Wednesday, May 20, 2020


Exeter, New Hampshire is a town, like thousands of others, built at the fall line on a river. It was the potential energy of the water as it fell across the last rocks before entering the coastal plain that made the place attractive. To maximize that energy and direct the water into the wheels, people built dams.

By 1802, when this map was drawn, there were several dams just above the tidal section of the river. If you enlarge the map, you can see grist mills, linseed oil mills, and a fulling mill. The early industry in Exeter is all dependent on water power and the dams.

In the 1820s, a company formed and bought all the upstream dams and water rights, and built one large dam just downstream of the main bridge. In 1829, the Exeter Manufacturing Company built it's first buildings and started using the power provided by the four water wheels at the dam. It was the only power source available until the 1870s. 

I couldn't find any history of how they moved away from water power, but I suspect it was first to steam and then to electricity. If you are familiar with how water power is transmitted to pulleys and shafts, tying that to steam seems a logical step. There was still use for water and the last dam was built in 1914.

Here's Exeter as it was in the 1940s. The dam was already an artifact. Exeter at that time was a mill town with several industries, primary the cotton mill and a shoe factory. The mill owner had most of the political power in town and also a controlling interest in the local bank. It was not an idyllic situation. The hours were long, working conditions poor and dangerous, and it was only changes in the laws that lead to eight hours shifts and improvements in conditions.

It did provide jobs and manufacturing for 150 years.

The Exeter Manufacturing Company was sold in 1966, then sold again in 1981, finally closing in 1983. The mill building was turned into apartments. Somewhere along the way the dam became the responsibility of the town. It served no function. It had been neglected for decades.

A survey found that significant upgrades would be necessary if it was to be maintained and re-certified as safe. It had been known since colonial times that the dam blocked migratory fish from reaching the spawning grounds in the upper fresh water reaches of the river. Fish ladders had been installed in the 1950s without much success. You can see how this was going to go.

No necessarily a bad decision and one that made economic sense as removing the dam was the least expensive option. It was put to a vote and the decision was 2 to 1 in favor. The Exeter River was reopened for the first time since 1638. Here's a documentary. It's not the loss of the unused dam. It's the changes to the town and the people I was noticing.


MrGarabaldi said...

Hey ASM;

I was listening to the while thing and it seemed that a few of the people, were happy to destroy the history, they kept mentioning "Natives people fished here first for 1000's of years" and it was like it was orgasmic for them to denigrate the history after 1802. Perhaps I got the wrong take on it.

ASM826 said...

No, I think you saw it clearly. Those two videos are before and after. It not taking out the dam that matters, it was defunct anyway. It's the change in the people between the 1940s and now that is significant.

Tim Wolter said...

I've done fish surveys on rivers that have had obsolete dams removed. Its fascinating to see the earlier fish populations recolonize their old haunts. Dams and turbines are ok. So is clean running water.


Unknown said...

I grew up in Hesperia, Michigan. We had a dam, which in the 1920's was used to generate power for the village. Hesperia was a lumber town, like many in Michigan. The river is named the White River, and it runs down to connect eventually with the Muskegon Lake,which I connected with Lake Michigan. So obviously, the lumber industry of the 19th century was the reason for the village of Hesperia.
In 1976, we had a huge rainy season in the fall. My high school class had approximately 80 kids in it. The boys who were able went and filled sandbags and worked to save the dam,eventually a trench was cut around the dam and back into the river,releasing the pressure that threatened to take out the dam.
After much debate, and with financial help from the federal government, the entire dam area was rebuilt, including a new boardwalk area and picnic areas, etc. It is now an asset to the town, drawing fishermen from all over the place, in the spring for trout, and in the fall to catch the salmon that the DNR plants in Lake Michigan, that run up to spawn and die, starting in late August or early September.
The river runs right through the middle of the village, which is in a valley, and myself and my twin brother spent huge chunks of time fishing there, swimming there and playing there. The salmon we caught in the fall, were a huge part of our families food budget at that time of year. Plus we froze a lot for the first part of winter. As we got older, venison was added to the menu.
Such is the life of rural Michigan kids, and it still is. We have been blessed with a beautiful state.


Tim Wolter said...

And since the usual topic here is freedom in its various forms, a comparison on what you'd encounter in Exeter UK vs Exeter US. UK. Rivers and streams belong to the landowners, usually the rich. Don't you dare go fishing salmon in my stream you poxy poacher! But you can go pretty much anywhere you like on public footpaths. Even within sight of The Manor where I suppose you could make rude gestures at His Nibs if thusly inclined. US. Stay off my land or suffer the consequences. But that river or stream, well, public. If you can keep your feet wet you can go there.

This is an exaggeration but not by much.


Old NFO said...

I had the same take as Mr.G. Definitely a double edged sword. People, by a large DO NOT want change, even when it's the safest course.