HAMPTON: A CENTURY OF TOWN AND BEACH, 1888-1988
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Chapter 4 -- Part 1
Seawalls, Highways, Condos, Liquor, and Leased Land
In June 1951, General Frank D. Merrill, World War II hero and New Hampshire Commissioner of Public Works and Highways, announced at a meeting held at the Beach fire station, a $2 million program of Hampton Beach improvements. He recommended to the New Hampshire Legislature the following: a 3,300-foot seawall from the end of the main beach seawall to Boar’s Head, another seawall extension from the Head north to the end of the North Beach seawall, one-way traffic on Marsh Avenue (south) and Ocean Boulevard (north), and the resurfacing of both roads to handle increased traffic, as well as a new four-lane highway with associated parking areas from the Ashworth north to the Coast Guard station on North Beach. Since the Korean "war emergency" was then in effect, Merrill said the improvement projects would not begin until 1954, assuming that conflict was over. Another problem area was the Hampton River, which needed dredging and repairs to its jetties. Following Merrill’s announcement, his party, which included members of the Legislature and representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers, enjoyed a lobster stew at the fire station, then toured the Beach and river areas.
Although everyone seemed to support the development proposal, it was not until March 1955 that construction work began, first on the main beach seawall, then on the North Beach extension. The $450,000 harbor dredging was made part of the project as sand removed from the river (which many people believed had washed off the main beach) was pumped back to the beach. Merrill suggested that the amount of fill needed was equal to one square mile 20 feet deep. All of this work was to be paid for through a 30-year bond issue financed by 2,300 beachfront parking meters.
While many people cheered the project, James Tucker had other ideas, which he outlined in a series of Union columns in the fall of 1954. He questioned the source of money for this ambitious project, argued that the Beach would be better served by a road across the marsh from Route 1 rather than the proposed four-lane highway, and said he considered the latter road to be a major obstacle for vacationers on the way to the sand from their cottages and hotels. Tucker recalled the old Manning Plan, which called for keeping vehicles away from the beachfront so that vacationers would not have to deal with traffic. "Don’t hide your only big recreational asset [the ocean and the sand] behind hundreds of parked cars," Tucker remembered Warren Manning had said.
Of course, that is what the State did, and some of Tucker’s predictions came true. He thought that the new highway would only funnel more traffic to the Beach, causing more traffic problems, which it has done, although one can only imagine the difficulties if there had been no divided highway. While State officials liked to point out all they had done for the Beach, Tucker said that all the Beach projects had been paid for by self-liquidating programs except for the North Beach seawall, which was financed from federal and state highway funds.
And this latest project, Tucker complained, had originally included a groin that would have extended about 1,000 feet out to sea from the vicinity of the Ashworth. Engineers believed the groin was necessary in order to break up the shoreline currents, which carried the sand off the beach and into the harbor. Because of a lack of funds, the groin project was dropped. Later, the State announced that the northern end of the North Beach breakwater would not have a concrete covering, just steel sheeting. The 25-foot-long steel sheets were driven 20 feet into the ground and topped with a 15-inch-wide steel channel. Without the concave concrete finish used on the northern section of the breakwater, the steel wall was less able to prevent storm waves from crashing over the highway. The breakwater was sandblasted and repaired several times, but by the early 1980s, holes had begun to rust through the steel.
While the 1955 seawall projects were underway, the highway reconstruction began in the fall of 1955. Extra space for parking in the divided area of the highway was provided in the section south of Boar’s Head by placing the seawall out in the ocean. This created more land behind it for the highway and the parking spaces. The seawall, highway, and parking projects were dedicated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony (complete with lobster stew at the fire station) in June. The seawall cost $675,650; the highway was $424,000. With this highway project completed, the State instituted the now-familiar one-way traffic pattern at the Beach. The plan called for one-way in the summer season only. During the spring and fall changeover periods between one-way and two-way traffic, there was always an uncertain feeling at the Beach because some motorists forgot or just did not realize when the changeover took place. Finally, on October 7, 1985, after a trial period of keeping one-way traffic year round, the change was made permanent by the selectmen.
