Exeter, NH (EXR)
Exeter is recognized for its small town New England charms and beautiful natural setting; a walk down curving Water Street presents restaurants, shops and galleries.
Annual Station Ridership (FY 2021): 20,685
- Facility Ownership: Town of Exeter
- Parking Lot Ownership: Town of Exeter
- Platform Ownership: New Hampshire Department of Transportation
- Track Ownership: Pan Am Railways
The Exeter station sits on the western edge of the historic downtown, and is within easy walking distance of the famed Phillips Exeter Academy. Passengers use a concrete platform that features a covered, open-air shelter with a hipped roof and a gabled dormer that protects riders from inclement weather. The posts and brackets of the shelter are painted a deep red that ties it visually to the trim on the former Boston and Maine Railroad (B&M) station that sits a few hundred feet to the north. On warm days, waiting passengers take advantage of wood benches that line lovely beds landscaped with ornamental trees and shrubbery. The new platform and shelter, built in 2001, cost $354,000, and 80 percent of the funding was obtained through a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation; the remaining 20 percent was contributed by the town of Exeter. A Quik-Trak ticket machine is located at Gerry’s Variety store in the old depot.
Exeter officials have discussed the construction of a new intermodal transportation facility because the Amtrak stop is one of the most popular on the Downeaster and attracts a large number of commuters. In 2010, the town won a $282,000 Transportation Enhancement Program grant from the state Department of Transportation. The money will be put towards the purchase and renovation of the old B&M depot’s baggage/freight building. City plans call for it to be used as an intermediate station while substantial funding is sought for the new transportation center.
The state grant has also led city officials to begin a public discussion on the future development of the “WestEx” neighborhood around the station. This initiative kicked-off with a design charette in October 2010 in which residents were encouraged to provide ideas to be used in the creation of a “WestEx” master plan.
Prior to the colonization of coastal New Hampshire by European settlers, the area was populated mainly by the Pennacook Native Americans. Their territory was focused on the Merrimac River Valley to the south in Massachusetts, and appropriately their name translates to “at the bottom of the hill or highland.” Similar to their neighbors, the Pennacook were part of the Algonquian language family found in the northeastern United States. After decades of warfare with other American Indian groups and the growing colonial population, the remaining Pennacook moved north into Canadian territory in the late 18th century.
When the first large settlement party arrived in the vicinity of Great Bay, the land that is now New Hampshire belonged to Massachusetts; not until 1692 did the New Hampshire colony finally gain full and permanent independence from its southern neighbor. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, based at Charlestown—now part of Boston—was settled by Puritans who had emigrated from England in order to practice Christianity free from the strictures of the Church of England. Those who did not agree with their viewpoints, including the Reverend John Wheelwright, founder of Exeter, were banned from the colony and left to support themselves.
Due to his differing religious views and his familial ties to Anne Hutchinson, another religious dissenter, the Massachusetts General Court expelled Wheelwright in the winter of 1638 for sedition and contempt. He went northward to found a new settlement on the frontier and out of the reach of the Charlestown-based leadership. Wheelwright and his followers, roughly 170 persons, decided upon a site where the freshwater Exeter River tumbles down the fall line to create the brackish Squamscott River that leads to Great Bay and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean. The location was ideal for its fresh water, natural meadows for livestock, and the transportation opportunities afforded by the rivers. Nearby dense forests provided the timber necessary to construct homes as well as boats.
As a community cohesive in its beliefs, Wheelwright and the settlement party established an organized government to oversee the village’s development. Group leaders negotiated with the American Indians in the area and signed deeds to obtain the land encompassing Exeter. Within a year of the village’s founding, the land was doled out to the residents, including sections of salt marsh, meadow, and upland agricultural parcels. The falls of the river were used to power grist and saw mills, and boat building enterprises were constructed along the western shore of the Squamscott River. Interestingly, the success of the community brought in new settlers and by 1643 the residents petitioned, and were granted, permission to become part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; subsequently, Wheelwright and his core followers moved on once again.
