The Ledyard Free Bridge, with Lewiston in the background and Norwich over the hill, circa 1880.

The Ledyard Free Bridge, with Lewiston in the background and Norwich over the hill, circa 1880.

In the autumn of 1765, John Hutchinson tramped over the trails from Ashford, Connecticut to Hanover, New Hampshire with little more than a horse “upon which rode his wife and babes, some clothing and bedding and also another necessary animal to a growing family – a cow.”* From Hanover, the family paddled across the Connecticut River in a log canoe, with the animals swimming alongside, to a clearing that was soon to be part of the town of Norwich. Jerome Hutchinson, who was three at the time, “was fond of relating when an old man, his distinct remembrance of the appearance presented of the old white-faced cow as she struggled bravely to keep her head above water while swimming the river.” The Hutchinsons, along with another family, hunkered down in a log hut not far from where the cow waddled ashore and became the first settlers to winter in Norwich, a stone’s throw from today’s Ledyard Bridge.

The short gap across the Connecticut River was called the ‘narrow place’ and became an ideal location for settlers to travel by canoe or flatboat between Vermont and New Hampshire. In 1770, John Sargent set up a public ferry and tavern on the Vermont side of the river. Unfortunately for Sargent – disliked by Dartmouth officials for selling rum to the students – he also ran afoul of the law by operating a ferry business. In 1764, King George III had given New Hampshire control of the Connecticut River to the western bank of the river. A few years later, the ferry rights for “the whole length of the township of Hanover” were entrusted to the administrators of Dartmouth College. When he heard this news, Sargent grumbled in a letter to Dr. Wheelock, founder of Dartmouth, that he was “…not about to give up my rite to said ferry So Long as I think Justice and Equaty gives it to me. [sic]” Eventually he relented and turned over the business to the college who then leased out the ferry operation. In 1793, a Norwich physician, Dr. Lewis, who also ran a gristmill, obtained the lease and ran the ferry “toll free to the clergy and College officials, as well as to those who use his gristmill.”

In the 1790s, better transportation was needed for the growing population. Since states lacked the power to tax their citizens to build highways, companies were established to build roads and bridges that were paid for by tolls. The White River Falls Bridge Company was incorporated in 1792, and one of its first projects was to investigate the construction of a bridge between Hanover and Norwich.

The citizens of Norwich bristled at the notion of a toll bridge. At the town meeting in 1796, it was voted unanimously, “that we wish there might be a free bridge built over the river at Dr. Lewis’ and in case we cannot have a free Bridge built there, we rather have a ferry kept there than to have a toll bridge built. [sic]” But the town was unable to raise the funds for the project and had to accept the inevitably of a toll bridge. To soften the blow, the builders assured the Vermonters that they could still pass for free over the water in boats or on the ice in the winter. The bridge would also be open without charge on Sundays so people could attend church in Hanover.

The first toll bridge between Hanover and Norwich was an uncovered, single span with an arch twenty feet higher in the center than at the ends, “presenting a sharp ascent on entering and a corresponding downward pitch on leaving.” To cross the bridge, it cost 2 cents for every walker. A horse and rider paid 5 cents and “a cart or other wheeled carriage of burden drawn by one beast” cost 8 cents. But even with the tolls, the profits from the bridge were disappointing. A toll road leading to the bridge had not been completed so traffic was light. A rope ferry, located north of the bridge, just opposite of the present Loveland Road, also captured some of the business. The first bridge across the Connecticut had structural problems and collapsed in 1804.

A second bridge was constructed in 1805. But like its predecessor, this bridge was also uncovered which caused the trusses to rot quickly and it soon needed repairs. Money was put into the bridge, and it lasted until 1839 when a third bridge was constructed. During its lifetime, the owners provided discounts for the citizens of Norwich: free passage across the bridge on Sundays, free passage during the winter and half-rates for the people of Norwich and Hanover.

Inexplicably, in the winter of 1852, the bridge company halted all discounts. Citizens on both sides of the river were irate. “We have been accustomed to draw supplies of ice from the river across the bridge,” explained an editorial in the Dartmouth Advertiser, “…and a large proportion of the wood consumed in the village is drawn from the Vermont side.” In addition, the railway depot was located in Norwich, and the added tolls would be a burden for those picking up passengers and hauling freight.

That winter, the residents of Hanover literally took matters into their own hands. Armed with shovels and pickaxes, “the implements of highway warfare,” a group of men plowed out a new path just south of the toll road that led to the frozen river. From there, they marched across the frozen river and avoided the toll bridge. Other residents broke through the tollgates and traveled freely across the bridge. Concerned letters to the editor from owners of the bridge sought to calm the waters. “We wish for harmony with the people of Norwich and Hanover, and are ready to be very forgetful and forgiving of the past FRACAS.”

Tensions rose and boiled over on the night of August 6, 1854 when the bridge was destroyed by fire. Arson was suspected, but no one was arrested. The owners of the bridge felt the atmosphere was too toxic to build another bridge. So for the next five years two boats ferried goods and people across the river at the same toll rate as the bridge. Traffic also picked up again at the up-river rope ferry.

In 1855, the toll road down to the river in Hanover became a public highway, and talk of a free bridge was back on the table. After many meetings and much discussion, Hanover and Norwich agreed to share the cost of a new bridge. Hanover contributed $8,500, Norwich $2,000, and the College kicked in $833 to cover construction costs and the new span – a covered one this time – opened in the summer of 1859.

