Bridge often confused as replacement project continues
DOVER — Despite his place in history as a Revolutionary War hero, three-term New Hampshire governor and the state’s first federal judge, the 275th anniversary of General John Sullivan’s birth on Tuesday, Feb. 17, is likely to go unnoticed by most people.
No celebrations are planned in his hometown of Somersworth or in Durham, where he lived and practiced law.
Even the largest physical tribute to the man — the General Sullivan Bridge – is the subject of confusion.
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It’s not uncommon to hear a Seacoast morning radio commentator say, “Traffic is backed up on the Spaulding because of an accident on the General Sullivan.” But it’s highly unlikely you have driven your motor vehicle over the General Sullivan Bridge in a really, really long time.
Constructed in 1934, the General Sullivan is the green truss bridge connecting Dover to Newington over Little Bay where it meets the Piscataqua River. It was closed to vehicle traffic in the 1980s and is now open only to pedestrians and bicyclists.
Its use as a recreational span likely will continue.
The General Sullivan sits alongside three other spans, two due to be renovated and one newly constructed. The older bridges are the Eastern Turnpike Bridge, constructed in 1966, and the Capt. John Rowe Bridge, built in 1984.
The new span, called the Little Bay Bridge, opened to southbound Spalding Turnpike traffic November 22. Northbound traffic is currently carried on the Rowe Bridge.
Over the next few years, traffic is expected to shift from span to span as the older bridges are renovated and the new span and access roads are completed. The project began in 2010 and is due to be completed by 2020. It is one of the largest construction projects in state history.
Bill Boynton, public information officer for the NH Department of Transportation, said, “There will be two lanes northbound and two lanes southbound and at that point they will start to rehabilitate the old bridges. When that’s done, the new bridge will be the four southbound lanes and the other bridges will be the four northbound lanes.”
Although the General Sullivan Bridge is still open to bicycles and pedestrians, it is supposed to be renovated as the final phase of the bridges project. But there is no timeline or funding for that at this time.
There was discussion at one point of tearing it down. DOT also considered renovating it for general vehicle traffic or emergency use.
Because of its historic significance and the relatively low cost of rehabilitation, the plan now is to keep the “General” a bike and pedestrian bridge.
So who was this guy who got a bridge named for him?
John Sullivan was born on Feb. 17, 1740, in Somersworth. The third son of Irish settlers, his father was a schoolmaster. His brother, James Sullivan, became governor of Massachusetts.
John was an attorney, a general in the Revolutionary War, he was president (governor) of New Hampshire, a delegate to the Continental Congress and a federal judge.
In 1760, he married Lydia Remick Worster of Kittery, Maine.
Malia Ebel, reference librarian and archivist at the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord, said Sullivan was a crucial but largely forgotten figure in the American Revolution.
The society has two boxes of Sullivan’s correspondence from the Revolutionary War era.
“It shows just how involved in the war he was and just how import he was.” Ebel said. “He is not a forgotten hero, but he is certainly a hidden hero. He’s not someone you learn about in school the way you do Washington and Stark. But he is every bit as important as (General John) Stark.”
Stark, from Londonderry, was a key figure in the French & Indian and Revolutionary wars.
Ebel said the Sullivan collection gives insight into some of the major campaigns of the Revolutionary War.
“Sullivan was at many of the most important battles,” she said. “He was at Valley Forge with (George) Washington, he crossed the Delaware with Washington. He was a key figure.”
Comprised of nearly 500 letters, the Sullivan collection tells the behind-the-scenes story of Revolutionary-era politics. Ebel said men of that period had a great deal of pride and honor, and Washington had to employ diplomacy and tact when promoting someone.
Many of Sullivan’s letters are from Benedict Arnold, perhaps the most famous traitor in U.S. history. A hero early in the war, Arnold was eventually “turned” by the British and became a spy. Ebel said there is a great deal of correspondence between Sullivan and Arnold dating from 1776.
By the time Arnold changed sides in 1780, Sullivan was no longer corresponding with him. Some historians believe the British approached Sullivan in 1779, hoping to also turn him to their side. But according to Ebel, he was not someone who was going to turn his back on the Revolution.
“It had cost him a great deal to join (the patriots’ cause),” Ebel said. “He was a close friend of (John) Wentworth, and that friendship was destroyed by his decision to join the Revolution.”
Wentworth served as New Hampshire’s royal governor in 1767 and befriended Sullivan while he was in office. It was Wentworth who appointed Sullivan a major in the militia.
Ebel said most of the documents in the Sullivan collection deal with the war years and do not shed much light on his life in politics.
He served three terms as New Hampshire’s chief executive in 1786, 1787 and 1789. The title was president initially, but changed to governor before he left office.
Sullivan also served as the District of New Hampshire’s first federal judge, holding the post until his death on Jan. 23, 1795. He was 54 and living in Durham at the time.
The Historical Society archives are available to the public. Ebel said two Ph.D. students studying the Revolution recently used Sullivan’s papers as a reference.
“One was doing work on the failed Canadian expedition led by (Benedict) Arnold. Sullivan collected those troops after they retreated,” Ebel said. “He had some interesting correspondence about that.
The other researcher was looking at New Hampshire’s role in the Revolution, according to Ebel.
“It would be great if more people learned about Sullivan because he was a crucial figure in our Revolution,” said Ebel.
MANY PLACES NAMED
Sullivan was such a significant player in the founding of our country that many mid-Atlantic and New England landmarks bear his name.
Best known to most Granite State residents and visitors is the General Sullivan Bridge, which has a solid fan base among historians.
The Division of Historic Resources has emphasized that the bridge is a highly rated and valued historic resource potentially eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. It is the second-highest rated historic bridge in the state’s historic bridge inventory, valued for its key place in the development of the region’s transportation network.
According to the site http://www.historicbridges.org/ the General Sullivan Bridge is the only surviving example of a unique design by Fay, Spofford, and Thorndike. The three central spans of the bridge represent one of the earliest examples of a design that was copied by a number of engineers on other bridge projects. It features a deck truss that transitions into a through truss using an arched shape.
The General Sullivan Bridge isn’t the only one in New Hampshire named for an historic figure.
The Scammell Bridge connecting Route 4 in Durham to Dover Point is named for Alexander Scammell, who studied law with Sullivan in Durham. Scammell became a major in the 2nd New Hampshire Regiment and was the highest-ranking American officer killed during the Siege of Yorktown.
This bridge is a very popular fishing spot when the stripers are running.
Captain John Rowe, whose name is on one of the bridges adjacent to Sullivan’s, was born in Exeter in 1715. A shipping merchant, his most famous cargo was the tea that was tossed into Boston Harbor in 1773.