By the time Exeter celebrated its first century of growth in 1738, it had become a small but prosperous seaport whose principle business was shipbuilding. The hardwood forests of New England provided the timber that Great Britain needed to build and sustain its naval fleet, which in turn protected the north Atlantic trade routes that linked the mother country with its American colonies. Luckily, Exeter was removed from the majority of the direct warfare between British and American Indian groups, many of whom were allied with French forces in Canada.
The townspeople were loyal to the American cause during the Revolutionary War, and residents participated in the struggles of the wartime period. Exeter holds the honor of being the site of the adoption of the first state constitution in January 1776, and the first declaration of independence from Great Britain in June of that year. Throughout the war, the state government was based in Exeter, and the prominent Gilman family played important roles in supporting the state government and encouraging New Hampshire’s later ratification of the Constitution.
After the war, Exeter was graced by a visit from George Washington in 1789 as he made a tour of New England. The President was greeted by a 13-gun salute and proceeded to dine with town officials and Revolutionary War officers at Folsom Tavern, which still stands although it has been relocated numerous times over the past two centuries. The building was recently restored to its early period, providing visitors with some idea of its appearance when Washington visited.
The town’s economy rebounded at the start of the 19th century and the wharves along the banks of the Squamscott buzzed with activity, although ship-building was hurt again during the War of 1812. In 1830, the Exeter Manufacturing Company began the production of cotton sheets, and would remain in business along the waterfront well into the 20th century.
The water route connecting Exeter to Portsmouth and the ocean served the needs of the business community for centuries, but as industrialization increased manufacturing capability, merchants looked for faster and better ways to reach more distant markets, specifically Boston which was the primary international port for New England. In June 1835, the Boston and Maine Railroad was chartered by the New Hampshire legislature, and five years later it entered Exeter, giving the town access to Boston 50 miles to the south. Towards the end of the century, through a calculated campaign of acquisition and consolidation, the reorganized B&M leased numerous regional short lines and competitors to become the dominant passenger and freight railroad in the far Northeast.
The placement of the tracks west of downtown encouraged businesses to relocate along the transportation corridor. Post-Civil War, a shoe manufacturing industry developed and small factories produced paper, leather, saddles and harnesses, bicycles, and other goods. To support these industries, immigrants from places such as French-speaking Canada, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Russia, and Italy came to Exeter to seek work and build new lives in America.
Of Exeter’s three railroad depots, only the last one remains in situ north of the shelter used by Downeaster riders. From descriptions, it is known that the first depot was constructed of wood, and it actually covered the tracks just north of Front Street where it crossed the tracks. The building formed a tunnel over the tracks so that the train could pull in. Train sheds are often thought of as large spans of glass over a network of steel trusses, but Exeter’s rather simple version accomplished the same goal of protecting passengers from the snow and rain as they boarded the cars. The building stood until after the Civil War when it was replaced by a brick structure in 1867. Portions of the first depot still stand, although its remnants are not recognizable because they were incorporated into a nearby house after being auctioned off by the railroad.
The second depot caught fire in 1890 and was destroyed. Commensurate with its influence in the region, the B&M erected a grand new station designed by the Damon Brothers of Haverhill, Massachusetts. C. Willis and Charles Page Damon formed a regionally known architectural team that worked extensively in Haverhill after the 1882 fire that decimated that town’s riverside shoe manufacturing district. They were also praised for their civic structures such as town halls and court houses.
The third Exeter depot is a one-story structure of coursed ashlar. The courses of rusticated stone alternate in bands of two differing heights; one layer of stone is half the height of the other. The majority of the stone is light brown in color, but a richer, darker brownstone is used in the door and window surrounds, as well as for the prominent water table. The effect of the stone bands is to visually emphasize the horizontal nature of the structure, which is reiterated in the floor plan of the depot as it stretches along the tracks. The visual “weight” of the stone and its contrasting light and dark tones ties the structure to the Romanesque Revival buildings popularized in the Boston area by Henry Hobson Richardson. He and his followers were known for asymmetrical compositions that were often pierced by deep-set, round arches reminiscent of Medieval Romanesque structures found in Europe.
