The earliest form of transportation across the Connecticut River between Norwich and Hanover of which we have any information was the canoe of Nathan Messenger, who sometime in the summer of the year 1765 established a hunting camp near the bank of the river, a few rods south of where the west end of Hanover bridge now is. In this canoe the family and household goods of John Hutchinson were brought over from the Hanover side in the late fall of the same year, at the completion of their long journey from Ashford, Conn., to their new home. This family with that of Mr. Messenger, were the first white persons known to have passed the winter in Norwich, occupying together the log hut of Mr. Messenger. Jerome Hutchinson, a son of John, then a child of about three years, was fond in his old age of recounting his recollections of crossing the river on that occasion, some incidents of which never faded from his memory. The grotesque appearance in the water of an old white-faced cow (which the family had driven from Connecticut) as she swam behind the canoe during the passage of the river, was indelibly fixed in his mind. Mrs. Messenger, at her home on the Norwich side of the river, was first made aware of the arrival of the Hutchinsons by hearing the cry of their baby from the opposite bank, which she afterwards declared was “the sweetest music she ever heard, ”breaking thus unexpectedly the stillness of her solitary life in the woods.
After the founding of Dartmouth College and the settlement of adjacent parts of Hanover five years later, enlarged facilities for crossing the river were doubtless provided. The first allusion to a ferry at this point is found in the town records of 1778 when a public highway was laid “from the Ferry place near Mr. John Sargent‘s to the Meetinghouse in Norwich,” the building of which was commenced that year. Parties of volunteer soldiers are remembered to have crossed here in October, 1780, going to the pursuit of the Indians at the time of the burning of Royalton.
Although the west bank of the Connecticut River had been recognized from the earliest times as the western boundary of New Hampshire, the town of Norwich for many years vigorously asserted and maintained its right to one-half of the privilege of a ferry between Norwich and Hanover. The exclusive privilege or franchise of operating a ferry at this place (and afterwards of building a bridge) was early conferred by the New Hampshire government upon the Trustees of Dartmouth College; but the Norwich authorities were slow to give up what they regarded their just rights in the matter. During the existence of the Second Union of New Hampshire towns with Vermont, the ferry seems to have been wholly in the possession and under the control of Norwich.
At a town meeting held March 25, 1782, it was voted “that a committee of three be appointed to take the care and management of the Ferry by Mr. John Sargent‘s leading to Dresden, in behalf of the Town as our property, it being found that great inconveniences have arisen for want of faithful attendance. And that sd committee be desired and empowered to lease out or dispose of the same for the term of one year next coming to such person as will give good security for constant and faithful attendance. And such committee is further desired to engage such person the quiet and unmolested possession of the Ferry for said term of one year, and that they immediately procure a boat for that purpose. The committee chosen: Capt. Joseph Hatch, Maj. Elisha Burton and Nathaniel Brown, Esq.” It is apparent, however, that before the end of the year the claims of the town were contested by parties in Hanover, for in the record of the annual town meeting, March 4, 1783, we find the following entry: “A letter from Capt. [Aaron] Storrs respecting the Ferry was read. And the question thereupon put by Bezaleel Woodward Esquire to the meeting, Whether the Town will agree to sell the boat put in by the town at said Ferry to Capt. Storrs? It passed unanimously in the negative.” A committee was then appointed to take charge of the boat and ferry for the ensuing year, and again to offer the trustees of the college the privilege of one-half of the ferry; and in case this offer should be declined, “to lease out said boat and ferry in such way as they may judge most beneficial to the town and the public.” Nothing seems to have come of these negotiations, and a year later (March 15, 1784) a vote was carried in town meeting, “that the Committee who were appointed to build the boat two years ago for a Ferryboat between this town and Dresden, be directed to lock up said boat and dispose of the same to the best advantage”; and from thenceforth we hear no more of the town of Norwich attempting to hold or control the ferry.
