by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 13, 2006.
There are two ways to get across the river in downtown Exeter. The Great Bridge crosses the river at the upper falls and the String Bridge crosses at the lower. Sometimes when people cross the Great Bridge they don’t even realize they’ve crossed a bridge at all, and certainly don’t notice the falls. Great Bridge is our primary bridge in Exeter; perhaps this is why it has such an impressive name. Our waterfalls may not be as spectacular as Niagara Falls, but they’re important to us and are the reason the town exists at all. We have every right to call our bridge “Great”.
The String Bridge sits over the lower falls at the point where the Exeter River meets the Squamscott River. The first mill ever built in Exeter was built on the little island that makes up the center of the bridge. You see, String Bridge is actually two bridges and an island. When Thomas Wilson first set up his gristmill in the 1640’s on the eastern side of the island, he most likely threw together a bridge so his patrons could carry sacks of grain across without needing a boat. This early bridge, although not specifically described in any of the early records, was most likely a narrow pedestrian arrangement made up of a single “stringer” log. So, no, we never had a rope bridge crossing the river in Exeter, however romantic that idea may be.
When Captain John Gilman built his gristmill on the western side of the island, he was given the right by the town to build a more substantial bridge. His bridge system was described by Charles Bell as “nothing more than one or two timbers laid across each of the channels of the river, with hand rails at the side”. It remained a pedestrian bridge for over one hundred years. This is the bridge that appears on our earliest map of Exeter in 1802.
Around 1817, it was decided to make the String Bridge, as it was now called due to its early construction, a carriage bridge. New stringers were installed with planking laid across wide enough to allow a single horse and carriage to pass. The construction was paid for by the townspeople of Exeter who made pledges for the cost. This incarnation of the bridge served the town well, even if it did still cause a bit of traffic disruption when two carriages wanted to pass at the same time. By 1888, however, the bridge was showing its age. The Exeter News-Letter reported, “On Thursday afternoon of last week Brown & Warren made an examination of the southern portion of String Bridge, finding the planking and cross timbers so unsound as to make the bridge really unsafe.” Repairs were ordered immediately. Within a short time it was determined that simple repairs were not enough and the bridge system was almost entirely rebuilt.
The bridges were enlarged in 1910 to accommodate two carriages to pass, but the structure we know today was eventually built in 1935. If you walk across the bridge today you can still see this date carved into the railing. The Exeter News-Letter boasted at the time “all materials, where possible, are to be purchased from Exeter merchants.”
The island has had many names over the years, usually based on the names of businesses that were located on it. The current agreed-upon designation is “Kimball’s Island” named for Kimball’s Hardware. Over the years the island was used for mills, warehouses and even a blacksmith shop owned by Swedish immigrant, Olaf Hanson. For a while, the address for this business was “Chestnut Hill Avenue”, but today the simpler “String Bridge” is used.