Hampton Beach in the 1890s was still enjoying its classic Hotel Era, with hats and gloves and German cotillions and everybody in bed and asleep by 10 p.m. Separated from the main village by three miles of farms, woodlands, and bumpy roads, the beach was usually left to its own devices, unless threatened by squatters, seaweed-stealers, or even another state. It then became the most important and most jealously guarded part of town. So even though Hampton was no stranger to its parishes going off to form new towns—she had nine daughter towns to her credit—no one at the time would have imagined that in less than 40 years Hampton Beach would be trying to form a tenth.
But everything changed with the coming of the electric railway. By the turn of the century, its trolleys were carrying thousands of day trippers from the inland cities of the Merrimack Valley to the New Hampshire seashore. Seemingly overnight, Hampton Beach had been transformed from a gently-used summer resort and fall gunning haven into a bustling tourist town operated mainly by out-of-towners, people with no sense of the ancient and unspoken ties between town and beach. Yet the town was happy to accommodate the newcomers, and those who wanted a more permanent relationship with the beach could sublease a 50’ x 100’ lot from the town or the Hampton Beach Improvement Company and build themselves a cottage. Rooming houses sprang up as businesses thronged the still-unpaved beach boulevard.
Hampton didn’t know exactly what its old Ox Common would become in the new century, but it had definite ideas about what it would not become. As James Tucker liked to remind the readers of his Hampton Beach News-Guide, “There are no rattling rides, whirling whips, swirling swings, dizzy drones, silly side-shows or vociferous bally-hoo men” at Hampton Beach. Instead, “a splendid class of [strictly tee totaling] vacationists has been attracted to this resort.”
The beach became a victim of its own popularity. The protective sand dunes were destroyed to make room for more leased lots, roads, and automobile parking, and storm erosion became a serious problem. The town built a series of breakwaters using railroad ties and granite blocks, but they might as well have used matchsticks. The leased lots at White Island, a notoriously unstable section of land south of the main beach, were always hit the worst.
Winter nor’easters be damned, by 1912 the town had expanded the lots at White Island and added hundreds of new ones at Plaice Cove, North Beach, and along the Hampton River. The rent money flowed into the treasury, along with fees from licensing, parking, and the comfort station at the beach. Town reports from the time seem to confirm the common complaint that the mainly non-resident property owners of Hampton Beach were paying the freight for the rest of the town, yet were not receiving benefits commensurate with their tax burden. Certainly, the benefits were not equal to what was needed. After years of wrangling unsuccessfully with the uptown “farmer types,” in 1907 the beach communities formed a separate precinct to fund their own fire protection services. It was the first step toward what would ultimately become a move to secede from the mother town.
While the new precinct solved the problem of hydrants and firetrucks, the town still controlled the money needed to maintain every other amenity at the beach. And so the dispute over adequate municipal services continued.
“Hampton Beach Wants Self Government”
With this dramatic front page headline in the August 24, 1926 issue of the News-Guide, James Tucker ripped the scab off a long-festering rift between the new guard at the beach and the old guard of the town. The subheading “Town Officials At Odds With All The Beach Organizations” made it perfectly clear whence the pus had oozed—an elected board of selectmen that harbored “narrow, restricted, and even bigoted” viewpoints and “high-handed and arrogant” attitudes toward the beach and its needs.
Tucker set before the public a list of grievances against the selectmen, starting with their failure to attend a reception given for the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture as part of Grange Day at the beach. They had refused to allow the town-funded band to play at an event, had dragged their feet on the hiring of a much-needed lifeguard, had declined to lay a sidewalk in front of the Chamber of Commerce building while laying other sidewalks nearby, and were unconcerned about the discourtesy and lax patrolling of the police force. And when the Chamber asked for permission to display its Carnival Week prize automobile in a location other than at the rear of the beach toilets, the selectmen had issued an emphatic no.
“A crying disgrace”
According to Tucker, residents and visitors alike were disgusted by the uncleanliness of the beach, and, when the wind was right, the odor of rotting swill and seaweed (alleged Town response: “Move if you don’t like it.”). Potholes were a regular feature of the North Beach road, and the dark and dangerous “Death Corner” (the accident-ridden intersection at Winnacunnet Road and Ocean Boulevard) was in dire need of proper lighting and signage. In a scene that might have inspired Li’l Abner’s creator, a motley collection of used peach crates and barrels had been tied to the utility poles along Ocean Boulevard as trash receptacles. Tucker said the appearance of the beach was a crying disgrace, and not at all in keeping with the sentiment of the in-town sign that read “Hampton, Cleanest Beach on the Coast.”
“White Rocks situation dangerous”
But the most conspicuous evidence of the town’s neglect was its lack of concern for the endangered White Rocks (White Island) section of the beach. Schley, Sampson, and Dewey avenues, named after heroes of the Spanish-American War, had completely disappeared and some 30 houses had been either washed away or moved. With winter’s destructive storms still fresh in his mind, Tucker hailed the town’s breakwaters as “monuments to waste, inefficiency and extravagance.”
“A legal and lasting separation”
The upshot was that by 1926 relations between the town and beach were “strained almost to the breaking point,” with a number of frustrated Hampton Beach businessmen calling for the Precinct to completely separate from the mother town. It would take another nine years—during which time Hampton made the heartbreaking decision to cede its beachfront to the State in exchange for a State-funded breakwater—but in 1935 Precinct chairman George Ashworth stepped forward to champion the creation of the new town of Hampton Beach. In a report to the State, Ashworth said that most of the uptown residents held “archaic ideas of recreational development” and were only interested in the beach’s revenue producing possibilities (the Town might have replied: “And we cut off a limb to please you, too.”). In a notice to property owners, the Precinct commissioners said that “in no other way is it possible to have complete control over the tax situation,” while failing to mention that non-resident owners without legal voting rights would remain non-resident owners without legal voting rights in the new town. It was a fiefdom disguised as a democracy.
A tenth daughter town?
On January 22, House Bill No. 160, an act to divide the Town of Hampton, was introduced into the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Proponents had high hopes that Hampton Beach was about to become the State’s first new town since 1876 and its 234th municipality. The House referred the bill to a committee of Rockingham County delegates, which after public deliberations resolved that the proposal was “inexpedient to legislate.” The bill was defeated on March 7 when the House unanimously accepted their recommendation.
The Precinct never again mounted a serious attempt to divorce itself from the mother town. In fact, the use of tax money to promote the beach had caused an about-face in the move to separate. In the 1950s, James Tucker, who once supported an independent Hampton Beach, called for the Precinct to be disbanded. In 1979, the state legislature exempted single-family homeowners from paying the Precinct’s promotional expenses. In 1988, the North Beach and Boar’s Head neighborhoods returned to Hampton. In 2002, the Town of Hampton resumed responsibility for fire protection at the beach, and in 2012 the White Island neighborhood asked to be returned to Hampton (but was denied). It seems a tenth daughter town will just have to wait.
Originally published in the Hampton Union, March 31, 2018.
Images courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Hampton History Matters, a collection of new and previously published essays, is available at amazon.com and Marelli’s Market. Contact Cheryl at firstname.lastname@example.org or lassitergang.com.