This Place in History: Bellows Falls Canal


At 'This Place in History', we visit Bellows Falls on a very windy day with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins.

"There are a number of canals in Vermont. This was one of the first canals built in the United States. I think this is really cool. I think a lot of people don't know it's here. But we need to move over to the bridge so we can actually look down on the canal and we can talk about it a little more," introduced Perkins.

"So we have to go back to the name Bellows Falls. The village was originally named Great Falls. So on the Connecticut River, there is a 52 foot falls right here, which is a good place to put a village because you have water power and whatnot. But soon you figured out boats need to get around that. So in 1791, a group of English investors decided they were going to make the Connecticut River navigable, from 250 miles from the coast, so that meant up through what's now Vermont.  So they started the canal here in 1791, like I said, one of the first in the United States. It took them over 10 years to complete the canal, so the first boat didn't go through it until 1802."

Compared to what you see today, "it was a little narrower. It was only about four to six feet deep. It took small canal boats. It had nine locks, which allowed the boats to go down or up that elevation through the Connecticut River. Over time, it widened to take larger boats, but really by the 1840s, people weren't using the canal. They weren't traveling by the river anymore," explained Perkins.

They began to travel by train. "We think a lot about Bellows Falls related to train traffic and there certainly was a lot of commerce on this side of Vermont. But the train was much more efficient than the river ever could be. At that point, the river was used much more for river power and so the falls that were part of the locks were used to power paper factories. Bellows Falls really became known as a center for paper manufacturing, here in Vermont," continued Perkins.

"Now by the 1920s, 1930s, it was less and less used. Electricity was used instead in the factories, so the canal was converted fully over into hydroelectric power. The locks aren't here anymore. There's a hydroelectric dam that makes power."

Locking it down at 'This Place in History'!

For more from our "This Place in History' series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont's roadside historic markers, click here.

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