Thursday, September 8, 2016

Low Bridge, Everybody Down

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on September 9, 2016.
There’s a railroad bridge a mile and a half from Exeter’s downtown. When the Boston and Maine railroad arrived in 1841, the tracks needed to cross Newfields Road to maintain a relatively straight trajectory north towards Dover. We don’t have much information about this original bridge, except that it carried a single track and had substantial abutments to hold it up. Fifty years later, after the railroad had established its dominance in transportation, the Boston and Maine expanded the line to two tracks and the Newfields railroad bridge was too small.

The railroad had supplanted water traffic to town. In earlier days, Exeter’s raw materials and commercial goods travelled up the Squamscott to the wharfs and quays of businesses downtown. The railroad changed the way we moved people and goods. The industrial section of town drifted toward the depot on Lincoln Street. The railroad was king.

Work on the new bridge began in 1892. Not only was it planned to carry double tracks, it would have a wider span across the road. The old roadway was 16 feet wide – enough to accommodate a hay wagon, but not quite wide enough for two hay wagons to pass each other. The Exeter News-Letter was happy to announce, “On Sunday the Newmarket road bridge (as Newfields road was called then) was removed, and in its stead were substituted stringers supported by trestle work. The old abutments can now be taken down, and the work of constructing new be carried on without difficulty. This work was begun last week. Between the old abutments the roadway was but 16 feet in width. The distance between the new will be 26 feet.” While construction was underway, trains roared across the temporary wooden trestle with no lapses in service. “To insure the safety of travelers along the road a man is at all times on duty to lead horses through the bridge. No one should attempt to drive through unaided.” No kidding. To this day there are still people who refuse to drive under the bridge while there’s a train overhead, even though the train is the least of your problems.

Twenty-six feet seems like enough room – even modern trucks are only about eight feet wide. Yet the angle of the abutments turns away from the road in such a way that threading a car through it requires counterintuitive driving skills. More than one new driver in town has smacked the side of the railroad bridge and countless cars in town have the scars to prove it. “I pretty much thought I was going to die,” observed one such novice. Exeter author John Irving famously killed one of the characters in A Prayer for Owen Meany with death by railroad bridge. “There were still some emergency-road-repair cones and unlit flares off the side of the road by the trestle bridge, the abutment of which had been the death of Buzzy Thurston. The accident had made quite a mess of the cornerstones of the bridge, and they’d had to tar the road where Buzzy’s smashed Plymouth had gouged up the surface.” It’s one of those spots locals know enough to navigate with extreme care.

Not mentioned in the bridge upgrade was the height of the bridge. At 11 feet, it probably seemed more than adequate for any type of wagon that might have to pass beneath it. No one anticipated that the David to the railroad’s Goliath would be a weird sputtering horseless machine, just like we never thought the telephone would lead to us having a NASA-sized computer in our back pocket. Ten years after the new bridge was built there were a few wealthy hobbyists in town who drove cars around to the amusement of fellow townspeople. Twenty years later, the first traffic signs were erected. Thirty years later, after the First World War, trucks were hauling goods in and out of town. By the 1940s, trucks were getting larger. The bridge’s 11 foot overhead became a problem during the post-war years.

Today most large trucks are a towering 13 feet 6 inches in height – far too large to make it successfully down the length of Newfields Road in Exeter. Employees at the Exeter Public Works Department, which is located right next to the bridge, have the best view of trucks that underestimate (or perhaps ignore) the multiple warning signs. A sadder but wiser driver will realize the mistake just in time, but with no really good place to turn around, the Exeter police have to assist with traffic while the truck backs its way up to route 101. Those who aren’t paying close attention – or who are cocky enough to think they can make it – wind up peeling the top of the truck off. This has happened often enough that most Exeter residents think it’s a very common problem, although a safety representative of Pan Am Railway, which owns the tracks, say the average is only about once a year. There are more truck peeling accidents in Dover. Professional truckers are skilled and smart enough to avoid Newfields Road and Pan Am says they have never had a big-rig driver crash into the bridge. It’s usually someone with a U-Haul or a substitute driver in a panel truck.

The bridge isn’t enough of a hazard to warrant replacement. Neither the town nor the railroad has ever requested changing the 124 year old structure. Maybe it’s the train’s revenge. Maybe there’s just a hint of diabolical laughter to be heard every time the bridge sheers off the roof of a truck or scrapes the paint from the side of a car. “Show me who’s boss now,” it says.

Photo: The results of a July 2016 attempt by a truck to navigate under the Newfields Road railroad bridge. The photo was taken at the driveway to the Exeter Public Works Department. Jennifer Mates, the town’s assistant engineer observed, “the bridge always wins.”

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