One of the earliest efforts to create public sentiment in Vermont, favorable to the building of railroads, originated in Bellows Falls in the summer of 1843. Dr. S. M. Blake, then editor of the Bellows Falls Gazette, was very enthusiastic and devoted much space to the subject. The result was a largely attended railroad meeting here early in 1844.
Hon. Alvah Crocker of Fitchburg, Mass., had just returned from Europe and was full of enthusiasm and railroad enterprise. He was present at this meeting and greatly assisted in explaining the operation and results of railroads already built in other countries and states. At this meeting all railroads now running in this part of the state, including the West River Railroad, which was not built until the ’70s, were projected and discussed.
The first charter of the Vermont Central Railroad Company was granted by Legislature November 15, 1835, and the revised charter, under which the road was built, was passed on October 31, 1843. On January 8, 1844, a largely attended railroad convention was held at Montpelier that resulted in the raising of money for the surveys, and, later, in raising the required stock for the first railroad to be built in Vermont. The contract to build the entire road from Windsor to Burlington, 115 miles, was let to Sewal F. Belknap. The first rail was laid at White River Junction on the farm of Col. Samuel Nutt early in 1847, and Isaac B. Culver, assistant engineer of that division, was accorded the honor of driving the first spike in the track of this road.
A regular passenger train first passed over the road from White River Junction to Bethel on June 26, 1848, and this was the first railroad train for carrying passengers that was run in Vermont.
The first railroad to reach Bellows Falls was the Cheshire Railroad, now the Fitchburg division of the Boston & Maine. The New Hampshire Legislature chartered this corporation on December 27, 1844, and the Sullivan County Railroad from here to Windsor was chartered by the same state on July 10, 1846.
The first train of excursionists from Boston, Fitchburg, Keene and other points, reached here on January 1, 1849, and went as far north as Charlestown on the line of the Sullivan Railroad. This train did not cross the river into Vermont at all, the railroad bridge not being built over the Connecticut River until a year or two later. There were great demonstrations of joy all along the route. Following is the quaint account of the event contained in the Bellows Falls Gazette of January 4, 1849:
“THE CARS HAVE COME!
” On Monday, January 1, much to the astonishment of some, and gratification of all, the first train of cars ever seen in this vicinity passed over the Cheshire Road and Sullivan to Charlestown, N. H. The day was fine, and a great assembly of people had collected here to witness the grand entree of the Iron Horse. The engine came up in grand style, and, when opposite our village, the monster gave one of its most savage yells, frightening men, women, and children considerably, and bringing forth the most deafening howls from all the dogs in the neighborhood. This day, Thursday, the Sullivan Road is to be opened with the usual ceremonies, to Charlestown, and then the arrival of the cars will be a common every-day business affair.”
The road was opened through from Charlestown to Windsor March 31 of that year. The first passenger conductors on the Sullivan Road were O. J. Brown of Claremont, who had been many years a stage driver, and Ambrose Arnold of Westminster, who many years later became superintendent of the Vermont Central Railroad.
The first work in the construction of the “Champlain & Connecticut Railroad,” chartered November 1, 1843, now the Rutland Railroad, was done at Bellows Falls during the month of February 1847. They began laying the rails from Bellows Falls April 15, 1849, and the road was opened through to Burlington December 18th of the same year. A. P. Crossett, then a resident of Bellows Falls, often said that he moved the first three wheelbarrow loads of dirt in its construction, on the island on which the station now stands. He was a laborer then for Judge Horace Baxter, who lived on the island and had the contract for building a number of miles at this end of the line.
There was much rivalry between the Vermont Central via Montpelier, and the Rutland Road, to see which road would complete its line into Burlington first. The Central was successful, that line being opened for business June 20, 1849.
