¶ 1 Bellows Falls
Part 1— Industrial Engine of the Upper Connecticut Valley
Caption: Early (pre-1920) post card looking south with Fall Mountain in the background
The falls were once a fishing place for the historic, nomadic Abenaki tribes, who were part of the Algonquian language family. They caught plentiful salmon and shad. Indigenous peoples had fished at the falls and inhabited the area for thousands of years before European arrival.
The community was settled in 1753 by colonists of English descent, who called it Great Falls. Later the settlers named the town for Colonel Benjamin Bellows, a landowner. In 1785, Colonel Enoch Hale built at the falls the first bridge over the Connecticut River. It was the only bridge across the river for more than 10 years, until 1796, when another was built at Springfield, Massachusetts. The bridge was later replaced. The Bellows Fall-Vilas Bridge connects Vermont and New Hampshire.
The Bellows Falls Canal, built in 1791-1802, lifted boats 52 feet (16 m) in eight locks around the gorge. It tapped the water power of the falls for industry. This created the industrialization of the town.
Caption: The canal today, still in use providing hydro-electric energy.
In 1802, entrepreneurs built the first paper mill. Two railroads converged in 1849 at Bellows Falls, helping it develop into a major mill town. By 1859, a woolen textile mill was operating, in addition to factories that produced furniture, marble, sashes and blinds, iron castings, carriages, cabinet ware, rifles, harness, shoe pegs and organs. The principal products, however, were paper and farm machinery. Bellows Falls was incorporated as a village in 1909.
The years of industry created wealth in the town, and substantial Victorian houses and mercantile buildings were constructed. Bellows Falls today attracts visitors through heritage tourism based on its historic Victorian architecture.
The Connecticut was the first major river in the country to be improved for travel, with about 250 miles open to navigation by 1810. Constructed between 1791 and 1802, this canal was among the first in America and was a major influence on the growth of the village because it also provided power for many mills. Produce and lumber were brought downriver on flat-bottomed boats propelled with long poles, square sails, and the current. Here, avoiding the river gorge, boats passed through eight locks with a total elevation of 52 feet. The coming of railroads in the 1840s brought the era of slower canal boats to an end, but this canal, enlarged several times since, now serves modern needs.
Bellows Falls Canal
The first of these canals to be chartered, and upon which work was commenced, was at Bellows Falls. It was in 1791 and was the first canal started on this continent to be used for navigation purposes. The charter was granted at Windsor in that year, and it is interesting to note that it was the first Vermont legislature after the admission of the state into the Union. Its corporate name was " Company for Rendering Connecticut River Navigable by Bellows Falls." Three brothers from London, England, John, Francis, and Hodgdon Atkinson furnished the capital for its construction.
They expended $105,338.13 in building the dam and canal before a boat passed through, and, because of the natural obstructions, and great fall of the river (52 feet), it took ten years before the first boat passed through it in August of 1802. It remained in the ownership of the Atkinson family for seventy-two years, or until June 16, 1866, and was then sold by them for $65,000 to Ex-Gov. S. W. Hale and E. F. Lane of Keene, N. H. In 1871, the property was acquired from them by the purchase of the stock by Hon. William A. Russell, of Lawrence, Mass., who associated with him other enterprising and aggressive men, and from that time its more general utilization for water power has been an important factor in the business and growth of Bellows Falls.