The Concrete Octopus: The Interstate Reaches Norwich

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Dave Callaway

Norwich historical society

Just over 50 years ago, Norwich faced one of its biggest challenges.  In 1964, Interstate 91, the new super highway that would run between Connecticut and the Canadian border, approached the village.  The state of Vermont had announced its intention to build two on-ramps and two exit ramps at the shortest and most direct route between Norwich and Hanover.  The proposal did not sit well with the community and a four-year battle over the proposed interchange and where it should be located began.

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The controversy included petitions, meetings, town votes, letters from the governors of New Hampshire and Vermont, and protests from Hanover and Dartmouth College.  Some were upset about the destruction of the hamlet of Lewiston, the loss of Norwich’s small town innocence, while other welcomed the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of a modern transportation system.

The proposed Norwich interchange with new intersections and two traffic lights would make it easier and quicker to reach the area.  But it would double the traffic over the Ledyard Bridge and that meant that the existing road from the Ledyard Bridge to Norwich, Route 10A, would have to be re-routed to cope with the extra traffic.  “At that time,” according to Norwich, Vermont: A History, “going toward Norwich, 10A forked immediately to the right after the railroad tracks.  It climbed up the hill behind the railroad station, crossed McKenna Road, and traveled down toward the village, entering town at the approximate site of the present Norwich sign.”

I-91 Interchange Petition

From the beginning, the board of selectmen, planning boards of Norwich and Hanover and Dartmouth officials opposed the location of the interchange. One Norwich board member in a Valley News article from June 17, 1964, termed the interchange proposal a “monstrosity” and added that with the extra traffic “school bus transportation would be practically impossible, and many students who now commute on foot would no longer be able to do so.”

The chairman of the planning board, Anthony Farrell, offered an early alternative plan recommending that the interstate designers shift the interchange to the “Loveland district, about two miles north of the Ledyard Bridge.”  A bridge there into Hanover would leave “clear the present commuting route between Norwich and Hanover; and for Hanover it would offer many advantages-convenient access to CRREL, to Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital (which was then located in the town of Hanover), and Dartmouth dormitories …to say nothing of easing the load on West Wheelock St.”

A couple of days later, a Hanover Gazette editorial supported moving the interchange north but noted that a new bridge, “across the Connecticut River, directly involves the State of New Hampshire since New Hampshire owns the river bed along its borders up to the high water mark on the Vermont side and would have to bear the expense of the bridge.  However, it is expected that most of the cost would be reimbursed by federal interstate highway funds.” 

In July of 1964, Farrell sent a telegram to Philip T. Hoff, the governor of Vermont.  “I respectfully request your excellency’s personal intervention in matter of final location of the Norwich Interchange on Interstate 91,” he began. Farrell wrote that the interchange would be “a serious blow to our newly formed Interstate Union High School and a deterrent to the future development of Norwich.”  He added that “any change in the easy commuting facilities between the two towns would discourage people working in Hanover from living in Norwich and from shopping in Norwich as so many of them now do.” 

Governor Hoff met with Farrell, heard his concerns and asked that Norwich hold a meeting where their conversation could be shared with the residents.  A few days later, Farrell outlined the governor’s comments at an open meeting of the Norwich Planning Commission and a straw vote was taken to get a sense of the community’s feelings.  The vote was 130-3 in favor of delaying construction of the interchange so alternative locations could be considered.  Borden Avery, the owner of the Norwich Inn, voted in favor of the interchange because he thought the state highway department had studied the options completely.  Another dissenter, Lucy Bridges, who owned a small “motor court” south of Norwich, said that if  “the interchange was not located in its projected site the town would be throwing away a chance for sound business growth.”

Bridges, who grew up in Massachusetts, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar, and moved to Norwich in 1957, continued to lob salvos at those opposed to the state’s plan.  The next day she sent off a lengthy letter to Governor Hoff that was reprinted in the Hanover Gazette.  She wrote that construction of the interchange would eliminate the hill leading down to the Ledyard Bridge from Norwich, “widen the road to a divided road, and correct the intersection with Route 5.  If a sidewalk is included, the new road will be vastly safer than the existing one, both for children walking (how few of them walk nowadays!) and for local traffic.”  She added that delay was dangerous.  “The center of Norwich, with a large grade school and houses, is a major truck route.  Let us get the highway going and eliminate the through traffic.”  The interchange belonged where the Highway Department had planned it, she concluded.  “Let us have it there.  The objections to the location seem ill-thought-out and rather hysterical, ‘let’s keep life as it is’.”

1966 notice of Town Meeting to decide the fate of the I-91 Interchange

In the same issue of the Hanover Gazette, the Norwich Planning Commission, the selectmen and the school board wrote they were “unanimously on record as being opposed to…the proposed Interstate 91 interchange.”

In November 1964, the Norwich Planning Commission suggested the possibility of relocating the interchange in the “general vicinity of the C-B Oil Co. (Grassroots Soccer is located there today) where I-91 intersects Route 5 with an overpass over the Boston & Maine tracks, and direct access to and from Hanover on the River Road.  This would be far better traffic access to the Ledyard Bridge than the old railroad bridge at Lewiston and would keep the interstate traffic separated from the local Hanover-Norwich traffic as far as Ledyard Bridge.”

