Flat-Boating On The Connecticut River

Present residents along the course of the Connecticut River can hardly imagine the fact that a century ago this river was teeming with both freight and passenger boats, and that it furnished the only means of transportation north and south, except the cumbrous ox teams over the most primitive roads imaginable. It is the longest river in New England, and has been more generally navigated, and for a longer distance, from its mouth. The railroads up the valley, built about 1850, entirely changed the conditions of transportation, and boating was discontinued, the happy songs of the boat-men being exchanged for the shrill whistle of the locomotive.

Twenty-five years ago, there were a few of the old boatmen, and some who had served as captains of the riverboats, still living at different places along the river’s course. On October 17, 1903, the writer secured personal reminiscences of Captain Charles Davenport, then living in the village of Saxtons River at the age of over 90 years. He was still vigorous, reading readily without the assistance of glasses. Among other things, he said:

“I was born on a farm in West Dummerston April 21st, 1813. When 19 years of age, my father licked me for some minor offense, and feeling aggrieved, I ran away. I hired out to the captain of a riverboat as a deck hand. I followed boating on the Connecticut continuously for 30 years, with the exception of a few years’ experience on the Mississippi River. The larger part of the time I was captain of different boats, and my boating on the Connecticut was confined to flat-boats. Most of the boats on the Connecticut were 72 feet long and 111/2 feet wide, and when loaded to their capacity of 30 tons, would draw two to three feet of water.

” The first boat I ran on was owned by Hall & Townsley of Brattleboro and ran from there to Hartford, Conn. Then I worked on one owned by William S. Bennett of Westminster. This I ran as captain for three years, in the neighborhood of 1835. Later, I commanded the boat that was owned by Wentworth & Bingham of Bellows Falls. They were merchants, doing business in the two-story brick block on the south side of the Square, known then, and now, as Mammoth Block. The last of my boating, at about the time of the building of the railroads, I was in command of a boat running from Windsor to Hartford, Conn., owned by Hosea Reed of West Reading, Vt., who had two different boats. Benjamin Smith, who owned the boat on which L. S. Howard of Bellows Falls worked, lived at Cambridge-port, and at different times my two brothers, George and Austin Davenport, were his captains.

“During my boating career, I spent two years on the Mississippi River as assistant engineer of a steamer, of which my uncle, John Davenport, was chief engineer. While on that boat, it was chartered and made three trips, transporting 900 Indians from New Orleans to a point 750 miles up the Arkansas River. They were Cherokees from Georgia and had swapped land in that state for a reservation in the Indian Territory. They were accompanied by a large number of Negro slaves whom they owned. They stopped twice a day on the banks of the river to cook their food.

“Over 40 years after this, three Indians came to Bellows Falls where I was laying stone. One slapped me on the shoulder and said, `Me knowed you in Arkansas,’ which he proved by telling the story of my saving an Indian from drowning on one of these trips. It seemed to me a wonderful recognition after so many years had passed. One day, while hunting in Arkansas, Uncle John and I came across a bear and two cubs. The bear escaped, but we caught the cubs. Uncle John took one to New Orleans and sold it. The other, I boxed up and brought east all the way by stage. For two seasons, my bear, `Betsey,’ accompanied me in my boating on the Connecticut, being chained on my boat. She was very playful, hugging and wrestling with me. She died at the end of the second season and was buried in Dummerston.

“While on the Mississippi, my steamer anchored about eight rods from the shore one night, near another steamer. One boat took fire and both were burned. `Betsey’ and I were the last to swim ashore, she reaching the shore first and waiting for me. I lost my clothing and $250, one season’s pay, which had been given me the day before. Uncle John and I reached the shore without clothing and a merchant gave us each a suit of clothes, saying we might pay for them if we ever could do so. This we did the next fall.

“I know of no other person now living, except Mr. Howard, who worked on Connecticut riverboats running as far north as Brattleboro. Capt. Nelson Richardson, who died last year at Hinsdale, N. H., was the last one I know of. Patrick Tolles, who lived across the river opposite Bellows Falls, became captain of the Wentworth & Bingham boat when I resigned. I think he was a brother of the Matt Tolles of recent years. The last boat I ran was one owned at Dummerston. When boating on the river was given up, the boat was pulled up on the shore near C. P. Gilson’s, and I dismantled it. Her hulk rotting on the shore there for many years was one of the last reminders of the old boating days on the Connecticut.”


Based on: The Connecticut River Valley in southern Vermont and New Hampshire: historical sketches, Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Co., Marble City Press, 1929.

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