In the summer of 1956, Beach visitors faced parking meters for the first time -- the beginning of a relationship that has plagued Beach-goers since the installation. Some people, and most vocally Tucker, felt that the meters were a violation of the original 1933 agreement when the State pledged the Beach would be free for all and there would be no concessions granted or allowed. Tucker argued in vain that parking lots were concessions, whether operated by the State or by private business. The State made no changes, and in 1985 meter revenues finished paying off the bond issue that built the seawall, leading local people to ask that the meter revenues be used again to pay for the reconstruction of the old steel breakwater, which was badly rusted. Finally, in 1988, after Governor John Sununu once vetoed the project in 1985 because of the way the funding was set up, the State began a $5.2 million project to replace the steel wall with one of new steel and concrete. With construction limited to the off-season, the project was expected to be finished in 1989.
An unforeseen result of the highway construction was the notorious traffic circle at the junction of Ocean Boulevard with Winnacunnet Road. Here, in July 1956, the police department recorded six accidents in 10 days. The solution to the problem came with the removal of eight parking spaces and construction of another safety island to make the curve more gradual.
In February 1956, the State authorized funds to build a comfort station next to the Coast Guard station. A $25,000 State project in 1956 placed riprap on the front of Boar’s Head, largely as the result of lobbying efforts by the Great Boar’s Head Civic Association. In 1958, the Legislature authorized $18,000 for lighting the State-owned parking lots along the boardwalk; $12,000 more was allocated for prevention of erosion at Boar’s Head; and the rotting State Pier at Hampton Harbor was replaced with a new one. Eugene Mahar, then just retired after 30 years in the Coast Guard -- the last five in Hampton -- was appointed Hampton harbormaster under the newly established New Hampshire Port Authority.
Two other State projects also had a major impact on the Beach during these years. In 1959, the State began planning for a major reconstruction of the main beachfront, to include replacement of the bandstand, space for a first-aid room and lifeguard office, a new office for the Chamber of Commerce, and public toilet facilities. This project, which required federal planning funds and the replacement of the Hampton police station, was finally completed in 1963, resulting in the Sea Shell and other facilities now across the street from the Casino.
The 1960s also saw the completion of a long-sought Beach improvement project: a new road to the Beach from Lafayette Road. Union editor Charles Francis Adams was an early vocal advocate for another road to the Beach. He outlined some of his plans in 1927 and again in 1939, calling for the highway project as part of his overall promotion of marsh "reclamation." Legislators from Hampstead and Seabrook each filed marsh-crossing highway bills in the 1939 session, but both bills were later withdrawn and the dream was put aside when the war began.
In 1952, when the State began to plan for the major improvements outlined above, the marsh route was again revived, with Tucker joining the chorus of advocates. He said the State was planning a new boulevard from the turnpike in Smithtown to the southern end of the Hampton River Bridge, but Tucker wrote in July 1952 that the proposal would only add to Beach traffic congestion unless a road was also built from the New Hampshire Turnpike east across Lafayette Road to the beach. Nothing came from the State’s plans; so, in an effort to ease congestion at Church Street, the 1954 town meeting voted $1,000 for a traffic study. The 1955 town meeting voted $8,500 to build a road to connect Glade Path and Island Path, the first section of a Town-built marsh highway that was proposed to include a bridge across Tide Mill Creek and a connection with Tide Mill Road. Fill needed for this new road was to be primarily rubbish, covered with gravel. For a few years, the town dump was literally the end of this road as it extended from the beach and from the upland side.
