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Column: The Interstate Chase: When Upper Valley Towns Won, and Lost

Sunday, February 21, 2016
It was 60 years ago that President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the legislation creating the interstate highway system, at the time the greatest public works initiative ever undertaken in the United States and sold as a vital part of Cold War-era defenses against potential aggression by the Soviet Union and its communist allies. It would create a network of 41,000 miles of superhighways whose primary purpose would be to move ground forces rapidly, and it was expected to be completed in just 10 years.

But it took more than 40 years before it was virtually complete, and its role as a key piece of national defense strategy would diminish over time. Instead it would transform civilian transportation and bring about economic and social developments that were almost unimaginable when the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act took effect in 1956.

Lost in the fog of time is a fascinating little story of how a piece of the interstate highway system reached the Upper Valley region and caused enormous changes for better and for worse, a story that is steeped in the politics of both New Hampshire and Vermont, and whose principal figures have now all passed on.

The federal legislation mandated that Washington would determine the approximate routes the various new highways would go, while each state would work out the specific locations for each right-of-way. By 1960 there was little controversy over Route 91 coming up the Connecticut Valley from the Hartford, Conn.-Springfield, Mass. area — it would be on the Vermont side of the river, although earlier it had been proposed to enter Vermont at Bennington and run up the west side of the state, an idea quashed by the greater clout of Massachusetts and Connecticut interests.

But Route 89 running from Concord to the Canadian border southeast of Montreal would be a different story altogether.

A display of vintage photographs chronicling interstate highway construction in Vermont that is hosted in an I-89 rest area building in Williston speaks to what would become a protracted struggle over the routing of I-89. In the collection is a circa-1958 photograph of two men standing before a map of the state that is marked with lines roughly depicting potential routes. The men are Gov. Joe Johnson and Carl E. “Charlie” Kelton of Hartford, chairman of the Vermont Highway Board.

Examine the lines on the map closely and you see one path entering Vermont somewhere between Windsor and Springfield and running west over to Rutland and then north through Middlebury toward Burlington. And another seems to follow the White River Valley from Hartford northwest toward Randolph and Montpelier and on to Burlington.

By 1960 the struggle over the eventual course Route 89 would take was joined, particularly by chambers of commerce and newspaper editorial writers in Claremont and Rutland. They argued for 89 to swing west at Warner, N.H., at what is now Exit 9, and run south of Mount Sunapee, through Claremont, crossing into Vermont, going on to Rutland and then up the Champlain Valley.

Support for a route through New London, Lebanon, White River Junction and up the spine of Vermont to Montpelier was more muted, but behind the scenes there was considerable lobbying pressure exerted in both states to choose the more northerly alternative.

Steve Borofsky, a lawyer in Manchester, recalls that his late father, Martin, a pillar in the Claremont business community and a long-time city councilman and mayor, tirelessly advocated for I-89 to come through his city. “I recall dad sitting with his elbows on the table years later saying it would have been so different for Claremont had we gotten that road,” the younger Borofsky says.

As late as early 1963, people in Claremont and Rutland were being implored to write to the head of the Federal Highway Administration pleading for I-89 to come their way. Officials in both New Hampshire and Vermont had largely stacked the deck against them by this time, however, as New Hampshire had already built a partial segment between Grantham and Lebanon and Vermont had finished the stretch along the Winooski River from Montpelier to Burlington.

Word would come from Washington later in 1963 that the Lebanon-White River Junction alternative would be the chosen route, and thus ended a tug-of-war that had run for close to five years.

So what were the forces on the side that won the struggle?

I will submit it was the political powers arrayed for the northern route that were the main factor, pure and simple. Consider these: James C. Cleveland, congressman, New London; Lane Dwinell, governor, Lebanon; Norris Cotton, United States senator, Lebanon; Carl E. Kelton, Vermont Highway Board chairman, Hartford; and, of course, Dartmouth College. The other side simply had no such firepower to match.

Two years ago I talked a while with Charlie Kelton at the Cornish Fair and I put my brief to him. He looked at me for a minute or so and then said simply “You’ve got that about right.” Kelton, who died last year, added that the fortunes of Claremont and Rutland obviously would have been quite different today had they won the I-89 fight, but the eventual choice was always the better one, in his view.

Looking at old clippings and microfilm related to the coming of the interstates to the Upper Valley reminds me of some other aspects I’d almost forgotten.

Not everyone thought the superhighways creeping ever closer in the 1960s was enamored of the idea. One in particular was Herbert Ogden, the curmudgeonly Hartland cider mill operator, three-term state senator and lifelong advocate of home rule for Vermont towns. Ogden saw the highways as a scourge that would destroy many of the good aspects of rural life in the valley.

He published his own pamphlets and wrote often to area newspapers warning of the negative effects the interstates would bring. Some people who knew Ogden and were around to read his writings will say today what he forecast has turned out to be more right than wrong.

A very sad story I’d almost forgotten was of the man in Ascutneyville who stubbornly refused to sign over his farm when the right-of-way for Route 91 was being acquired by the state and eventually set fire to his buildings and perished in the inferno.

The last stretch of interstate highway to be built in Vermont was stalled for several years in a bitter dispute over its path through a landmark Northeast Kingdom farm. Route I-93 crossing the Connecticut River from Littleton, N.H., and tying into I-91 at St. Johnsbury would divide the sprawling meadows of the Gingue dairy farm in Waterford, Vt., at a time when preservation of prime agricultural land was becoming a major public concern in the state. Finally in 1981, Gov. Richard Snelling ordered construction to go forward and the last Vermont interstate segment was opened to traffic in 1985.

I’ve always thought there was something dramatically wrong when Lebanon got four exits off the interstate while Windsor got zero. Imagine Lebanon without any one of those four exits today— think of no Route 12A strip, a greatly scaled-down Miracle Mile/Mechanic Street and Route 120/Heater Road, or much less convenient access to Enfield and Canaan. It’s at least four miles either way to get to Windsor off I-91, even though it zips by a half mile from downtown.

And then you can muse about what may have happened over Rutland way. Vermont built a nice four-lane superhighway to upgrade U.S. Route 4 from Rutland to the New York state line. Was there an assumption that New York would continue that project over to the Northway (Route I-87) in the Glens Falls-Lake George area?

And do you suppose Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller pulled the plug on that idea after Vermont went Democratic and elected Phil Hoff governor? Who knows, but the New York stretch of U.S. 4 and various secondary roads to get to I-87 can be arduous after zooming from Rutland to Fair Haven at 70 or so. And suppose some dreamer somewhere in the highway-building bureaucracy 50 years ago thought perhaps the Claremont-Rutland route for 89 could have had a nice link to the Northway via a Route 4 superhighway?

Who knows?

Steve Taylor lives and farms in Meriden. He contributes occasionally to the Valley News.

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