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The Bellows Falls Canal 1830-1900

With the opening of the canal in the early 1800's, Bellows Falls became a center for commerce and industry. By the end of the 19th century, there were some 5,000 residents—nearly twice today's population.

In 1831, John Cary built the Adam’s Grist Mill, now a museum owned and operated by the Bellows Falls Historical Society. Signaling the beginning of the transition from transporting goods to generating power, Adam's Grist Mill became the first of many businesses to be powered by water flowing through the Bellows Falls Canal.

A Village, Then the Railroad Arrives

Bellows Falls was chartered as an incorporated Village of the Town of Rockingham in 1834. Fifteen years later, the railroad came to Vermont, forever shifting the canal to a power source for the paper mills that would soon fill the Island and “Under the Hill”—the section of the Village southeast of the Square alongside the Connecticut River.

In 1851, the Bellows Falls Union Station was built at the junction of three railroads: the Boston and Maine (B&M), Vermont Central (now CV), and the Rutland Railroad (then the Rutland and Burlington).

As you can see in the photograph above, the train station was a two-story brick building with a wide canopy that sat at the junction of the rail lines. On the far right is the B&M Freight House, today the site of the Waypoint Visitor Center. Vermont Farm Machine Company, the large brick building behind the station, took up the entire block on Island Street. Built in the 1870s, this structure burned in 1952.

At the same time, in 1851, the Vermont Valley Railroad, today operated by the New England Central Railroad (NECR), opened its line to Brattleboro with the tunnel under the Square. The tunnel was cut through solid rock and fortified with rough-cut stone blocks, averaging 18 inches deep. The opening is still decorated with the wedge-cut stone built in a horseshoe-shaped arch. The tunnel was first lowered in 1897 and then again in 1977 and 2007. The above photograph shows locals inspecting the tracks when the tunnel was closed following the 1913 flood.

Some Fun Anecdotes

We thought you might enjoy the following excerpts from the History of the Town of Rockingham by Lyman Hayes, published in 1907.

At the south end of Canal Street, where the Brown Block now stands, stood a bakery owned by a Mrs. Alvah Pierce. The back door of the bakery faced the canal so that hundreds of loaves of bread and other products were sold daily to the passing riverboats.

From 1854-1871, the Baptist Church observed "ordinance of baptism" in the canal. The canal at that time formed a large pond near the mill owned by Wyman Flint & Sons Company in the “Under the Hill” section of town so that at times a hole had to be cut in the ice for baptisms! The spire of the Baptist Church, shown in the photograph above and built in 1860, was nicknamed the “darning needle spire." That high, slender spire dominated the downtown landscape until it was replaced in 1899.

More Business Transactions

The Bellows Falls Canal Company sold the canal rights to former New Hampshire Governor Samuel W. Hale and E.F. Lane, a Keene NH landowner and developer, on June 16, 1866. In total, 648 shares of stock were issued, the majority of which were owned by William A. Russell, who eventually purchased the canal rights altogether in 1871 and who later founded the International Paper Company.

In 1875, Richard S. Russell (son of William), James H. Williams, and Leland J. Royce invested some $300,000 in canal improvements designed to enhance waterpower for the company sawmill and paper mill. At this time, the canal was widened from 22 to 75 feet at its narrowest point and deepened from 4 to a minimum of 17 feet. Substantial (and expensive) head gates were built to utilize steam power for raising and lowering the locks.

Raising and Lowering the Locks by Hand

Before the advent of steam power, the canal locks were raised and lowered by hand. The following excerpt was related to our friend Lyman Hayes by one L.S. Howard, who worked on the locks and riverboats as a young man.

"Below the main guard gates (where Bridge Street bridge now stands) was the ‘Stone Hole’ that consisted of two locks, the lower gate being opened by a windlass [a type of winch], and the others by long levers." Howard's brother Harrison and friend Jesse Brockway worked in the canal company’s sawmill, where the Robertson Paper Mill was located. When the locks were opened, the mills could not work and so these men would assist in handling the locks. "Four men opened and closed the locks below the Grist Mill and three were in the ‘Stone Hole’.”

A Final Anecdote from Lyman Hayes

A sign reading “ALL ENTER STERN FOREMOST” stood for many years at the head of the canal, indicating that entry must be stern first, presumably to keep the rafts and bundled logs straight and manageable in those early days when traffic was heavy and the canal was shallow and narrow.

Hayes relates a trick that was played in the early 20th century in which the sign was moved to hang over the door of a tenement on Westminster Street occupied by two maiden ladies. Hayes notes that it was quickly removed "with much consternation using spike poles." The very next day, worshippers at Immanuel Church discovered the sign nailed high over the church's front door. (The pranksters later confessed, but as they were city officials by then, Hayes kept their secret).

Before we wrap up this wide-ranging post, let's look at one more photograph. This one is taken from North Walpole NH above what is now Route 12 and shows the extent of the paper mills on the Island in the late 19th century. You can see the "darning needle spire" in the left-hand background.

Up Next

Whew, that was a lot to cover! In our next blog, we'll explore the period 1900-1930, sharing photographs of the final widening of the canal and the construction of the hydroelectric power station.


You can email us at any time with questions about the Depot Street Bridge replacement project, either directly at or via the blog, and we'll respond. You can also send us information on the history of the area, which we'll be happy to share with the community through this blog,

Thanks for reading and keep an eye out for the next post!

Betsy Thurston

Executive Director of the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance

and Rockingham Development Assistant


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