Bridges quickly shot down the alternative plan.  First, she wrote, to be effective an interchange to the north of the Ledyard Bridge would need a bridge across the Connecticut at that point. But New Hampshire “flatly refused to entertain the idea of building one.”  Without a bridge, all traffic heading to Hanover would have to double back on the River Road, “a two-lane road with a railroad crossing and enter Ledyard Bridge on a left turn, now a blind corner, which would have to be completely re-built.”

When it became clear that the interchange north of town was not feasible, someone suggested that the answer might be to eliminate the interchange in Norwich entirely.  After all there were five interchanges within six miles of the Ledyard Bridge, pointed out one writer to the Valley News. “Certainly the choice available would guarantee easy access to Hanover and Norwich.”

Bridges responded a few days later. “If the interchange is omitted some of this traffic will come across the river at West Lebanon and come up Main Street to the Inn corner instead of up Wheelock Street to the Inn corner.  A great gain!”

In the late summer, just as it seemed that the highway project might proceed, another stumbling block occurred.  Originally, the plans for the interchange assured the residents of Lewiston, the little hamlet on the Norwich side of the Ledyard Bridge, that they would not lose their homes.  But that changed when the planning commission agreed with the state to build a four-lane road from the interstate to the Ledyard Bridge.   With a wider road, the buildings in Lewiston had to go.  By October of 1965, three Lewiston residents were in court “protesting the condemning of their properties.”

Through the fall of 1965 and winter of 1966, the interchange controversy raged and new solutions surfaced. One letter to the editor suggested that an interchange at Pompanoosuc, 5 miles north of Norwich might be the answer. A forum was held at St. Barnabas Parish House in November where it was hoped that, “a reasonably dispassionate discussion will clear the air.”  Prior to the forum, a radio panel discussion on WDCR, which included a Dartmouth professor, Lucy Bridges and Anthony Farrell was held to discuss “points of view regarding the proposed interchange.” 

 From this November forum, two new petitions signed by nearly half the town’s registered voters were sent off to Governor Hoff.  Over 300 residents were in favor of looking for a new location for the interchange, while 100 others asked the governor to have the work proceed on the interchange as planned.  Another petition to block the interchange was circulated and signed by 500 Hanover residents and presented to Governor King of New Hampshire.

Governor Hoff failed to be swayed by the new petition.  “I am going to tell this group that they will have to present an overwhelming case for us to hold this up again,” he told the Valley News.  “We have been through this for a protracted period of time and we have held it up deliberately to give the people a chance to say what they want.”

By June, Hoff had reached the end of his rope.  “I believe that the facts are clear,” the Governor wrote in a letter to the Norwich selectmen, either accept the “present interchange or no interchange will be built in the for-seeable future.”  Hoff added that a “more northern interchange was only feasible if New Hampshire was willing to build a new bridge and that Gov. King has given no indication that they were planning a new bridge.”

Norwich followed the governor’s cue and selected August 16, 1966 as the day the town would vote to either have the interchange as planned or not to have an interchange. Meetings were lined up to discuss the options and a drawing of the proposed changes was mailed out with the dire heading, “Will the projected interchange strangle the life-line between Norwich and Hanover?”

A Hartford selectman spoke at a public hearing on August 9th and stated that without the Norwich interchange, all of Hanover’s traffic would be channeled through the Wilder loop, which he said was not built for it.  Another official from Fairlee pointed out that if there was an accident or an illness, “it can be life to us in Fairlee if there is an interchange in Norwich or death if there is none.  The Hanover Hospital will be that much closer via Route 91.”

The ‘letters to the editor’ section took up extra columns as many spoke out against the “concrete octopus” with opposition to any interchange that would increase traffic across the Ledyard Bridge, increase taxes and according to one letter “turn the town into an Asphalt Jungle.” 

On August 16, 70% of Norwich’s registered voters turned out to vote.  Those in favor of building the interchange won by a narrow 347 to 311 margin.  Governor Hoff, after hearing the results, said the construction of the “Lewiston interchange will go forward as planned…I have considered this issue a local matter from the start.  A majority of voters have backed the plan, so that is that.”

Opposition to the interchange continued, but the battle was over. The final chapter of the interstate saga came in April of 1967, when five homes and several other buildings in Lewiston were leveled by bulldozers so Route 10-A could be expanded.  By 1969, the Norwich I-91 interchange had opened. 

While hindsight is always 20-20, it appears the Lewiston location was the best choice for the interchange.  Although it took more than four years of debate for the wheels of democracy to grind out a final decision, the citizens of Norwich did so in a civil and orderly manner that would have made their ancestors proud.

Norwich Historical Society offers walking tours of the old Route 10A road and Lewiston each summer. Watch the calendar!

Don’t Miss These Events at the Norwich Historical Society

NHS Annual meeting - January 29, 1:30p

Talk: 1816 and Froze to Death: How the Upper Valley Dealt with Short-term Climate Change with Larry Coffin

Sunday Winter Workshops

Researching the History of Your House  with Sarah Rooker and Alan Berolzheimer - January 22, 1:30-3p

Finding Your Roots with with Dan Collison - February 5, 1:30-3:30p

Follow-up sessions  - February 12, 1:30-3:30p & February 19, 1:30-3:30p

Memoir Writing Workshop with Kesaya Noda - March 26, 1:30-4:30p

For information or to register, email or call 802-649-0124


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