At our Rice Public Library, I recently attended a fascinating slide show featuring photographs of “old Kittery” that was put together by Frank Totman of Kittery Point.
Of special interest to me were the photos of the Portsmouth, Kittery and York Street Railway (PK & Y), the trolley line that ran from Badger’s Island, Kittery, through Kittery Point, across Spruce Creek, Chauncey Creek, and Brave Boat Harbor to York and York Beach. Passengers travelled by train to Portsmouth, then hopped on a ferry to cross the Piscataqua River to Badger’s Island, where they picked up the trolley for the last leg of their journey. Vestiges of these trolley lines linger in the pilings visible at lower tides in Chauncey Creek and Brave Boat Harbor, and in secret trails concealed in the woods of Kittery Point.
The PK & Y line operated year round, but was especially busy in the summer months when thousands of tourists took the trolleys to stay at five seaside hotels in Kittery, and many more in York. Summer visitors typically stayed at hotels such as the Champernowne or the Parkfield for a month or the entire summer.
Although I knew that the now-dismantled Memorial Bridge was opened in 1923, I hadn’t fully understood the impact of the Bridge upon the Seacoast. It’s almost impossible to conceive that before 1923, travelers crossed between downtown Portsmouth and Kittery via ferries that ran through the day and into the night. Upriver, a wooden toll bridge was built across the Piscataqua on pilings in 1822 and then expanded for railway use in 1844, just north of the current Sarah Long Bridge, but this old and creaky bridge (100 years old in 1922) was a one-lane affair originally designed for horses and wagons, and not to support thousands of cars. Using the bridge required a toll, so the fact the new Memorial Bridge provided a free crossing was especially significant at the time, perhaps even more so than the fact that the bridge was designed for automobiles.
When the Memorial Bridge opened on August 17, 1923, a line of cars waiting to cross clogged the streets of downtown Portsmouth. The traffic jams became worse each year, especially on summer weekends. By 1927, the trolley line was out of business, and all of the hotels in Kittery Point had closed. A synergistic combination of bridges, roads and cars had swiftly altered the way Americans lived and travelled. People were on the move. Instead of vacationing for a month or the entire summer, seaside visitors became tourists who stayed for a week or two and who spread out among motels, cottages or other New England destinations now easily reached by automobile.
Although the Seacoast had always been ‘metropolitan’ with its ready connections to Boston and other cities by ocean and rail, the Memorial Bridge ushered in a new era and mindset for locals as well. Prior to the 1920s, most residents lived locally. Trips from Kittery to Portsmouth might be a weekly event for some major errand, but residents did most of their living close by their homes, especially in the winter, when living locally might mean weeks and weeks spent close by the home fires. Yes, you could travel for miles and miles on sleighs or skis, but why would you want to spend a day half-frozen beneath a pile of blankets, unless you really had to?
These days, the Seacoast empties out during the February and April school break weeks, making for plenty of available parking at the local market and movie theater. Families jet off to Florida for long weekends, while singles hop on planes for California weekends with old pals. The term “jet set,” popularly used in the 1960s and 70s to describe the rich and famous, has disappeared from the tabloids because the middle class have all become members of that club.
Last summer, when the Memorial Bridge was open only for pedestrian and bike traffic, I began a habit of parking on Badger’s Island and walking to Portsmouth across the bridge. That small change shifted my perspective of knowing these two communities. I noticed the boats docked in the marinas, the sounds emanating from Prescott Park, the ships that had pulled into port to unload cargo. On a couple of occasions, I ate dinner at one of the terrific eating spots in Kittery Foreside and then enjoyed an after-dark walk into Portsmouth to see a movie. Now, with the bridge gone, I miss it often and mourn the changes that its closing has brought to my weekly routines. Instead of walking downtown, more often I find myself in a car, shopping on Woodbury Avenue and at the malls in Newington.
Another era will begin in summer or fall of 2013, when the new bridge is scheduled to open. I will miss the sound and sensation of walking on wood-plank sidewalks, but can accept that non-slip treading will be a safety improvement, especially in wet weather. Overall, the bridge will be more pedestrian and biker-friendly, as bikes will travel both ways in bike lanes instead of on the sidewalk. The original Memorial Bridge helped the automobile hit the big time. Perhaps its replacement will help us to better value what we lost in that transition.
Newsreel footage of the Memorial Bridge dedication ceremony on August 17, 1923. The little girl who cuts the ribbon is five-year-old Eileen Dondero, who, as Eileen Foley, went on to serve as Portsmouth’s Mayor for 16 years.
“Old Kittery photos.” Collection made available by David Kaselauskas. This collection includes photos of the Champernowne and Parkfield Hotels, various trolley photos and many other interesting photos, with comments, from early 20th century Kittery.
Other sources and credits:
The Sarah Mildred Long Bridge: A History of the Maine-New Hampshire Interstate Bridge from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Kittery Maine, by Woodard D. Openo. Portsmouth, NH: Peter E. Randall Publisher, for the Maine-New Hampshire Interstate Bridge Authority, 1988.
“Slideshow of Old Kittery Photos,” by Frank Totman. Presented the Friends of the Rice Public Library Annual Meeting, May 24, 2012.
York County Trolleys, by O.R. Cummings. Charleston, S.C.: Aradia Publishing, 1999.