Exeter is a Seaport

Written by Carol Walker Aten

From: Cross-Grained & Wiley Waters: A Guide to the Piscataqua Maritime Region, Jeffrey W. Bolster, Editor, published 2002, Peter Randall Publisher, Portsmouth

EXETER WAS A SEAPORT. Today it is hard to imagine the marshy, silty banks of the salty Squamscott River were once the edges of a busy tidal water that for two centuries floated schooners, wherries, and gundalows back and forth to the Atlantic Ocean. But it began even longer ago than that.

The Squamscott River begins Great Falls in the heart of downtown Exeter, where the fresh stream-fed waters of the Exeter River meet the tidal saltwater coming in from the Piscataqua River basin and Great Bay. "Squamscott" (properly-though not commonly-pronounced "swamscott") gets its name from the Algonquin sub-tribe, the Squamscott Indians, who called it Msquam-s-kook, translated as "at the salmon place" or "big water place." Plentiful game, vegetation, and an abundance of fish supported northeast Native Americans who inhabited the region until English settlers displaced them in the early 1600s. The northern stretches of the river-salt marsh wetlands that grip the edges of dense woodlands-look somewhat as they did thousands of years ago.

Exeter was settled in 1638 as one of New Hampshire's first townships, along with Portsmouth (Strawbery Banke), Dover, and Hampton. The town's Puritan founder, the Reverend John Wheelwright, purchased land from local Algonquin sagamores for a village. Those natives who did not perish from confrontation or disease eventually migrated to Canada or assimilated into the colonial population. Today over 2,000 members of northeastern tribes still reside in New Hampshire.

After 1638 the lower falls of the Squamscott River were harnessed for a gristmill and soon rocky ledges upon the freshwater Exeter River and the falls were peppered with water-driven industries: sawmills, gristmills, mills for pressing linseed oil from flax seed, a fulling mill for napping woolen cloth, a carding mill, a snuff mill, an iron slitting mill, starch mills, paper mills, chocolate mills-even New Hampshire's first gunpowder factory. Exeter's most memorable mill, the Exeter Manufacturing Company (its brick buildings still a prominent part of the river's northern banks), was incorporated in 1827 for the production of cotton cloth. By the early 1880s these mills contained 20,000 spindles and 452 looms and produced four million yards of cloth annually.

Before the railroad arrived in 1840, tradesfolk relied on the river's currents to bring in their merchandise and take out locally manufactured products. Local physician and historian William Gilman Perry reminisced about the shipping process of the 1830s: "The merchants went to Boston in the spring and fall and bought goods to last them through the following months. They spent two or three days in selecting their stock, shipping it to Portsmouth to be reloaded on Captain Furnald's packet for Exeter. Quite a time it took to get the goods here, and a lively day it was, and very interesting for us boys, when the packet discharged her cargo."

The wide tide-washed basin below the lower falls held the turn-around for seagoing vessels to and from Exeter. Along the shoreline, now Swasey Parkway, stood the wharves and docks where ships as large as 500 tons were built; as many as twenty-two in a single season. Eighteenth-century ships built in Exeter and Newfields carried tons of wood products south to Virginia, to the West Indies, and across the Atlantic, bringing back whale oil, rum, sugar, molasses, cloth, and manufactured goods. Barges continued to carry bulk cargoes, especially bricks and coal, in and out of Exeter until the 1930s.

A Plan of the Compact Part of the Town of Exeter at the head of the southerly branch of the Piscataqua River.Phineas Merrill, 1802. Reprinted from the original plate by the Exeter Historical Society.

A Plan of the Compact Part of the Town of Exeter at the head of the southerly branch of the Piscataqua River.Phineas Merrill, 1802. Reprinted from the original plate by the Exeter Historical Society.

So what happened to the seaport?
In the mid-1600s when early colonists established their farms and homesteads along the waterways off Great Bay, the only way to cross the Squamscott River at Newfields was by fording at low tide, or by ferry. By 1746 a "permanent and substantial" bridge across the river between Stratham and southern Newmarket (now Newfields) was proposed. Hearings and petitions in favor of a permanent crossing came from area residents. At a meeting of the "freeholders & inhabitants" of Exeter (upriver), however, held at the town house on January 19, 1747, a new group of petitioners passionately objected to the bridge:

"For that the building of such a bridge would in Great measure Stop the Course of the Fish Especially the Bass which Providence hitherto greatly supplyd us with great Quantitys of to the Support of our Selves and Towns above us, and many Poor Familys if the Course of the Fish be Stopped will Likely thereby to be Great Sufferers...For that whereas the said river having been Free Ever since the settling of Exeter...For the passing and repassing of Vessels from hence to Portsmouth & Boston and other Ports, and there being Generally water sufficient for...Any vessel of one hundred Tons Loaden whereby this Town as well as other Towns above it have reaped great advantages By means of Transporting their Lumber and by having return'd to them by the same Vessels The Provisions and Necessaries for the Support of Life & For Commerce and Trade with Each other; Which the building of aforesaid bridge would greatly hurt if not Totally Stop, & also Prevent Carrying on the building of vessels in the Town of Exeter which they have as Just a right to do as any other Towns in the Province...For that the Free use and Privelege of That river to the head thereof was the Principal reason and cause of Peoples settling so far into the Country and Defending their Settlements in such Dangerous & Difficult times as have been since the Settlement of the Same...For that the building the aforesaid Bridge would be a great Impediment to the conveying Down to Portsmouth the Mast Trees which are Yearly Procured in & brought to the Town of Exeter for his Majestys use, and would make it very dangerous to pass with Vesells rafts & Gundelows in the Narrow Passage of Thirty foot. For the Straitening of the river must of Consequence Cause the Current to run very swift and Rapid and thereby Greatly Endanger the Lives of the People as well as the Loss of their Vessels Lumber and Gundelows."

