emergency vehicles.
While some local businesses prospered from the enhanced access, others could not compete. The reduction of Bradford village as a shopping destination directly resulted from its inability to compete. The additional impacts from the internet and Vermont’s sales tax only hastened its decline.
The cultural lag that rural areas often experience decreased as the outside world’s impact was more prominent. Unfortunately, the importation of illegal drugs was far easier.
As the section opened between Fairlee and Bradford in 1972, it was estimated that within a year, an average daily traffic volume of 3,500 vehicles would use the section. Route 5 would be reduced to a daily volume of 1100. Some feared Route 5 would be so abandoned that “grass would grow in the cracks.”
In 2021, the Vermont Department of Transportation reports there was a daily total of 1,797 vehicles using Exit 15 in Fairlee and 2,309 using Exit 16 in Bradford. Through traffic at Exit 16 includes 3,258 northbound and 3305 southbound. Traffic on Route 5 is reported as 4,358 vehicles from Fairlee’s Lake Morey Road to the turn to Orford’s Bridge Street and 2,333 from that point to the four corners in Bradford. In all these cases, one vehicle may be counted more than once, coming and going.
As you can see, the history of many of the towns in our area can be divided into the periods before and after the arrival of I-91. It changed the Upper Valley socially, economically, and politically as few things have over the area’s long history. And it continues to do so.