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Bellows Falls

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Located at a 52-foot fall within a bend of the Connecticut River, Bellows Falls is a village of 3,000 people. For thousands of years, Native Americans camped, fished, and buried their dead near the falls, leaving behind faces chipped into the exposed rock, a rare example of petroglyphs in the upper Connecticut River Valley. The falls are named for Benjamin Bellows, who recognized their power potential and secured a charter for the Town of Rockingham in 1752. Although permanent settlement began in the 1760s, significant settlement awaited the end of the Revolution. In 1785 residents built the first bridge across the upper Connecticut, and between 1792 and 1802, foreign investors financed construction of the first inland canal in the United States. The twenty-two-foot-wide canal, which cut the bend in the river with eight locks, created the “Island” on the Vermont side, which quickly became the location of shipping facilities and mills.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, Bellows Falls prospered as a milling, river transport, and commercial center, receiving its village charter in 1834. By 1840 it had more than fifty buildings. Between 1848 and 1851, rail lines connected it with Brattleboro and Burlington, Windsor and White River Junction, and Keene, New Hampshire, and its importance as a railroad junction surpassed any earlier importance. By 1870 the village had grown to 697 residents and more than two hundred and twenty-five buildings.

After purchasing the old canal rights for waterpower in 1871, William Russell revived paper milling on the Island, turning rafts of logs floated down the Connecticut into pulp and then cardboard and newsprint. In 1875 he widened the canal to seventy-five feet and constructed more mills to use the waterpower. In 1898, he consolidated the mills and formed the International Paper Company, which soon produced one hundred tons of paper daily and employed nearly 700 in the paper mills and related machine shops. By 1900 the Vermont Farm Machinery Company (founded 1873) employed more than 200 in the manufacture of cream separators and other dairy and farm implements. The village population swelled during these years, to 2,200 in 1880 and to 4,800 by 1910. Downtown and the residential neighborhood to the west both took on much of their present form, with multistory commercial blocks and railroad hotels surrounding the “square,” and, on the broad river terrace above them, blocks of Queen Anne and Colonial Revival houses, large and small.

During World War I, local industry continued to thrive, but in 1921 a bitter strike resulted in the relocation of the International Paper Company, and in 1926, the farm machinery plant abruptly went bankrupt. With the loss of these major employers, the village population quickly dropped below 4,000. Some paper mills remained in operation and the New England Power Company purchased the International Paper properties, widened the canal to its present one-hundred-foot width, and built below the falls a Georgian Revival hydroelectric station with three turbines. In the 1920s the village erected a train station, high school, and the town hall and theater, with its campanile-like clock tower that presides over the square.

Following the Great Depression and World War II, only the railroads remained a substantial employer in the village, but over the next two decades, they too slowly declined. With I-91 under construction nearby, the final passenger train departed in 1966, and a decade later the freight yards were removed. Downtown retail disappeared with the railroad, leaving many storefronts and hotels vacant. Since then, government-subsidized efforts to revitalize the square have met with some success. Overall, Bellows Falls remains Vermont's best “river city,” with three distinct levels that step up from the Connecticut: the Island, with its historic railroad and canal structures, grist-and paper mills, and hydroelectric plant; a downtown of three-story brick commercial blocks and former railroad hotels arranged around the square; and above the square the residential neighborhood, with a mix of dwellings and churches that date from 1850 to 1920.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Glenn M. Andres and Curtis B. Johnson

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