The eave of the depot’s hipped roof continues south to cover an open-air walkway that leads to a smaller structure that used to be the baggage and freight building. It too employs the same stone work seen on the main building and its hipped roof mimics that of its larger counterpart. The deep trackside eave supported by brackets unites the station structures and once sheltered passengers while they waited on the platform for the train to come to a stop. An unusual design move is found in the two round corner towers of the depot. Facing the tracks, their broad and shallow canonical roofs compliment the form of the prominent stone-faced cross gable set between them.
Once the B&M ended service to Exeter in 1965, there was no longer a reason for the railroad to maintain the depot and it was subsequently occupied by a variety store. An addition was added to the street façade to enlarge the interior space. The separate baggage building was converted into an apartment.
Over the last two centuries, Exeter has developed a reputation as an academic center due to the Phillips Exeter Academy, a university preparatory school founded in 1781. The funding for the institution came from John Phillips, a local merchant and banker who had married into the prominent Gilman family. He entered Harvard at age 11, and throughout his life greatly valued education as well as public service; he was a trustee of Dartmouth College and served in the General Assembly and the Court of Common Pleas. Phillips Exeter has seen many national leaders pass through its halls, and it remains one of the nation’s premiere institutions of secondary education. With an economy based on education and light manufacturing, Exeter continued to prosper and moderately grow through much of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Exeter is a popular destination recognized for its small town New England charms and beautiful natural setting on the falls of the Exeter River. A walk down curving Water Street presents restaurants, shops, and galleries that encourage window-shopping. Visitors interested in the Revolutionary War period often head to the American Independence Museum located in the 1721 Ladd-Gilman House. The museum focuses on George Washington and the formation of the Society of the Cincinnati, a veterans’ society that traces its membership back to American and French Revolutionary War officers. The collections contain an original Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration and drafts of the Constitution, as well as early American decorative arts. The documents are put on display during the annual American Independence Festival in July, which also includes living history actors and demonstrations of traditional crafts such as basket weaving and coopering.
For designers, a walk through the grounds of Phillips Exeter is like a survey course in American architecture. The campus contains everything from colonial to Modernist structures, including the much-photographed library by Philadelphia-based architect Louis Kahn. Completed in 1971, the structure is world-famous for its light-filled atrium framed by cast-in-place concrete walls; large, multi-story circular cutouts give dramatic views into the interiors of the floors and the book stacks, making clear the arrangement of the interior spaces.
Exeter also claims Daniel Chester French as a native son. While people may not recognize his name, they all know one of his most celebrated works: the Lincoln Memorial’s revered sculpture of the seated president. For his hometown, French created a statue to commemorate all residents who had fought in World War I. A mother figure holds a dramatically draped flag, pointing her uniformed son towards the path of duty and honor. Unveiled in 1922, it stands in Gale Park as a remembrance of all those who have served in battle, and especially of those who did not return.
The Downeaster is financed primarily through funds made available by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.
Photo: Bob Hall courtesy to Amtrak.
Platform with Shelter
- Quik-Trak kiosks
- No ticket sales office
- Amtrak Express shipping not available
- No checked baggage service
- No checked baggage storage
- Bike boxes not available
- No baggage carts
- Ski bags not available
- Bag storage not available
- Shipping boxes not available
- No baggage assistance
- Same-day parking is available; fees may apply
- Overnight parking is available; fees may apply
- Accessible platform
- No restrooms
- No accessible ticket office
- No accessible waiting room
- No accessible water fountain
- Accessible same-day parking is available; fees may apply
- Accessible overnight parking is available; fees may apply
- High platform
- No wheelchair
- No wheelchair lift