Essex County forms the northeast corner of Vermont, bordering Quebec in Canada and Coos County in New Hampshire. It is an area of low mountains interspersed with ponds and great bogs, with the Coaticook River draining north to Canada and the Nulhegan River and many streams draining east to the Connecticut River, whose western shore is lined with half of the county's towns. With only 6,306 residents, Essex is the state's least populous county, although in area it is larger than Chittenden County. Island Pond, located at the headwaters of the Clyde River, has some 800 residents, making it the county's largest village, and Guildhall, the shire town on the Connecticut, has but 289 residents.
When the county was organized in 1792, a majority of towns had no recorded residents. Guildhall, whose 158 residents made it the county's largest town, became the county shire. By 1810 only 3,000 residents populated Essex, mostly on farms along the Connecticut River because a lack of significant waterpower hampered settlement in the upper reaches of the county. In 1850, Concord and Lunenburg, with more arable land for farming, were the most populous towns, recording more than 1,100 residents each. Today, the legacy of these early years is most evident in Concord and Lunenburg villages, in the county green in Guildhall, and in isolated early farms with elaborate Federal or Greek Revival houses.
In 1853 the Grand Trunk Railway was constructed from Portland, Maine, to Montreal, Canada, via the Nulhegan Road through Essex County. The railroad developers chose the halfway-point village of Island Pond in Brighton as the regional rail center, which caused the town's population to soar from 193 in 1850 to 1,530 in 1870, with more than 600 immigrants, mostly French Canadian. The St. Johnsbury and Lamoille County Railroad extended through the lower Connecticut River towns in 1873 but had much less impact on their village centers. These towns sustained modest farm populations and built some magnificent late-nineteenth-century barns. Meanwhile, commercial logging for hardwood, sawlog, and then pulp dominated the northern towns into the next century, much as in neighboring New Hampshire. One logging operation, C. N. Stevens and Co., built the Moose River railroad (operating 1889–1906) in order to conduct cutting and milling in Victory and Granby. The upper Coos division of the Maine Central Railroad extended into Canada through Canaan in 1888, and the Beecher Falls Manufacturing Company mill there became the industrial center of upper Coos country. Annual drives of sawlogs down the Connecticut, begun in 1869 in Canaan, fed many mills along the river, including a paper mill in Lunenburg that became surrounded by the village of Gilman, with rows of vernacular wood-frame workers' homes. In 1890 Essex County counted 9,511 residents, its historic peak population.
During the twentieth century, Island Pond gained preeminence within the county, with more than 1,400 residents working in the rail yards and shipping lumber during the 1920s. The New Hampshire Stave and Heading Company constructed the “Sugar Barrel Railroad” (operating 1920–1927) on the East Branch of the Nulhegan River to extract ever more remote hardwood stands. The year 1924 witnessed the last log drive on the Connecticut, as the lumber companies sold their water rights to hydroelectric developers who dammed the river. The Maine Central Railroad then fed the wood-products mills in Gilman and Beecher Falls, which sustained those communities through the rest of the twentieth century. County farming, especially in the lower Connecticut River towns, declined steadily from 900 farms in 1900 to 600 in 1930, then to 215 in 1959, and, finally, to 93 in 1997. The Canadian National Railway closed its rail yards in Island Pond in 1958, dealing that community a serious economic blow. In the last quarter of the twentieth century outdoor recreation became an increasingly important component of the area economy with summer camps at Island Pond and on Norton, Averill, and Maidstone lakes; hunting camps in the boggy interior; and snowmobiling across the county.
Outside the industrial villages and recreation clusters, the smaller centers, sparse farms, and rolling roads closed in by forest look like typical Vermont communities from the early nineteenth century. Still relatively isolated within what is now being partially conserved as the Great Northern Forest, the distances between settlements make the county seat of Guildhall, the railroad village of Island Pond, and the mill villages and the farms along the Connecticut River all the more intriguing as they document two centuries of scattered settlement in largely undeveloped Essex County.
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