Squamscott River looking towards Fort Rock Farm, the Swasey Homestead, circa 1900. This photograph was taken prior to the construction of Swasey Parkway. The wharves and crane were vestiges of Exeter's days as an active port and shipbuilding town. Courtesy of the Exeter Historical Society.

Squamscott River looking towards Fort Rock Farm, the Swasey Homestead, circa 1900. This photograph was taken prior to the construction of Swasey Parkway. The wharves and crane were vestiges of Exeter's days as an active port and shipbuilding town. Courtesy of the Exeter Historical Society.

Exeter won that round. But about thirty years later a wooden lift toll bridge was finally completed and vessels could pass through the manually operated opening. By 1792 each person was charged two cents to cross the bridge while a person with a horse paid six cents. The bridge was rebuilt in 1806 and again in 1838. Exeter merchants, such as Henry W. Anderson who owned the Exeter Coal Company, relied on the river. Five schooners in Anderson's coal fleet shipped cargo up and down stream. On weekends, sightseers and townsfolk headed downstream on his "well-scrubbed coal schooners" and in Capt. George W. Furnald's gundalow, Alice. The return trip to Exeter was on Trefethen's barge until streetcars were brought to town in the 1890s.

On a rainy day in 1902, the barge Merrill was launched onto the Squamscott River. Henry W. Anderson, coal merchant and barge owner, named the vessel after his five-year-old son. Designed to carry freight, the Merrill made its first trip to Boston on June 25 that year with sixty five cords of wood and about 8,000 feet of elm planks to be used for horse stalls. She was the last vessel launched in Exeter.

Silting became an obstacle to efficient vessel traffic in the tidal river, and dredging took place in 1880, 1900, 1911, and 1930. One of the state's few oxbows, visible from NH Route 101, was cut through in 1880 to create a straight channel for shipping. During subsequent dredging of the river, the oxbow was filled with river mud and sludge.

A new steel bridge with swinging span replaced the original eighteenth century wooden bridge by 1926. Then came time for a bridge over Great Bay between Newington and Dover. The Exeter News-Letter in a May 5, 1933 editorial decried:

"Shipbuilding that was once the glory of the Squamscott can never come again. At Newmarket, Durham, Greenland, Newfields and Exeter, in times past, hundreds of vessels were built and launched and sent down the river to the sea. The industry can never be revived, for the new steel bridge that is to span Great Bay shuts off all passage to the Ocean. There is to be no draw in the new bridge, so the towns named might as well be located on Mud Creek. They are to be forever barred from access to the ocean. This looks like cunning work, for we are sure the great outlay for this bridge would never have been authorized this fact been known. The matter calls for investigation...Citizens of Exeter, Newmarket, Newfields and Durham should attend the public hearing before the War Department engineers, to be held at the Council Chamber, City Hall, Portsmouth on May 8...and protest against losing river rights of their towns that have been maintained for three hundred years. We believe a great wrong has been perpetrated in the attempt to build this bridge as a permanent obstacle to navigation. The government has spent thousands of dollars to make the Squamscott navigable, and opened great possibilities for Exeter, which someday will be of greatest value."

The tug Iva towing the two-masted schooner Ada J. Campbell from Great Bay to Exeter, circa 1900. Courtesy of the Exeter Historical Society.

The tug Iva towing the two-masted schooner Ada J. Campbell from Great Bay to Exeter, circa 1900. Courtesy of the Exeter Historical Society.

The frustrated communities, tied together by their rivers, gained only ten feet additional clearance over the channel in the new General Sullivan Bridge over Great Bay. "The whole matter of this new bridge has been a high-handed affair," decried the Exeter News-Letter again on May 19, 1933, "and the News-Letter has no hesitation in saying that, considered in all aspects, a more iniquitous measure was never enacted by the New Hampshire legislature." Their complaints were for naught.

After the Depression, bridge rules on the Squamscott River changed to reflect the dwindling river traffic. Freight and cargo once carried by river vessels switched to trucks. As early as 1935 the swing bridge was operated by a bridge tender who needed nine hours' notice to have the bridge opened for a vessel. In 1954 the Boston & Maine railroad bridge, upstream towards Exeter, was changed from a swing span to a low fixed span. At that point, Exeter was blocked off from the sea and river traffic could only move between the railroad bridge and Great Bay. By the next year the swinging mechanism on the Stratham/Newfields Bridge carrying NH Route 108 was welded shut. Automobiles reigned, and few drivers missed the old watery ways. 
Exeter's days as a seaport were over.

Sources: James Hill Fitts, History of Newfields, New Hampshire, 1638-1911, ed., N. F. Carter (Concord, NH: Rumford Press, 1912); Charles B. Nelson, The History of Stratham, New Hampshire, 1631-1900 (Somersworth, NH: New Hampshire Publishing Co., 1965); Olive Tardiff, The Exeter Squamscott: River of Many Uses (Rye, NH: CGC, 1986).