Although the Vermont Valley Railroad between here and Brattleboro was chartered November 8, 1841, it was not opened for business until June 1851. For many years, the general offices of this company, as well as the only machine shop on the line, was in Bellows Falls. The machine shop was located “under the hill”, near where the Claremont Paper Company’s mill is at the present time. Superintendent Peyton R. Chandler, and later Madison Sloat, had their headquarters here, and neither the locomotives or trains went north of here, but all had to “change cars” at Bellows Falls. In 1854, only one passenger conductor was on the run between here and Brattleboro and his name was Deming. The headquarters of the Sullivan Railroad were at Charlestown, and the first superintendent was Edward Thompson. There was a big engine house and repair shop on the west side of the railroad, just south of the present station, both of which buildings remained there until very recent years, in a dilapidated condition.
In the building of the railroads in this section of New England, the laborers were mostly emigrants from Ireland. As some came from the northern part of that country, and some from the southern part, the citizens of which two sections then, as in all years since, were at eternal enmity with each other, many conflicts occurred and a number of fatal clashes resulted between them as they worked on the railroads.
In the building of the Sullivan Railroad through the village of North Walpole, across the river from here, the section from south of “Governor’s Brook”, to the north end of the Cheshire Railroad, which is near the crossing above the present engine house, was built under a foreman named Thompson. The Grandfield Brothers were in charge of the next section south, the first one on the Cheshire Road, the two being built at the same time.
These were both built entirely by Irish emigrants, and, by a mischance, from different counties in the old country. Desperate fights occurred between these two factions at different times while the work was in progress. Some blood was shed, and it was currently reported that the results were in one or two instances fatal to the belligerents. At one time, all the men working for the Grandfields were driven from their homes in the temporary shanties by the men of the northern section, and, with their families, sought shelter on “Fall Mountain,” as it was then called.
The work on Thompson’s section did not progress rapidly because the deep cut through the ledge east of the falls was of a peculiarly hard character, and the drift was in such direction that the powder used in those days would blow out only a small portion at a time. It was said to be, by far, the hardest piece of road to build in this vicinity. The Larkin Brothers succeeded Thompson, but still the work lagged and was behind. The Cheshire Road was completed, and the Sullivan Railroad lacked only this section to connect the two roads in the winter of 1848-9.
Work had just commenced on deep sand cut in the hill on the terrace, later occupied by A. F. Nims. The high sand hill on the west side of the track; corresponding with the Nims Terrace, has since been removed. Sewal F. Belknap was the head contractor of the Sullivan Road, over the Larkin Bros., and he attempted to take matters into his own hands. Whether it was a disagreement as to pay or hours of work is unknown, but he went to Boston and brought a trainload of men to take the places of those who had been employed.
On the morning that the trainload of men arrived, the Larkins and their men appeared all dressed in their best suits, but bare-headed, coatless, and with their sleeves rolled up above their elbows. The women joined them in holiday caps and aprons, each carrying a long white stocking filled with cobblestones. The hill where the work was stopped then extended west of the highway. Along the brink of the deep gash they had made in its side, these men and women quietly took their places. Mr. Belknap marched his recruits from the end of the Cheshire line to the cut, drew a sword cane, and walked into the pit saying to the men, “Go to work, my boys.” A deep voice from the bank above answered him, “Bejabers, the first man who strikes a blow is a dead man sure.” None of the workmen would face this challenge and follow Belknap, so he was obliged to walk out of the pit as he had walked into it, alone. The men from Massachusetts demanded that they be taken back, claiming misrepresentation. An agreement was reached whereby the Larkins relinquished their contract from that time, and the work went forward. Fifty teams were put on, and the cut and the fill nearby were rapidly completed.
In the town of Newbury, at about this time, work was being done on what was known as the Ingalls Hill, on the Passumpsic Railroad. Irishmen from both Cork and Connaught Counties were employed, and frequent riots occurred. The former were called “Corkonians”, and the latter “Fardowners.” The Connaught men had been there some time when a large party of the Cork men, who had been constructing the Northern Railroad, came up, and soon there was trouble. Michael Kelley, a foreman for the road, was shot and killed. Some of the rioters were sent to State’s Prison, but as it could not be proved which one fired the fatal shot, no death penalty was imposed. However, for months, there were collisions between the workmen from the north and south parts of Ireland.
Based on: The Connecticut River Valley in southern Vermont and New Hampshire: historical sketches, Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Co., Marble City Press, 1929.