New Hampshire's first turnpike was not Interstate 93 or I-95; it was the Concord to Portsmouth Turnpike.
In 1791 the Legislature authorized a committee to survey and layout a road from Concord to Durham Falls with a branch to Newmarket. Henry Gerrish, a committee member, was also a surveyor. His notes and route survey are in a file at the University of New Hampshire library, together with a sketch drawn to a scale of 200 rods to the inch. The Legislature specified that the road was to be a public road, meaning toll-free. It also specified that the towns that it passed through were to maintain it and pay the land damages.
The road was not just a business enterprise but also an effort to improve trade between Portsmouth and interior towns, perhaps a desperate move by Portsmouth merchants to keep trade from going down the Merrimack to Boston.
The road was completed and opened to use in April 1803. Essentially, the route left East Concord and followed what is now Route 4 through Chichester, Epsom, Northwood and on to Durham, terminating at Oyster River Falls. Some of the original pike can still be seen in different parts of these towns.
Two main bodies of water had to be crossed, one at each end of the project. The turnpike, constructed with state money, did not include means for crossing these waters, which were then traversed by ferries. In Concord, the Merrimack River had always been crossed by Butter's Ferry at the south end of town, about where the present Manchester Street bridge is being rebuilt, and in the north by Tucker's Ferry, close to the present I-93 bridge. At the other end, over the Cocheco River and Great Bay, several ferries operated above the Piscataqua River because of the swift currents there.
In January 1795, the proprietors of the Concord Bridge were authorized to incorporate and build a toll bridge just below the Rolfe and Rumford Asylum, at or near Butter's Ferry. In only 10 months the bridge was opened to traffic and was so successful that the same proprietors requested and received, in December, authorization to build another bridge in the north end of town, at Tucker's Ferry to East Concord. The bridge here, named the Federal Bridge, was swept away and rebuilt seven times in the next 100 years!
Traffic was not heavy, because of the tolls, and shortly after the bridge opened the town voted a small sum of money to be paid to the proprietors so that local residents could travel toll-free to and from church on Sundays.
The new turnpike was not getting enough traffic either, so in 1803, the turnpike proprietors were authorized to construct a branch from the Concord Bridge at the south end of town to connect to the turnpike about 2½ miles from the Federal Bridge. It is interesting to note that a bridge and road along what is now Loudon Road was not contemplated. The Heights area was undeveloped and known as the Dark Plains.
Back at the east end, in Durham, proprietors were authorized in 1793 to build a toll bridge over the Piscataqua. The actual site chosen was between Fox Point in Newington and Cedar Point in Durham, over Little Bay. This site was the best for technical reasons. Currents were too swift downstream and spans were too long upstream. In addition, the chosen site offered Goat and Rock Islands as supports partway across the river.
The result was a timber trestle bridge designed by Timothy Palmer, a noted bridge builder. His earlier truss designs were over the Merrimack in Newburyport, Haverhill and Lawrence, Mass., but this one would be his longest, 2,362 feet! In addition to being the largest arch bridge in America at the time, it was 38 feet wide, allowing two-way passage, and included a tavern midway along on Goat Island. Palmer’s truss design was based on the principles of Andrea Palladio, (from whom we get “Palladium” windows) an Italian bridge architect of 1570. An interesting feature of his bridges was that travelers drove over the top of the arch trusses instead of through them, as we do now, thus giving travelers a sort of roller coaster ride.
Another interesting feature of the Piscataqua Bridge was the proposal for an inland port on the Durham side. A plan was filed for “Franklin City” with streets, house lots, factories, a burying ground and wharves. The city never developed, but the street plan is still in effect and makes for interesting debates before the Durham zoning board. When driving east on Route 4, Cedar Point is about a half-mile past the Wagon Hill Farm (with the wagon on top of a rise on your right), and parts of the old bridge abutments are still visible on the point. There is a traffic light at the intersection of Route 4 and the bridge approach.
In 1807 another bridge was built in Newmarket, the terminus of the southern branch of the turnpike, across the Squamscott River. This one, also a toll-bridge, was still collecting tolls in 1906.
The death-knell of the turnpike and much east-west traffic between Portsmouth and Concord was sounded in 1809 by the construction of a canal around the Amoskeag Falls at Manchester. This, with the Middlesex Canal, opened up the Merrimack River to barge traffic directly to Boston from all of the converging roads coming into Concord. In addition, a second turnpike was built south from Concord, avoiding Manchester.
So, as you fume and stew in traffic tie-ups at Concord’s bridges and along Route 4, remember that this work has been continuing on the old road, for 200 years. Think they’ll ever finish?