With any plan to boost the Monadnock Region’s economic fortunes, a familiar tension tends to permeate the debate: Is change worth sacrificing a community’s character?
The rural lifestyle that has attracted the likes of Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau and today’s steady stream of retirees often comes up against proposals seeking to ensure the longterm viability and prosperity of the local economy.
Whether it’s investing in affordable housing or finding ways to reduce municipalities’ carbon footprint, the disruption any changes may make to this idyllic lifestyle typically become a sticking point.
Perhaps no piece of local history better encapsulates this than the 20-year feud between Dublin and Harrisville over a proposed Route 101 bypass.
Some bad blood was already in the water between the two towns in the shadow of Mount Monadnock before that dispute erupted in the 1970s.
Well before the onset of urban sprawl, traffic congestion or even the invention of automobiles, another transportation squabble had led to the very formation of Harrisville after angry residents seceded from Dublin to form their own town in 1870, and by 1878, a Manchester to Keene railroad was up and running.
Fast forward to the outgrowth of the East Coast megapolis stretching from Washington through Philadelphia and New York up to Boston and its suburbs, and many Granite Staters are angry about the prevalence of strip malls and dense units erasing the charm of their towns in Hillsborough and Rockingham counties.
Alan Rumrill, executive director of the Historical Society of Cheshire County, said that while towns to the west became weary of the commercialization they were seeing to the east, the structural issues underpinning the tension over a lack of expeditious east-west travel date back to the Colonial era.
“Most of our main highways here have run north-south, because our settlers in the area — almost 300 years ago — came from the south, and they were traveling here to settle in the more northern areas [along the Connecticut River],” Rumrill said.
With the key rail lines and later state Routes 10, 11 and 12 all running vertically, the Monadnock Region maintained closer ties within the Connecticut River Valley than to New Hampshire’s Seacoast, Rumrill said.
In fact, he noted, many of the towns in Cheshire County were initially granted by Massachusetts, and there was a separatist movement in the 1780s pushing for western New Hampshire to join Vermont.
But as Portsmouth, Manchester and Nashua began to gain economic influence through the 20th century, as freight rail declined, Rumrill said, concerns grew in communities west of Peterborough about travel times along Route 101.
“It’s a slow travel route through Dublin and Marlborough, and so they could have moved faster [with the bypass] — it would have been safer,” Rumrill said. “There are still some accidents on the road in Dublin because it has lots of turns, and it’s fairly narrow, so I think it had to do with economics.”
Before it was dubbed Route 101 in 1921, the east-west path connecting the Monadnock Region to the rest of southern New Hampshire was known as “the Great Road,” “Southside Boulevard” or “Southside Highway” depending on the local lingo.
Through the 1960s, Dublin’s Main Street became inundated with trucks and higher volumes of traffic rumbling through town.
In his 2002 book “Village on a Hill: A History of Dublin, New Hampshire,” author Tom Hyman described the broader issues facing the town’s stretch of Route 101:
“Although Dublin’s share of the highway was only about seven miles long ... that stretch contained one of the two most hazardous sections of the entire road, the other being the high pass over the saddle between Temple Mountain and Pack Monadnock,” Hyman, of Peterborough, wrote. “For a long-haul trucker moving a big semi along 101 in winter, the one-two punch of Temple Mountain and the Dublin highlands could be a real killer.”
Fog, sleet, sharp turns and steep grades made passing through Dublin a trucking nightmare.
Epitomizing these frustrations and anxieties was the giant boulder straddling the median of Main Street in Dublin — an omen for westbound travelers, where the sharp turns and slippery patches led to trucks jack-knifing and rolling over, causing several fatalities, according to Hyman.
The traffic also began to wear down Dubliners of all transportation persuasions.
By the early 1970s, schoolchildren stopped walking along Main Street after school. Shopkeepers complained of the lack of parking and saturated traffic. Homeowners claimed the rumbling of the semis caused photo frames to tilt out of balance.