In December 1954, Highway Commissioner Merrill had indicated that the State might make a toll-road extension to the Beach from the new turnpike, but in January 1958, after repeated inquiries, the selectmen were told that plan was no longer being considered. Highway Commissioner John Morton did not question the need for the road but said the toll revenue potential was low and high land acquisition and construction costs had ruled out a project "of this scope for the near future." Curiously, three months later, the Union headlined the announcement of the proposed Exeter bypass, which would be needed "to funnel traffic to Hampton Beach around the badly congested business section of Exeter." Not until February 1959, under the governorship of S. Wesley Powell of Hampton Falls, was a new limited-access state road to the Beach announced. After the Town complained that the new state road would cross Tide Mill Creek exactly where the Town was then building a bridge for its own road, the State said its route would be relocated, probably south on the marsh, but that idea was opposed by the newly created Hampton Municipal Development Authority, which had its own ideas for filling the marsh and did not want a highway intruding on its planned housing and marina development.
By the end of December, the Town had filled both approaches to Tide Mill Creek and was ready for bridge building. The State aroused Town ire in February 1960 by announcing that the new road would be constructed north of Hampton Center, crossing Lafayette Road near the North Hampton town line and hitting North Beach at High Street -- a road that could be built for about $1 million less than a marsh route. Other routes had been suggested, including one through the center of town, but nobody wanted that one. The State’s options for a more southerly route called for an interchange (where it is presently located), and then two possible approaches to the Beach, one south straight across the marsh terminating behind the fire station and another from the interchange east meeting the Beach just north of Boar’s Head. Throughout the spring, various groups spoke out against the State’s plans. A Union write-in poll recorded 460 responses, 360 favoring the fire station terminus, 155 for the Boar’s Head terminus, and only 63 for the State’s favored northern terminus. Tucker addressed an open letter to "Neighbor Wes" Powell calling for the southern route.
Finally the State agreed to do another study and proposed a modification of the southern route, to follow approximately today’s Route 51. Unexpectedly in July, Deputy Highway Commissioner Robert Whittaker said the northern route "was it." Residents responded by saying if the State took that route, they would rather not have a new road. The State decided to do another study. Meanwhile, the Exeter bypass was completed and open to vehicles at the end of August, funneling its traffic down Exeter Road to Hampton Center. In March 1961, the State again argued that the northern route was a "must," citing too much expense for the marsh route.
Residents, selectmen, and the Precinct commissioners were adamant in their opposition. Finally, a compromise was reached in April whereby the State agreed to take over the Town’s own marsh highway. This plan had a total construction cost for the road from the turnpike to the Beach of $3.2 million, $900,000 less than the northern route. In July 1961, Governor Powell and the Executive Council approved the new route. Work began in February 1962, connecting the Exeter bypass to the new Beach road. The State paid $64,000 in land damages for a variable 200- to 250-foot right-of-way to allow for future expansion.
At the 1963 town meeting, the selectmen attempted to increase the budget by $150,000 to provide funds for land damage for a planned feeder road that would have connected with the new State road and tracked along the western edge of the marsh to the Hampton River Bridge. Since this proposal had not gone through the Municipal Budget Committee procedures, it was killed at the meeting. Although the Precinct commissioners filed a similar article at the 1964 meeting, it also was postponed indefinitely. As a result of action at the 1956 and 1965 town meetings, a partial feeder road, Brown Avenue, was built from the Expressway to the town parking lot. Eventually it was sharply curved and Brown Avenue Extension was constructed on the edge of the parking lot to Ashworth Avenue. Meanwhile, the state highway construction was proceeding and the final section of the new road opened in August 1963. As many people predicted, the terminus of this road in a congested area has caused continual traffic problems. Occasionally traffic is backed up from the Beach nearly to 1-95, but the route has relieved traffic in the summer on Winnacunnet Road and High Street.
Another long-awaited Beach project began in 1964, when local, state, and federal funds were utilized for some $750,000 worth of improvements to the river and harbor. An L-shaped jetty was built adjacent to the existing jetty on the south side of the river; the north jetty was rebuilt 1,000 feet out from shore; and the inner harbor was dredged and stabilized. Sand from the dredging was placed on Hampton Beach, where a newly constructed stone groin opposite Church Street was expected to keep the sand in place. In 1976, the State provided $380,000 to replace the State Pier at the harbor and to make other recreational improvements at the Beach. The river was also dredged again, at best a temporary solution for an ongoing problem.