The most recent connection between the towns was the first free bridge over the entire Connecticut River, and for many years the only one without a charge. Its completion “seemed to demand some special recognition and on the first day of July, a large and highly respectable audience from both sides of the river gathered in the College church to celebrate it.” During the celebration, the new span was christened the Ledyard Free Bridge in honor of John Ledyard. (Ledyard, as a young man, had been a Dartmouth student in 1773, but he lasted just a year before he departed in grand style to explore the South Pacific with Captain Cook. Ledyard cut down a tree near the site of the new bridge “fashioned his own dugout canoe, and paddled it for a week down the Connecticut River to his grandfather’s farm.”) Dartmouth professor, Dixi Crosby, concluded the main address by pointing out that the problem with tolls was over. “Long may it stand as a monument of patriotic effort, of generous contributions, of liberal concession, and successful compromises. All parties ought to rejoice that controversy is ended, legal rights protected, and the public welfare promoted.”

From the start, the rugged little bridge showed it could handle its busy location. Goods bound for Hanover were generally shipped to the Lewiston station in Norwich and carted across the bridge. In addition, many Dartmouth freshmen were dropped off at the station, and “walked thru the covered bridge and up the hill to view the Hanover plain for the first time, before making the town their home for the next four years.” The bridge survived a flood in 1869, and stood up to the historic flood of 1927. During the log drives in the later part of the 1800s, “..logs used to jam up so badly against the old stone piers that they had to [be] dynamited to effect their release – but the old bridge stood.”

Still, by the 20th century, modern transportation began to take its toll. According to a Dartmouth engineering professor, the Ledyard Bridge in 1913 carried more traffic than any other one of the twenty-nine bridges on the Connecticut between the Massachusetts line and Canada. One citizen had reported seeing “five loaded coal carts, four automobiles, and the heavy three-horse buss full of people on the bridge at the same time.” On another occasion, just as a thunderstorm broke at train time, “a crowd of students, several automobiles, several coal teams, stage and wagon crowded it from end to end.” By 1933, the bridge, designed for the horse and buggy, could no longer stand up to the volume and weight of the modern traffic and had to be replaced.

The Bridge of Sighs, 1858-1935

The Bridge of Sighs, 1858-1935

Once again the two towns, although in the midst of the Great Depression, decided to share the $136,000 cost of a new bridge. The old bridge was closed to traffic forever on November 27, 1934. The end of the free bridge was like the death of a family member to folks on both sides of the water. One journalist called it ‘The Bridge of Sighs.’ Another wrote, “It’s passing marks the end of an epoch. For the 75 years that it graced the river with its presence, it was loved and treasured by all… tired old friend that has served long and well.”

The second Ledyard Bridge – a straight-forward concrete and steel structure – was just as tough as the first. A few months after its completion, it stood up to the last great flood on the Connecticut in March of 1936. According to the Hanover Town Report, “For a time, at the height of the flood, it was the only bridge open to traffic for a distance of four hundred miles along the river.” The bridge held up well and only had to be altered once. In 1949, the level of the bridge had to be raised by three feet because the Wilder Dam, which was being developed, raised the Connecticut River by thirteen feet. But time and traffic took its toll, and by 1988, on a bridge safety rating scale of 1 to 100, public authorities gave Ledyard a zero!

By 1994, plans were proposed for a four-lane bridge by the New Hampshire Transportation commission. But residents balked at the idea of a larger bridge, and concerned citizens from both states organized a protest. The group, called Friends of the Ledyard Bridge, spoke to state officials and “expressed concern that the average speed of vehicles entering Hanover would increase, traffic bottlenecks now on the west end of the bridge will move into the center of Hanover, and the number of trucks passing through town will increase.”

A political battle ensued and Vermont Governor Howard Dean threatened to withdraw Vermont’s support for the project if the plans weren’t modified. A compromise was reached and the bridge was narrowed to two lanes. Along with the political squabbles, the completion of the bridge was delayed by cost overruns and the pullout of the original contractor. The bridge was finally completed in the fall of 1999 at the cost of more than $11.2 million.

The second Ledyard Bridge is constructed in 1935 for $135,000

The second Ledyard Bridge is constructed in 1935 for $135,000

Yet even after cars were traveling smoothly between New Hampshire and Vermont over the newest Ledyard Bridge, a final controversy dogged the project. Everyone seemed to have an opinion about the decorative stone balls along the bridge. Even three years after the bridge opened, the Valley News still printed letters of protest or ‘Ball Complaints.’ The concrete spheres were called “shockingly ugly,” “blown out of proportion,” and “grandiose.” One person noted that the “12 giant balls present an 83-ton cacophony of concrete.” A final reaction to the balls arrived in early January of 2006 when, according to the Norwich police department, someone drew smiley faces and sad faces on the balls in black spray paint. The Norwich police chief added, “There was a mad face as well.”

The story of the bridges between Norwich and Hanover is really a shared history between the two towns. The bridges revealed how roads went from private to public ownership, how bridge construction evolved, and how people adapted to trains and then automobiles. But above all else, it displayed the cooperation – although bumpy at times – between the citizens of the two communities in solving the problem of how to get from one shore to the other.

And to think it all came about in 1765 as the Hutchinsons watched their cow struggle to keep its head above water and thought there had to be an easier way across the Connecticut River. n

*Quotes come from the biographical sketch of the Hutchinson family in The History of Norwich, written in 1905 by M.E. Goddard and Henry Partridge. Quoted material came from The Story of a Bridge by W.R. Waterman and the Norwich Historical Society’s files on the Ledyard Bridge.

by David Callaway

*Quotes come from the biographical sketch of the Hutchinson family in The History of Norwich, written in 1905 by M.E. Goddard and Henry Partridge. Quoted material came from The Story of a Bridge by W.R. Waterman and the Norwich Historical Society’s files on the Ledyard Bridge.