Colorful Era of Electric Railways

'Our Town' Logo

"Our Town" by James W. Tucker

Hampton Union

Thursday, September 27, 1951


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One of the most colorful eras in the history of our town began with the advent locally of the electric railway. It provided the impetus which accounts for the earliest and probably the most rapid and the greatest period of physical growth and development at Hampton Beach. The two decades, and a little more, which extended from 1897 to 1920 were not included in the account of Hampton's growth as outlined in this column last week. They should have been, because this is probably the most outstanding epoch in our town's 313 year history, insofar as development is concerned.

First came the electric railway, then came the Casino, then the "Mile Long Wooden Bridge" and with these new facilities for mass transportation and for recreation came the people. The era of electric railways was followed by the age of the motor car and even more people became aware of our town's great recreational asset, Hampton Beach. Thus was a gangling gosling transformed into a golden goose and the transformation was a colorful process filled with fantastic promotions and solid, worthwhile physical growth. Over the intervening years our town has continued to profit by reason of the golden eggs in the shape of additional valuation and other important revenues, produced by the narrow strip of land which is Hampton's eastern boundary along the Atlantic Ocean and which originally was an ox pasture.

Railroads Built America

It is not strange that our town attained adult physical stature with the development of means for transporting masses of people comfortably, cheaply and quickly. That is how the country at large became a powerful nation of forty-eight states. One of the production miracles of the last century has been the rapid perfection of various facilities for transportation and we refer at present to railroads only. Leaving autos and airplanes entirely out of the picture.

Earliest Rail Transportation

George Stephenson of England built the first practical locomotive in 1829. But rails had been used in England for fifty years previous to that time as roadbeds for horse-drawn carts and trucks in the mining industry. In America, a cable railway had been built of logs in 1764 to haul cars over a portage at Niagara Falls. The first horse-car rail system was opened in New York City one hundred years ago, in 1851. The first attempt to build an electric railway was made in neighboring Vermont in 1835 by Thomas Davenport who lived in Branden. Previous to the invention of the dynamo, all the attempts to make electric cars were based on the supplying of electricity by storage batteries, an expensive and cumbersome process.

In 1879, a full size electric railway with one thousand feet of track and a car seating twenty persons was exhibited in Berlin, Germany. Power for this car was generated with an electric dynamo. In 1884, the first practical overhead-trolley line was built in Kansas City. In 1885, a third-rail line was built in Baltimore and an overhead trolley system completed in Toronto, Canada. On January 1, 1888, there were thirteen electric railways with 48 miles of track in operation in the United States and Canada. In the late 1920's, there were nearly 700 electric car companies in this country with over 40,000 miles of track. By this time, however, autos were on their way in and suburban and inter-urban trolleys were on their way out -- including of course, our Hampton electric railway system which at that time was owned and operated by our town. The entire life span of suburban and inter-urban trolleys was less than thirty years.

Promoted Trolley Empire

On August 7, 1889, when there was less than 100 miles of trolley tracks in the whole United States, the Exeter Street Railway was chartered in perpetuity by a special act of the New Hampshire Legislature. It was not until seven years after the charter was granted that a group of Massachusetts promoters held a meeting at Hotel Whittier in Hampton and decided to build the Exeter Street Railway. The chief promoter was Wallace D. Lovell and from that day on, this seemingly shrewd and certainly energetic executive had his finger in more than two dozen promotions, each of which contributed in one way or another to the Aladdin-like growth of Hampton at the turn of the twentieth century. Lovell must have been a colorful, persuasive character, for in the course of his local operations, he built a trolley-line empire of no mean proportions only to see his entire syndicate gradually disintegrate and eventually collapse with the advent of the horseless buggy. In the meantime, his generous imagination, native ability and tireless energy contributed in great measure to the publicizing and expansion of our town. The plans for financing and construction the Exeter Street Railway were probably completed at Hotel Whittier in Hampton during the winter of 1896. And at about this same time Mr. Lovell organized the Franklin Construction Company which, in due time, was given the contract to build the new electric railway.

Trolley Line Built in 1897

So in the due course of events it came about that the actual construction of the Exeter Street Railway, connecting Exeter and Hampton with Hampton Beach, was begun with appropriate ceremonies on May 19, 1897. The start was made in front of the Hotel Whittier in Hampton and from that point two crews of Italian laborers worked in two directions at the job of laying ties and tracks, setting poles and installing the necessary overhead wires. One crew worked toward Exeter and the other toward Hampton Beach. So rapidly did construction proceed that the railroad was completed on July 3, 1897 -- a period of less than two months. It is interesting to note that the large gang of Italian laborers, number over 100, were quartered in the ice house at Drake's Pond. This probably accounts for the fact that this section of town is now sometimes referred to as "Guinea."

Judge Lamprey's Speech

The driving of the first spike
The driving of the first spike on May 19, 1897

In connection with the public exercises which marked the start of construction on May 19, 1897, the first spike was driven in the first rail by venerable Judge Charles M. Lamprey who at that time presided over our town's municipal court. Following the driving of the first spike, Judge Lamprey made an interesting speech. The tenor of his remarks concerned the objections which so many people had to progress and how folks were inclined to hark back to the good old days. The judge told his listeners that a century ago, (1797) when the town hall, then the town [Congregational] church, was built, many people believed that a new building was unnecessary. And Judge Lamprey reported that there was similar criticism when the Hotel Whittier was started 82 years ago (1885) and he stated to the audience, which enjoyed his remarks back there in 1897, that similar sentiment existed 54 years ago (1843) when the Congregational church was raised and 25 years ago that month (1872) when people of Hampton assembled to raise two fine schools, the East and the Center. He expected that many people would object to progress as indicated by the construction of an electric railway, even though in his opinion it was of even greater import than the other events he had mentioned. The electric railway company gave away pictures of Judge Lamprey driving the first spike to every passenger who paid a fare when the road opened in mid-summer of 1897.

Next week, we will endeavor to trace the growth of Lovell's trolley-line syndicate which served Hampton Beach and recount the steps which led to the purchase of the electric railway by the town of Hampton. Yes, our town operated one of only three municipally owned electric railway utilities in the United States!

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