The first bridge across the Connecticut River between the states of Vermont and New Hampshire was built at Bellows Falls in the year 1785, by Colonel Enoch Hale, of Walpole. This was the only bridge on the river north of Massachusetts until 1796, when bridges were completed between Windsor and Cornish and between Norwich and Hanover. 1 About the year 1794, a charter was granted by the legislature of New Hampshire to build a toll bridge on the river between Hanover and Norwich. That was not the first effort, however, to build a bridge at this point. More than ten years before (March, 1783), the town of Norwich appointed a committee “to act with the Trustees of Dartmouth College respecting the expediency of endeavoring to obtain a Lottery, for the purpose of erecting a Bridge between this town and Dresden, and [to see] whether measures may not be entered into too effect such a design.” This effort was not successful and it was not till 1796 that the towns were finally united by a bridge.
The town of Norwich does not appear to have been at all suited with the project of building a toll bridge. At its annual town meeting, March 8, 1796, it was voted unanimously, “that we wish there might be a free bridge built over the river Connecticut at the ferry at Doctor 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. ”A committee, consisting of Captain Joseph Hatch, Doctor Joseph Lewis and Colonel David Curtis, was at the same time chosen “to open subscriptions for the purpose of receiving any sum or sums of money or obligations for the express purpose of building a free Bridge over the river Connecticut near Doctor Joseph Lewis.” This committee was also directed “forthwith to apply to the selectmen of the town of Hanover, to lay out a sufficient Highway from the College Plain to the river, with sufficient land adjoining the river at the most proper and convenient place for erecting an abutment on that side of the river for a free bridge.” The people of Norwich did finally get the free bridge they longed for, and very much in the manner they then sought it, but it was still a long distance in the future. Three successive toll bridges rose and disappeared and more than half a century of time intervened, before that consummation was reached. 2
To the towns of Norwich and Hanover belongs the credit of opening the first free bridge over the Connecticut River between Vermont and New Hampshire. After much discussion and agitation of the subject in town meetings and elsewhere, the Bridge Company, in November, 1858, offered to surrender its charter provided the sum of $800 was subscribed by the citizens. This was promptly done, and early in the season of 1859, the present free bridge was built by the joint action and contributions of the two towns. Its cost was about $6,500. It was opened for travel in June, and on the first of July it was formally dedicated by public observances under the name of the “Ledyard Free Bridge.” A public meeting was held on that day at the College Church in Hanover, at which speeches were made in commemoration of the event by Professors E. D. Sanborn and J. W. Patterson, and W. H. Duncan, Esq., of Hanover, and by President Edward Bourns of Norwich. The occasion was one of much interest, and general rejoicing was manifested. The bridge has now stood for nearly half a century, without accident or costly repairs, for the free use of the traveling public. It is 400 feet in length, and about forty feet above the river at low water. The larger part of the cost of building and maintenance was assumed by the town of Hanover.
- The Lyman Bridge between Hartford and Lebanon was commenced in 1797 and completed in 1802; that between Fairlee and Orford the same year; between Newbury and Haverhill in 1806; Cheshire Bridge, 1805; between Westminster and Walpole, 1807; Brattleboro and Hindsdale, 1804; Lyme Bridge, 1822; Gilbert’s Bridge, 1839. The Connecticut River was bridged at Hartford, Conn., as early as 1777. Charles River was first bridged between Boston and Charlestown in 1786. Cambridge Bridge was completed in 1794, and Craigie’s Bridge a few years later.
- The architect of the first bridge was Richard Graves, a graduate of Dartmouth College in 1791. It was built with a single span, without any supporting pier, the floor of the bridge forming an inclined plane upwards from each abutment to the middle of the structure. It was constructed of green pine timber and did not prove a success, but fell into the river from its own weight after a few years. A second toll bridge soon succeeded, which stood over thirty years, till worn out by age and use. The third toll bridge, built in 1839, was burned in the fall of 1853. Neither of the toll bridges was a covered bridge. After the destruction of the third bridge a ferry was maintained by the Bridge Company till the completion of the present covered bridge in 1859 by Deacon Brown of Claremont, N. H. Two ferries were supported in early times between Norwich and Hanover, north of the site of Hanover Bridge. One, called the “Rope Ferry,” was located just below the island in the river near Mr. Samuel Hutchinson‘s, connecting there with a public highway which entered the main street of the village of Hanover through what is now known as “Faculty Avenue.” Another, which was in use till about 1840, was about a mile south of the mouth of Pompanoosuc River. A third, in operation as early as 1796, and near the north line of the town, was called Rogers’ Ferry, probably from Ensign John Rogers, who settled very early in that part of the town.