The Bellows Falls Canal and Dam, which were, during the years 1926, 1927 and 1928, entirely rebuilt for hydro-electric purposes, at an expense of about $4,500,000, have a most interesting history. Built between the years 1792 and 1802 under charters by both Vermont and New Hampshire under the name of “Company for Rendering Connecticut River Navigable by Bellows Falls,” it was used for that purpose until about 1858. The building of the railroads up the valley, between 1849 and 1851, removed the necessity for this slow and expensive mode of transportation. During all the years of its existence, it has been used more or less in furnishing power for various mills. English capital played an important part in the cost of the six canals of the Connecticut River, but none were so absolutely and unreservedly in the hands of foreigners as this.
The two men named as incorporators of the “Company for Rendering Connecticut River Navigable by Bellows Falls” were Dr. William Page of Charlestown, N. H., who became the engineer who constructed it, and General Lewis R. Morris of Springfield, Vt., who dropped out of the management within a few months. The first meeting of the stockholders was held in the “Tontine Coffee House” in the city of New York on November 8, 1802, “present John Atkinson and James Carey.” By means of locks, of which there were nine at Bellows Falls, it was proposed to navigate the river upon an extensive scale as far north as Wells River and Barnet. In connection with this commerce, it was proposed to have canals built across the states of Vermont and New Hampshire, practically where the different lines of railroad now are. It is interesting to note that the first survey made for transportation purposes under Hoosac Mountain, in Massachusetts, was made for a canal to be tributary to those on the Connecticut River. The most important era of water transportation along the Connecticut River was from 1820 to about 1836, and may be said to have been at its height just about a century ago. The interest in railroad building in New England during the succeeding decade had the effect of quenching interest in canals and navigation.
During 1802, the same year the first boats passed through this canal, there was a “Carding and Fulling Mill” in operation, owned by Page & Atkinson. In 1812, the mills taking water from the canal had increased to two paper mills, two saw mills, two grist mills and a cotton mill, all of which were destroyed by fire during the night of May 11th of that year. From that time, the number of mills here varied widely until the canal was acquired by the Russell interests, followed by the formation of the Fall Mountain Paper Company in 1872, which was merged into the International Paper Company in 1898. These have been the principal users of the power until now, although there are still a number of manufactories recently changed from waterpower to electricity. The power developed here by the water of the Connecticut River, under the old and unscientific principles during the last few years, aggregated 20,000 horse power, which has now increased by the development of electrical energy to 60,000 horse power.
The era of the use of the canal for navigation was a most interesting one, and the traditions brought down to the present of the time when the boatman’s song was heard up and down the valley, instead of the locomotive whistle, give present residents glimpses of primitive methods of living, and of the activities of long ago. A goodly-sized poster notice under date of January 14, 1811, headed “Bellows Falls Canal,” says among other things, “All concerned are notified that, in consequence of expensive repairs at the canal and locks and more that are proposed to accommodate the navigation of the river, punctual payments must be made. Boxes must not be run into the canal until after notice is given and directions had, as much inconvenience is caused thereby to the passage of boats.”
The locks at this time “would take in boxes 54 feet long and 18 feet wide, drawing no more than two feet of water,” as stated in the notice. The “boxes” were rafts of logs passing down the river. The logs were round, fastened together by two-inch planks at each end and in the middle of each log. Through these planks a wooden pin was driven into each log, making a solid mass not more than 60 feet long and 18 feet wide. In coming down the river, except at points where they had to pass through canals and locks, these “boxes” were fastened together by a stout wooden pin at each corner of the box. These pins stuck up from 12 to 15 inches, and over them were placed short planks with holes in them, thus yoking the boxes securely together, and the pins were also used for bracing the oars against for propelling and guiding the raft. Two boxes, side by side, and three in length, six in all, constituted a “raft,” and it was in this form that they passed down the river, except when it was necessary to “break up the rafts” into boxes to pass through the different canals.
By this old notice, the tariff for “long sticks was 75 cents each, short ones, 50 cents. Two hds. of liquor 70 cents. Salt the same.” The notice was signed-” Charles Storer, Agent for The Company for Rendering Connecticut River Navigable by Bellows Falls.”
William H. Fuller, a native of Bellows Falls and brother of the late Ex-Gov. Fuller, told the writer 25 years ago:
“I remember distinctly watching for the flat boats to come early in the spring and fall, but during the summer months, they did not run unless there was very high water. I also remember the great rafts of logs and the lumber rafts with shingles, lath, clapboards and often wood and farm produce on board. We boys used to enjoy rides through the locks, up and down, and it was a great treat for us when we could assist in pushing open the great gates that let them through the locks from one crib to another. I used to see them more above than below the dam, as my home was on the corner of Rockingham and Green Streets. When a heavy boat was pulled through the canal to the head above the dam, a number of men would tow it up to the bend of the river just at the head of Green Street, and I have known boats to tie up and wait there for a day or more for a breeze, then set sail and tack from one side of the river to the other, till they were out of sight around the bend above Mr. Webb’s. Before the railroad was built, the bend of the river just below Mr. Morgan’s house used to be the place where boats and rafts tied up to piles driven for that purpose.
“The large rafts that came down the river were made in sections as large as would fill one of the cribs in the locks, were all pinned together and after tying up in the bend above the dam, they were unpinned and dropped with ropes into the canal and when through the locks, were pinned together again and pushed out into the stream to go down.
” Some rafts contained twelve sections and had one or two shanties built upon them where the lumbermen slept and ate. There was but little traffic by boat after 1848, but rafts continued coming down as late as 1852. There was one class of navigators that interested the people intensely every year till as late as 1852; remnants of the Abenauqui Tribe of Indians came down the river in the spring with their canoes and dugouts, pulled them up on the shore, and came up and pitched their wigwams at the foot of Oak Hill, bringing with them baskets, bows and arrows, mats, and a great many trinkets which were purchased by the people.”
Edward H. Green, who later in life married the great financier, Hetty Howland Robinson, told the writer in 1898:
“As a boy, I was one day watching a raft passing through the canal, handled by old Jack Adams, one of the best known river-men of his day. I stood on the old wooden bridge, first built across the canal just below where the present cement arch bridge is now on Bridge Street. There was a long log on each side of the bridge to keep the teams from running off, and in my eagerness I leaned over the log too far and fell into the water 20 feet below, but Jack fished me out safely, and with no injury except a thorough ducking and great fright.”
Based on: The Connecticut River Valley in southern Vermont and New Hampshire: historical sketches, Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Co., Marble City Press, 1929.