A century ago, the Connecticut River was an important artery in the transportation problems of all this section of New England, and the stories of the time when the boatman’s song echoed through the valley, instead of the locomotive whistle or the honk of the automobile driver, are increasingly interesting as those days recede further into the past, and the present generation knows less of the problems of those days.
Nearly thirty years ago, the writer secured the following story of Sumner L. Howard, then 85 years of age, who had spent many years on the river as a boatman, after working here on the locks used in raising and lowering the boats at this point. He said:
“In the years when I was employed on the locks here, the main guard gates stood just where the stone arch highway bridge now stands on Bridge Street. Below this, was a section known as the `Stone hole’ in which were two locks, the lower gate being opened by a windlass, and the others by long levers. Below this first section of locks, was a large mill pond extending to the grist-mill, now owned by Frank Adams & Co., and below that, along where the sulphite and coating mills are now, there was a succession of six more locks, the lower one opening into the eddy at the point where the raceway of the coating mill is. My brother, Harrison Howard, and Jesse Brockway worked in the canal company’s sawmill, standing where the Robertson Paper Company’s mill is (the Babbitt & Kelley mill destroyed by the flood of November 4, 1927). When boats were using the locks, they took all the water, so the mill could not work. At such times, my brother and Mr. Brockway assisted in handling the locks. Four men were needed to open and close the locks below the grist-mill, and three men those at the `Stone hole.’
“A large freight business was done for many years between Hartford, Conn., and Bellows Falls by boats that floated down with the current and came back by tug from Hartford to Springfield, and, from there, sailing when the wind was favorable, and poling, or `snubbing’ the boat along when necessary.
“The two boats best known locally, and engaged in this business, were owned here by Col. Asa Wentworth, Jr., of Bellows Falls, and Benjamin Smith of Cambridge port, and were run respectively by Captains Charles and Austin Davenport. The boats were seventy-two feet long, eleven and a half feet wide, and when loaded to their capacity of about thirty tons would draw only two to three feet of water. They were flat-bottomed boats, having a cabin at the stern, a mast in the center, around which the freight was packed, and with a gunwale extending around the entire boat. The main sail was about twenty feet square and was fastened in its center, extending some feet each side of the boat. A topsail was about eight feet wide at its bottom, narrowing towards the top. In addition to these, a third sail was placed above the topsail in very light winds.
“When the wind was not available as a motive power, the men used long stout poles in pushing the boats along. The man on each side would place one end of the pole firmly on the bottom of the river, and, with the other end against the shoulder, walk from bow to stern, seventy-two feet, thus propelling the boat. When work first began in the spring, this caused the shoulders to become very sore, and, later, there would be callous places upon each shoulder as large as the hand.
“The boats carried down loads of freestone, shingles and other produce, bringing back heavy freight such as iron, sugar, molasses, grindstones, salt, etc., while a specialty was made of new rum during the last of June.
“Boats usually took three days on the downward trip, going as far as Northfield, Mass., the first day, from there to Springfield on the second, and to Hartford on the third. It took much longer to come up the river, the time varying with the wind. The round trip averaged about two weeks. The return trip from `Miller’s Mills,’ as they were then called, at the mouth of Miller’s River, was once made in a single night. I was on that boat, owned by Mr. Smith and run by Captain Austin Davenport. That night, we got through the locks at Miller’s behind the Wentworth boat run by Captain Charles Davenport. When the two boats got up as far as Northfield Farms, where we would tie up for the night under ordinary circumstances, Austin said, `Boys, let’s go on by Charles. Don’t make any noise and we’ll give him a surprise in the morning; I can steer.’ So by the light of a full moon, and with the aid of a strong south wind, we came along all night, arriving at Bellows Falls about daybreak. The next night, after getting our boat all unloaded, at about dusk, we saw Charles’ boat coming round the bend, south of the eddy. He certainly was surprised, to say nothing of being mad, at thus having the march stolen on him, as he had supposed all day that we were behind him.
