Friday, December 18, 2020

Before the memory fades: Stubborn elderly drivers and car crashes help pave the way for the creation of Foster’s Corner rotary

By Walter Lunt

Widespread use of the automobile in the 1920s raised certain safety issues in many small towns. In Windham, the increased numbers and greater speeds of cars and trucks forced local officials to consider the condition of its narrow, windy, mostly dirt roads. Many were little more than reconstructed wagon paths.

The following decades brought more challenges as vehicles became bigger, faster and more numerous. One of the biggest problem spots was the intersection of state highways Route 302 and Gray Road (Route 202). Until the 1950s, Gray Road ran just north of the present-day rotary at Foster’s Corner and is today named Lott’s Drive. In the 1930s and 1940s motorists were required to yield, not stop, at the intersection;  but due to a rising number of accidents, transportation officials placed stop signs on the Gray Road crossing. Many long-time, mostly older, drivers were incensed!

Four persons were injured, none seriously, in this
Collision of two sedans at the old Gray Road 
(Lott's Drive) and Route 302 in August 1949. 
The black car on the left had just run a stop sign.
Accidents like this one led to the creation of the 
Foster's Corner rotary, just south of this location.
The Red & White grocery store in the background
would later become Seavey's Appliance. PHOTO
George Hall, who grew up in the neighborhood, remembers their persistent and obstinate opposition: “I’ve never had to stop here…and I’m not gonna start now!”

As the arguments over the stop signs heated up and persisted, the intersection grew more dangerous. “It was common to have an accident there at least twice a month in the summer.” according to Hall, “…usually a fender bender and a few roll-overs.” Serious injuries were rare, …”because the cars did not travel as fast back then.”

The biggest problem was medical treatment for the crash victims. Hall explained, “There were no rescue units then (so) the local people would come and help (and) drive them to a Portland hospital in their personal cars. If it was a serious injury the local undertaker would bring his hearse for the transport, (but) often-times…it could be an hour’s wait.”

Hall remembers an old story oft told during those times. It seems there was a collision involving a beer delivery truck. One of the local men who was helping with the clean-up wore heavy overalls with large pockets, which he filled with cans of beer. A fellow worker approached him from behind and cut the man’s suspenders, “dropping his over-loaded overalls to the ground.”

By 1950, the accident rate at the intersection had become untenable. A blinking light was installed, to no avail.

Finally, the state Department of Transportation decided on a relatively new safety design for the dangerous corner – a rotary. Engineering plans called for straightening and improving Gray Road from Windham Center to the Gray town line. The nearly mile-long section, now known as Lott’s Drive, included homes and businesses, so could not be eliminated. The rotary, located just south of the accident-prone intersection, enabled motorists to barely slow down when entering from either Route 202 or 302. The innovative and safer circular intersection opened in 1951.

Trees, nursery-grown and already 18-years old, were added to the spacious center of the rotary in 1956. Today, their graceful branches, adorned with bright lights, greet travelers with a spectacular display of holiday cheer.

Beginning in 1987, as part of Windham’s 250th birthday celebration, beautiful flower gardens were added to the rotary’s four points of entry.  Every year since then, dozens of citizen volunteers have donated time, materials and funds toward keeping the gardens blooming with cheery, colorful annuals and perennials.

Today, with traffic going faster and the number of accidents rising, perhaps it’s time re-examine the Foster’s Corner rotary – maybe another relatively new safety design.

Next time, more on the history of the neighborhood known as the rotary.  < 



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