Here in Derry I sometimes divide the town’s population into two groups — the newcomers and those here prior to the opening of Interstate 93. Soon, I will probably have to discard that definition because that particular event occurred 50 years ago this July and each year there are fewer of us old boys and girls who remember what we were like before I-93.
The origin of the highway goes back to the 1950s, when President Eisenhower conceived of a highway system to crisscross the nation. We were then in the middle of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and our government saw the need for what was called The National Defense Highway.
Its overt purpose was to move troops and supplies in the event of a war. When completed, there would be a tangle of modern highways in every part of America, extending all the way from Los Angeles to Waterville, Maine.
The first New Hampshire section of this 41,000-mile-long collection of roads was the 3-mile-long stretch from the Massachusetts border to Exit 2 in Salem, which opened in August 1961. This new high-speed road did wonders for the business at Salem’s Rockingham Park racetrack. The 3-mile-long section to Exit 3 in Windham and a 2-mile-long section in Manchester were opened later that same year.
For the next couple of years, construction went on, day in and day out, on the section that connected the two pieces of highway. The road was designed by Clarkson Engineering Co. of Albany, N.Y. It included 12 bridges and three interchanges along its 12-mile length.
There were five contractors involved in the building of the project, which would cost $9,142,322 ,with 90 percent of the cost paid for by the federal government. The Ash Street Bridge, designed by Robert Prowse, was awarded both a national and international prize for its aesthetic design, which spans the four-lane highway without any supporting piers in the center.
Early into the project, it was decided to name the road from Salem to Hooksett as the Alan B. Shepard Jr. Highway, a singular honor for this son of Derry and America’s first man in space. In late June 1962, Shepard took a tour of the project. At one site, he drove a huge gravel spreader and at another he operated a massive crane. He commented later that the road building equipment was more difficult to operate then a space capsule.
At a location just off Route 102, he pushed the plunger that set off the first dynamite charge to begin construction of Exit 4. For his labor, as a temporary member of the construction union, Shepard was given a check, which, as I best remember, was around $7. I’m told it was never cashed.
A year later, on June 28, 1963, the Alan B. Shepard Jr. Highway was completed and ready to be opened to the public. The ribbon-cutting ceremony was held in the northbound lane in Londonderry near the Prowse Bridge. At the ceremony, attended by Gov. John King, state highway commissioner John Morton said, “This new highway should bring great prosperity to this area and, we hope, will inaugurate this summer the greatest tourist season New Hampshire has ever known.”
A telegram was read from Alan Shepard and shortly after 2 p.m., the ribbon was cut by the astronaut’s mother, Renza Shepard of East Derry. Later in 1963, the road was voted one of America’s most scenic highways. A couple more miles of the road, closer to Manchester, were opened later in the year. More northerly sections were added in the decades to come. In time, I-93 would extend 131 miles from Salem to Littleton.
The first accident on I-93 occurred the very day it opened when Thomas Doran of Derry was rear-ended by a Massachusetts driver. The first fatal accident was in July 1964, when a 74-year-old Manchester man was killed in a single-car accident. The largest accident was on Jan. 11, 2009, when a sudden winter’s freeze turned the area around Exit 4 into a skating rink and caused a 59-car pileup. A 12-car accident in the same stretch occurred a few days later.
With the highway open, the time it took to drive to Manchester or Boston was nearly cut in half. You could now work in Massachusetts and raise your family in the green of old Nutfield. The change to the area was indeed great. Soon our fields and forests were being replaced by sprawling housing developments, apartment complexes and shopping malls.
Historically, there are three events that had the greatest effect on Nutfield. The first was the arrival of the Rev. James McGregor and his congregation in 1719; the second was beginning of the shoe industry on Broadway by William Pillsbury in the 1870s; and the third was the opening of I-93 in 1963.
Within 10 years, our population doubled; within 20 years it tripled; and by 30 years, it had quadrupled. The combined populations of the three Nutfield towns —Derry, Londonderry and Windham — went from 10,761 residents before the opening of I-93 to a population of 70,830 now.
The new highway may well have brought about great prosperity to the area, but it also created a demand for new schools, new churches and more traffic lights. It also sparked an increased need for more fire and police protection. Derry is no longer a small town. In the space of a single generation, we turned into a community with a population larger then most cities in the Granite State.
Will the ongoing widening of I-93 bring about more jobs and prosperity to the area or will it merely increase the need for more social services? Will it raise our taxes or help keep them in check? Will a bigger and better I-93 create more opportunities or simply more problems? Time will tell.
Regardless of how we view the road, this is its 50th birthday. Maybe we should honor the occasion with a huge cake with 50 candles — and bittersweet chocolate frosting.
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.