Once It Was Only Dunes And Saltmarsh

Hampton 350

1638 -- 1988

Rockingham County Newspaper -- July 8, 1988

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[The following articles are courtesy of
Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

By Paul Wolterbeek

Staff Reporter

The 'old' bandstand
The old bandstand on Hampton Beach is pictured in this postcard
from the 1950s. Note the bus in front of the Casino.

HAMPTON — Hampton Beach, the tourist mecca widely known for fine sand and pleasant diversions, was little more than a stretch of sand dunes and saltmarsh until the turn of the century.

Routes to the beach were little more than washboard dirt roads until a famous wooden bridge opened in 1902. Kings Highway was the sole road, running parallel to the beach, and Winnacunnet was the best-developed road heading east.

Before the 1900s, there were few buildings on Hampton Beach, but there were hotels on Boar's Head that had been there for the previous 100 years.

But it was the advent of the famous "Mile-long" bridge (actually nine tenths of a mile long but still the longest wooden bridge in the world at the time) that lead to the development of Ocean Boulevard.

"It used to be a long and bumpy ride in the wagon to get down there," according to Hampton resident and historian Peter Randall.

Boar's Head

Randall is writing a 500-page History of Hampton that is slated for an initial printing of 2,000 copies. His book will pick up history where Joseph Dow's "History of the Town of Hampton" leaves off [1888-1988]. Randall said the first hotel in the beach area was built in 1800 on Boar's Head, and was but a small structure constructed near fish houses there. In 1806, another was built on Boar's Head. The Ocean House was built in 1844, and reportedly housed nearly 250 guests. The hotel burned in 1885.

At the turn of the century, a group of five investors formed the Hampton Beach Improvement Company (HBIC), which leased the entire beach from the town in exchange for an arrangement to provide some public services, such as roads, and to develop the area. Over the course of the next decades, the HBIC and town flattened the dunes to make way for beach strollers and swimmers. Although it made for an attractive and expansive beach area, the move has caused a myriad of problems for beach residents with the washouts caused by gradual erosion.

"Those sand dunes are there for a purpose," said Randall. "In later years, the town has had to build breakwaters to stop the erosion."

Washouts And Storms

Fred Gagne knows about erosion. Gagne, 88, is one of the longtime beach residents, and has lived and worked in the area since he came here from Manchester as a young man in 1918. Gagne came to build homes and earn a living. He knows firsthand about the development of the area by the HBIC and the problems of washouts.

Building any permanent structures at the beach was a challenge in those years, said Gagne, because of frequent storms and breakwaters inadequate to protect the mainland.

The buildings stood on poles, and were known to wash out to sea on occasion, as Gagne's own home did with one memorable storm.

"When you had a high tide with a full moon or with a storm was when you really had to be careful," he said.

Erosion problems were probably the most decisive factor leading to the ceding of the beach to the state in the middle 1930s. Routine storms washing out the beach area and "hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property," and the town spending much on inadequate breakwaters eventually convinced voters to enter the deal with the state.

Randall said the tremendous real estate damage from periodic storms prompted several town meeting articles that sought to exchange solid and state-built breakwaters for state control of the beach. While the articles failed the first few times before voters, one was passed in 1933 after yet another serious storm changed voters' minds.

The majority of growth at the beach has taken place over the past century, with the most significant factors occurring at the turn. But there have been hotels on Boar's Head and beachgoers since at least 1800, according to Randall.

Randall said the Exeter, Hampton & Amesbury Street Railway and increased use of cars likely had more effect on development at the beach than even such organizations as the HBIC that lured the first residents.

And in the 1950s, the new bridge went in where the famous Mile-long one had been. The old Mile-long bridge routinely suffered fires from cigarettes and car exhaust-pipe sparks, said Gagne.

The HBIC was initiated by five principals and much land was sub- leased to a West Newton Mass. man, Wallace D. Lovell, who developed the Club Casino complex and trolley line out to the beach.

The trolley line went as far as the Casino area, and development of the two went hand-in-hand, according to Randall.

Lovell built the Casino in order to increase the attraction for beachgoers, and had such diversions as pool tables, bowling, dancing, and bandstand and vaudeville shows to attract visitors.

Casino construction began in 1898 and was completed three years later. It has been added onto periodically since.

In recent years, the HBIC has done little more than to collect rent from beach properties. The lease arrangement has also bound the HBIC to care for side streets. While the streets are actually cared for by the town, the HBIC reimburses the town for the service. The HBIC continues to this day, and the lease is slated to end in 1997.

The Hampton Beach Village District, commonly known as the Precinct, is another organization that has contributed much to the growth and development of the resort area.

Since 1907, the Precinct has been in place and is governed by a three- member commission and annual legislative meeting and is funded by a surtax placed atop the town property tax.

In its 80-year duration, the Precinct has overseen bringing utilities and public services to the beach as well as advertising and promotion of the area.

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