“In leaving the canal at Bellows Falls, going down the river, considerable difficulty was often experienced in getting out of the eddy owing to the currents, which were very different from what they now are. I think the average amount of water in the river now is not over forty percent of what it was in those days. A strong current came down from the falls in the main river, and, striking through the middle of the eddy, it divided at the lower end, eddying around, so that on both the Vermont and New Hampshire sides of the river the current near the shore actually set strongly up stream. The trouble was to get through this northerly current and into the main stream, especially if a strong south wind was blowing. Boats would often eddy around a number of times, going clear over to the New Hampshire side, often taking many hours before the current could be struck which would take them out of the eddy. To overcome this difficulty, a post was set in the river at the south end of the eddy and a rope passed through a pulley fastened to it. Old Seth Hapgood, who lived where Miss Ann Hapgood does now, kept a pair of oxen for the purpose of helping boats out of the trouble. He would ride as far into the river as possible on the `nigh’ ox, and with the aid of the rope attached to the boat, and passed through the pulley on the post, he would draw the boat out into the right current. It used to be a common saying among the river men that `Old Seth Hapgood prayed every morning for a south wind so boatmen would have to employ him to get them out of the eddy.’
“Mr. Hapgood was also employed by the boatmen coming up the river, using his oxen attached to a long rope to draw the loaded boats over the swift water on the bar at the mouth of Saxtons River. Men now living, tell of the competition between the boys of the village in their race to tell Mr. Hapgood of the appearance of boats headed up stream that he might be ready, and the old man never failed of rewarding the first informant with a few pennies.
“At Enfield, just over the Connecticut line, was a canal to avoid some rocky rapids in the river, and as they were not entirely impassable to boats some of the time, it was a practice to run south bound boats over the rapids, while north bound boats had to use the canal. This was done to save time as well as the canal tolls one way. Special pilots were used who knew the channel among the rocks, and the danger attending the passage led at one time to the formation of a company which, for a premium, would insure the safety of boats there, but I never heard of an accident. At several points, rapids and shoal places required an additional force of men. One of these places was the rapids opposite the village of Walpole, and extra men were usually taken down from here to assist, who came back on foot. At some of these places, men known as `swift-water-men’ were taken on to pilot the boats through those particular rapids. Below the locks and `Severance Hotel’ at Turners Falls, was a sharp turn in the river, known as `Honey Pot Eddy’, where much trouble was often experienced. Just this side of the ferry, at Westmoreland, was a peculiarly shaped rock known as `Whales-back,’ while just below Brattleboro were rocks known among the river men as the `Geese and Goslings.’
“At practically all points along the river, where boats were supposed to stop, the country stores carried a stock of rum in addition to their other merchandise. There was a store building about where Granger Block on Westminster Street now stands, the front door opening on Westminster Street and a flight of stairs leading down the back side to the canal. They sold rum, in addition to dry goods, and often disposed of a barrelful in one morning to the boatmen and rafts men. This rum was made from distilled molasses and seldom caused drunkenness or fighting. It was sold at twenty-five cents a gallon, or three cents a tumbler (.1/2 pint). Brandy, gin, and West India rum sold at five cents a glass, while whiskey was unknown. In spite of the large amounts of liquor consumed, there was not as much drunkenness as at the present time.”
Mr. Howard remembered that among the several attempts to establish steamboat navigation, there was a little steamer named the “William Hall”, which came here from Hartford. It was too big to go through the locks, and it was drawn around through the village by oxen, and went up to Windsor. It was drawn back around the falls by oxen on its return trip, and was run for a short time between here and Hartford once a week, but it did not pay, and, in later years, it was used as a tug on the lower part of the river. The records of the Connecticut Valley Steamboat Company show this boat as having been built at Hartford, Conn., in 1831, and as having been used as a tug below Springfield for many years. It was the boat upon which James Mulligan, late president of the Connecticut River Railroad, was engineer as a young man.
When shown a picture of a boat said to have been one used in that era, Mr. Howard said it was an exact representation of the boat on which he was employed, except that “my boat had a top mast and a top-sail above the large square one shown in the picture.”
The following article tells more about James Mulligan, and the disappointing trial trip of the “William Hall.”
Based on: The Connecticut River Valley in southern Vermont and New Hampshire: historical sketches, Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Co., Marble City Press, 1929.