Malfunction Junction: A eulogy

Malfunction Junction has long been considered the center of downtown Manchester. It is the confluence of three major highways, and - since the early days - has been traveled by a steady stream of residents and visitors alike. In the 1820s, it was the hub for many mills and businesses. The actual Flatroad part (Routes 11-30) wasn't built until 1853. Surrounding the river at the junction, were a distillery, sawmill, gristmill and fulling mill, as well as a tannery, all owned by a long list of Manchester residents. Inevitably, as ownership and usage changed hands, pieces of former buildings were incorporated into their newer uses until that business, in turn, ceased operations or moved to other locations in town. There are still structures which are standing today, most notably some of the buildings on the Kimball property.

Over the years an endless stream of people have passed through this relatively small parcel of land. Generations of soldiers, politicians, parades, funerals, locals and tourists have picked their way through its disjointed lanes. The junction has seen everything from horses to electric cars. Generations of children have walked through on their way to school and back home again. The intersection has been like a camera to the soul of Manchester. Its pictures would tell the story of a town in transition.

As a child, I would spend many a day standing on what I called the Millpond Bridge, watching the world go by. With the fish pole in hand, many of my boyhood days were filled with a sense of being a part of our town's ebb and flow. I spent many hours fishing in the Millpond below the junction infrastructure. Side-hooked suckers were often seen as entertainment to visitors passing by. But when the same fish was "caught" over and over again for amusement, the poor fish eventually lost all of its wriggling ability, and the excitement of the whole event was deemed over. An interesting sidelight to all of this is that it was common to see raw sewerage floating down the river, as direct dumping was still rampant. Needless to say, we never ate the fish!

Much has been written about this intersection. The discussions about its future have been endless. It became noteworthy enough to be dubbed "Malfunction Junction" by members of the local Lions Club during a skit performed at their annual Talent Show sometime in the 1960s. I remember laughing out loud when I heard it for the first time. Little did they know how totally accurate they had named it. There has always been some "malfunction" at the junction, for sure.

The discussions and full scaled arguments for and against it would fill many bytes of today's storage devices. In the 1980s and the 1990s, the junction was "studied" and argued about more times than any other junction in modern day history. And all those discussions regarding the influx of more traffic on its overworked lanes can now be considered spot on, as it made us all realize that we had to do something if we were going to step ahead into the future. All the character assassinations and public ridiculing of those who spoke out against allowing more retail outlets because of the traffic situation at Malfunction Junction were, in the end, the impetus for a change at this fabled intersection. Public meetings consumed the agenda for many months. When it became apparent that a change was needed our town began collecting fees from developers, and, with federal and state funds, a plan was put into place and implemented; the result is before us today. This is how a democratic society should work.

The photo above was what it looked like in earlier years - probably the 1960s or before. In the background you can see the building which housed a garage and service station owned by Lyn Bourn (father of the Fire Chief Grub Bourn). It was there that I filled by first bicycle's tires with air. When I asked the locals who worked there if air was free, it caused a great deal of laughter to all of them.

Over the years, there were a number of attempts toward making the junction functional. However, in each case, these attempts failed miserably. Traffic lights, traffic cops, and enlargement never made it any more efficient than it was before.

As we assess the long discussed roundabout with the complete reconfiguration of this renowned intersection, those of us who have seen it through many of its various stages will fondly remember both its simpilicity and lack of functionality. Some will wonder, with a bit of skepticism, whether this new intersection will do anything at all to help the flow of traffic. But as we move ahead into the future, I don't think that it would be an exaggeration to say, with conviction, that this well planned and well built roundabout will serve us quite nicely, and that at last, we have found the best solution to a problem which has plagued our town for decades. And yes, there will be fender benders along the way. But, certainly no more than there have been in the past.

So as we say goodbye to our storied Malfunction Junction, we can salute its final gift to us. It made us a better town and made us identify a problem, discuss that problem, make a plan to fix that problem and execute that plan. This is the essence of a participatory democracy! Whether we know it or not, we have gone through a thoughtful transition which just had to happen.

Our own native poet, Walter Hard, said it best in his immortal "The Elm At the Crossroads." Hard was referring to the huge elm tree which stood at the intersection of the road to Dorset near where the button roundabout now sits. It was cut down after growing there for 108 years. "Of course it had to go. It's a martyr to what we hope is progress. Our rushing life can't be stopped by a tree" (Bigelow & Otis History) And apparently it can't be stopped by an intersection either.

And now we can say hello to Function Junction.

Bill West is a resident of Manchester.


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