Boating on the Connecticut River has had various changes since the red man used it as a highway on his different errands of either fishing or more warlike expeditions. Its use as an artery of commerce during the era when it was used for freighting, and to a small extent for passenger service, from the time the Bellows Falls Canal was completed in 1802, until the railroads were built in the middle of the last century, has been the subject of many interesting articles in newspapers in years gone by. Not so much attention has been given to boating of later years.
In 1859, both Brattleboro and Bellows Falls had active boat clubs that had much enjoyment from their experiences on the water. In May of that year, the Green Mountain Boat Club of Brattleboro made an excursion up the river to Bellows Falls. They started from there at 5 o’clock in the morning and landed at the old canal locks here about one in the afternoon, having rowed about 27 miles. A number of Bellows Falls citizens dined with them here at the old Bellows Falls Stage House, the party comprising some of the most prominent citizens of both villages.
Each of the Brattleboro men wore a sailor’s shirt neatly made of blue flannel. Their standard colors, then recently presented to them by the ladies of Brattleboro, were of tasty design and made quite a show as the party came up from the river. The boat was named “Swift Water” and was 42 feet in length. The officers of their club at that time were: president, Philip Wells, vice-president, C. A. Miles, for many years the head of the schools there; secretary and treasurer, Dr. J. M. Comegys; coxswain, Henry Goodridge; first assistant, W. H. Rockwell; second assistant, Charles A. Tripp. They started on their return trip a little past 4 o’clock, giving three cheers for Bellows Falls, which was immediately responded to by a large number of our citizens who lined the shore.
During that season, the Swift Water Boat Club was challenged by the Wantastiquet Boat Club, also of Brattleboro, for a boat race to Bellows Falls for a purse of $400, each party to contribute $200 of it, and the whole to go to the successful boat. Considerable discussion arose over the terms and conditions of the challenge. Until the building of the Vernon Dam, Bellows Falls had the advantage of Brattleboro in the matter of about 15 miles of comparatively still water above the dam here, but at the present time the facilities for this sport are about equal.
In the year 1909, and for several years before and after, motor boating was enjoyed here to a great extent, there being that year 47 such craft in active commission, 12 new power boats having been put on the river that season. A large boat club was enjoying the river here and they had a well-equipped clubhouse just above the Vermont end of the steel arch bridge, with a large hall for dancing, and the basement was used to store the boats. Each evening, and Sundays, the river was alive with boats and throngs of people watched them from the shores and the bridge. The interest has gradually waned, until for the last few years only one or two pleasure boats plow the waters, and the same is true at Brattleboro.
The river falls 52 feet here where it passes from the north to the south end of the village. Because of the rapidity of the current, and the jagged rocks, it is often said no boat ever successfully passed through these falls, but that statement is erroneous. August 11, 1876, a party of river-men who were handling one of the large drives of Ross & Leavitt’s logs then passing down the river, did the stunt. Five different boats passed through the entire length of the falls, each manned by two men. The men in boat No. 1 were Henry Davis and William Doane; No.2, Gorham Spencer and Frank Dudley; No. 3, Ben Mitchell, John Murphy; No. 4, Frank Mohawk, Joseph Swartson; No. 5, Henry Wadleigh and John Murphy. The last boat went down twice, and Henry Davis did the same. Three of the boats dipped some water, but two went over dry. Each man handled one oar, guiding the boat from both the prow and stern. The water was very low at the time and the river-men became daring and conquered.
A few of the present residents remember the incident of Capt. Paul Boyton passing through the falls and under the toll bridge in his rubber floating suit. He was on a pleasure trip down the Connecticut and arrived at the dam at night, October 29, 1879. During the evening, it became known that he would go through the falls the next morning and it was estimated that a crowd of 2000 people gathered to watch the feat. So many occupied vantage places on the toll bridge that fears were entertained for its safety and some were ordered off. The water was somewhat high and rushed through the gorge with mighty force.
He went into the water just below the dam, and with his paddle struck out for the center of the current, being carried swiftly down. He was caught a number of times in the eddies and carried round and round, giving him a hard pull to get out into the current. When at last he went through the place where the water rushes with the greatest force, just above the Fitchburg Bridge, he went out of sight and did not appear seemingly for some minutes; the hair of the spectators stood on end with horror.
He, however, soon appeared a long distance down the river and came out of the water from the eddy below. At Town’s Hotel that evening, in discussing the day’s experience, he stated that it was the worst in his life, and that nothing would ever tempt him to try these falls again. He said the water bore him down with a terrible weight to the bottom of the channel, and for a few moments, he confidently expected it would hold him there to his death.