The present changes being made in the Bellows Falls Canal, redeveloping it for electrical transmission, makes any early experiences of its use of particular importance and interest.
More than 25 years ago, the following story of actual experiences with a rafting gang passing here, were told to the writer by C. W. Bliss, then a well-known merchant of West Fairlee, VT. In May of 1854, when a boy of 18, he made a trip down the Connecticut River in the capacity of cook for the rafts men. He said:
“The lumber was round logs cut sixty feet long. They were 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 about twelve feet wide and sixty long, which was called, in the river parlance, a `box.’ From the end of the planks, at each corner of the box, a stout hard wood pin stuck up fifteen inches or more, against which were braced oars for propelling and guiding the box, and over which could be placed short planks with holes in them, thus yoking the boxes securely together. Two boxes, side by side, and three in length, six in all, constituted a `raft’ or `division,’ and it was in this form that the trip down the river was made, except when it was necessary to `break up the rafts’ into boxes in order to pass through the different canals.
“There were eighteen rafts in our lot and we had eighteen men. It took two men to navigate each raft with rough oars at opposite corners and so the practice was for the men to take nine rafts as far down the river as possible and make connections with a north bound passenger train; then go back and bring the other nine down. A rough board shanty nearly covered one box. One end was used as dining room and kitchen, the other for sleeping purposes. An old elevated-oven stove was used in cooking. In the sleeping end, a liberal quantity of straw was thrown loosely on the logs on which the men slept with their clothes on. They lay in two rows with heads towards the sides of the raft and feet in the middle. I bought, at different points, white bread and I made brown bread, cooked potatoes, beans, tea and coffee. These constituted the whole bill of fare. The men were always sure to reach the raft on which was the shanty at mealtime and at night. The rafts, when left at night, or at other times, were tied to trees on the shore.
“The lumber in the raft on which I shipped, was owned by an old man named Richardson from Orford, N. H., who accompanied us by train, coming aboard frequently. It came from much farther north than Orford and was to go to Holyoke, but not making a sale of it there, it was taken along to Middletown, Conn. I joined the party at the locks at what is now Wilder, just north of White River Junction, and left it at Holyoke, having hired out only to go this distance, and having become tired of it. It took three weeks and four days between those two points. My pay was $1 per day, while the regular men had $1.50. One `pilot’ was among the men, who knew the channel of the river at all points, and he received $3 per day. An additional pilot was taken on at two different points, one called the `Geese’ and the other `The Tunnel,’ on account of the swiftness of the water and the dangerous rocks at both places. The pilots, or `swift-water men,’ at each place knew the rocks perfectly and they took the head of the first raft, guiding that, the rest following in exactly the same course.
“When the rafts reached Bellows Falls, it took the men three days to break them up and get the one hundred and eight boxes through the locks and put them together again. One of these days was Sunday, but the river-men always had to work on Sunday the same as on other days.
That day, I think there were at least five hundred people on the banks of the river and the canal watching our work. There was considerable competition between the men on the different rafts on the long stretch of still water above the dam to see which raft would get down to the canal first. As the river was broad and still for some miles, it gave them their best chance for sculling, but the movement was necessarily slow.
“After getting out of the lower locks at Bellows Falls, I remember seeing a number of small dwellings near the locks on the Vermont side. From one of these, an old Irishman’s cow had wandered down over the broad beach into the water, in which she stood up to her body. The irate wife of the old man came down and called the cow loud and long, but she would not come ashore. The woman yelled a command to her `old man’ to come and drive the cow out. `The devil a bit will I do it,’ says he, and after soundly berating him for his neglect, she calmly gathered her skirts about her, high enough to keep them from getting wet, and walked in, driving the cow home herself.
“Among the men was a large and powerful half-breed Indian named Sam Flint, who stood six feet four inches, and was very strong. He was a general favorite and in all cases when any of the boys went ashore, and it was thought there might be trouble from drinking or otherwise, they wanted Sam to go to protect them. There were many places along the river where rough crowds gathered at saloons. As the raft was leaving the eddy at Bellows Falls, Sam made a misstep and landed in the river, but was readily pulled aboard again and worked with his wet clothes on until they were dried. No other man got a ducking during the trip.”
Based on: The Connecticut River Valley in southern Vermont and New Hampshire: historical sketches, Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Co., Marble City Press, 1929.