Once word got over to Harrisville that Dublin residents were considering a bypass for Route 101 that would take traffic away from the downtown — similar to post-Eisenhower era projects along 101 in Milford and Wilton — the chicanery began.
State highway officials recommended carving a path along the Beech Hill ridge north of Dublin Lake and behind the Dublin School, according to local records.
However, much of that territory sat over the Harrisville border, and while Dublin voters ratified a warrant article approving the project at town meeting in 1980, Harrisville residents were ready for what Hyman described as a long, drawn-out fight.
The self-identified “No Build” faction mobilized to expand Harrisville’s historic district as a protection from any work beginning, arguing that the bypass would be noisy and ruin the mill town’s character.
“The two towns that were really involved here, Harrisville and Dublin, are very picturesque, both very historic,” Rumrill said. “And they were concerned that the highway would impact the appearance and the whole character and nature of their communities, I think.”
A doctored photo showing an out-of-scale rendering of the bypass carving through Beech Hill galvanized public opinion, and the feud was on.
“It was divisive, but I was definitely in favor of my father’s position that, even though it was inconvenient for people to get east-west [the bypass wasn’t worth it],” Peter Hansel, president of Filtrine Manufacturing Co. in Keene, said of the debate, which heavily involved his father, John.
“He had friends in Dublin that wouldn’t talk to him anymore,” Hansel chuckled when recalling the blowback his father faced.
John Hansel, who had recently moved to the area with Filtrine operating out of the old Harrisville Mills factory building, bought the No Build faction time by taking the bypass to court, successfully arguing a full environmental impact statement would be needed from the state, according to Hyman.
Realizing if a bypass were approved, it could be redirected through their town, Dublin officials also began applying for historical status in certain areas to protect properties potentially in the line of the project.
Harrisville even went so far as to request the National Landmark designation reserved for the likes of the Statue of Liberty, Plymouth Rock and the Gettysburg memorial.
“At the rate the two towns were going, this entire corner of Cheshire County seemed likely to end up as one gigantic historic site,” Hyman wrote.
Even though social media was not around yet, former Wall Street Journal and Life magazine reporter Daniel M. Burnham of Dublin found his own way to stir the pot by penning letters to the editor in The Sentinel, which many pro-bypass advocates found inflammatory, according to Hyman.
Burnham’s family farm was right in the path of the bypass Dublin voters approved, and he began rallying others to oppose the project on environmental grounds.
The feud lingered through the 1980s and became of interest to then-Gov. John H. Sununu, who tried to broker a deal between the two communities by shifting the proposed bypass to run along the border between them.
But once an environmental impact study stalled and missed its August 1989 deadline, the squabble outlasted Sununu’s tenure in Concord’s corner office.
The entrenched stances of both sides ultimately led to then-Gov. Judd Gregg’s advisory commission withdrawing support for the project on Jan. 31, 1990, and Route 101 has remained largely the same ever since. The boulder was later buried on site during a redesign of the oval after Dublin residents protested having it removed.
Peter Hansel and Rumrill point to the stalemate as a key moment in halting any major east-west roadway from expanding through the Monadnock Region, isolating Cheshire County from the sprawl that came to take over Nashua.
The draft for the N.H. Department of Transportation’s 10-year plan for transportation projects includes only one mention of Route 101 amid the slew of statewide work planned between 2021 and 2030.
Todd Horner, a planner with the Southwest Region Planning Commission, said the focus for transportation investment in the area has largely come down to varying options, like bus routes, instead of expanding roadways.
So was the trade-off worth it?
For Rumrill, there doesn’t necessarily have to be one.
“Certain people view it that way, and they talk about it that way, but I teach local history all the time, and I don’t think there should be a tension [between historic character and economic progress],” Rumrill said.
“Because local history, heritage tourism, the natural environment are all good for the economy in this area — though I’m not sure developers see it that way.”