The Old Beach Highway

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the world has changed around you. Either the changes are incremental enough or natural enough that it’s hard to say what it used to be before. And it’s only in conversation and reflection that we recall how things used to be.

I stumbled into this trap on the way to the Deerfield Fair, when a friend took a detour to avoid the bumper-to-bumper traffic that wound through Candia and Deerfield. As we passed down Route 27, seemingly overbuilt in places, I remarked, “You know, this used to be the old beach highway.”

Blank stares ensued.

And so I went about explaining myself, that I had actually borrowed an item of trivia from my parents’ days. But then I realized that Route 101, the road I’d always known as the road to the coast, had changed dramatically in my own childhood. And so I had to go and look back.

This stretch of four-lane Route 101 takes you past the town of Candia. It’s hard to think that for years, the four-lane road ended only another five or six miles beyond that.

As we know it today, Route 101 weaves eastward from Keene and over hills and through valleys and swampland until it ends a few yards from the Atlantic Ocean in Hampton Beach. South of Concord, it’s the only major east-to-west highway. It has two distinct personalities. West of Bedford, Route 101 is at times pastoral, carving through towns like Amherst and Peterborough and Dublin. But halfway through Bedford, the two-lane thoroughfare becomes a freeway, no fewer than four lanes of asphalt providing an express route from the Manchester area almost all the way to its Hampton terminus.

Route 101 wasn’t always like that.

It certainly aspired to be like that. The 1950s marked the early days of the Interstate Highway program, and with federal money up for grabs, all sorts of proposals were on the books. An early one recommended a four-lane spur of I-93 to stretch from Bedford to the Portsmouth area. A later plan, introduced in 1970, was a collaboration between New Hampshire, Vermont and New York to build an east-to-west Interstate between Portsmouth and Albany, New York. The latter project, which might have been Interstate 92, was never approved.

Without federal funding, the road to the beach grew in pieces.

As you pass through Raymond, a four-lane stretch of Route 27 feels far too big for its needs, until you realize it was once the biggest road out here.

The original route follows the path of what is now Route 27. From an intersection with Routes 28 and 3 in Hooksett just north of a movie theater, the road takes an easterly path through the towns of Candia, Raymond, Epping, Brentwood and Exeter on its way to the ocean. The first stretch of the route, from Hooksett to Candia, was originally signed Route 101B. The highway opens up to four lanes for a stretch between Candia and Raymond, and parts of the road through Raymond are still bumpy with the expansion joints of the old concrete roadbed. This is what my parents recalled as “the old beach highway.”

While folks traveled via Route 27 to get to the beach, the state’s Department of Public Works and Highways still pressed on to build a four-lane expressway to the coast. Part of the proposed I-193 spur above had become reality, with a highway connecting Bedford to the new I-93 opening in 1960. A four-lane spur from I-93 reached out to Auburn, but ended there at its completion in 1961. A two-lane bypass highway around Exeter opened around the same time.

Through the 1960s, Route 101 was expanded as a two-lane road, with the intent of turning the existing two-lane highway into an eastbound highway and building westbound lanes alongside it. The highway was extended from Auburn to connect to Route 43 in Candia, and the bypass in Exeter was completed all the way to the coast, creating the Exeter-Hampton Expressway. The new Expressway was designated as Route 51, as Route 101 still forked off to the north to end in Portsmouth.

Just beyond this bridge, the highway used to merge into a two-lane road, with flashing lights, warning signs and simple white crosses warning of the risks ahead.

The 1970s opened with the proposal of I-92, and following its rejection, another plan to build Route 101 eastward as a toll road. The toll road proposal was shot down as well. With neither option available to fund the road, little progress was made until 1981, when construction on a four-lane road from Candia to Raymond was started. The new stretch of highway was completed in 1986, with Route 101 moving from Routes 43 and 27 through Candia and Raymond to the new expressway to the south.

This was the Route 101 I remember from my youth, the one we traversed on weekends heading to my grandparents’ summer camp. Just after the Exit 5 interchange in Raymond, flashing lights and signs cautioned the end of the four-lane divided road, and a two-lane highway wove us through Raymond and Epping and Brentwood on our way to Portsmouth, where Route 101 dropped us onto I-95 north of the tolls.

Just as memorably, signs just beyond the four-lane road cautioned of the number of deaths on the two-lane stretch. The grim reminder was punctuated with white crosses left behind at the sites of the many fatal accidents on that stretch of Route 101. It was meant as a reminder for drivers to be vigilant, but also perhaps a reminder that the road was dangerously underbuilt.

At last, in 1993, a plan came together for the completion of Route 101. From Raymond to Epping, the existing two-lane road would be twinned into a four-lane expressway as far as the current Exit 8. Beyond there, a new four-lane highway would be built through the swampland along the current Route 101 and 27. The remaining stretch of road, the Exeter-Hampton Expressway, would be twinned to complete the four-lane highway.

Not quite open for twenty years, this stretch of highway has evolved with development just off the ramps in Epping.

My grandparents were making regular trips to Portsmouth at the time, so I was fortunate enough to see the road grow from bare marshland to a four-lane highway. The last stretch of four-lane road opened at last in the fall of 2000, completing groundwork that had been in consideration for nearly fifty years.

The road that once carried Route 101’s name lives on as Route 27, and the spur that ties Newmarket to Portsmouth now goes by Route 33 (the end of 101 was moved to Hampton in 1995 in anticipation of the new road). Though to suggest that Route 101 is merely “the new beach highway” is to miss the importance of the route. After all, this is the highway that linked the coast to the Queen City and beyond. Its route allowed the towns along the way to maintain their own character, while opening them up to the world beyond. Epping, for one, has grown considerably just off the highway, with new plazas and shopping centers to cater to the new residents moving in.

This is the highway that made the growth of the Seacoast Region possible.

And it’s hard to imagine that much of that expansion and growth has happened in our own lifetime.

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