What was the bustling industrial center of Bellows Falls a hundred years ago has slowly been converted over the past two decades into an exceptional public park.
An area polluted, abandoned, and neglected for most of the past century has been the focus of volunteer citizens working to convert the 8-acre former industrial site into an inviting, environmentally safe outdoor space for the community.
But somewhat hidden away and accessed from the village only through the alley-like, narrow Mill Street, even some local folks don't even know that it exists.
The site of the now-14-year-old Bellows Falls Historic Riverfront Park and Trail System was initially developed in the mid-1800s by the lumber and papermaking industry.
Located on the Connecticut River's edge below the terraces that the village is built on, the site has been known locally as the "Under the Hill" area for over two centuries.
For well over half a century, Bellows Falls was the major end point of a three-month-long log drive originating in the great rivershed forests of northern Vermont and New Hampshire.
The annual log drive brought millions of board feet of timber down the Connecticut River each spring from 1865 to 1915 ["From river's depths, a vestige of Bellows Falls history emerges," News, Aug. 9, 2023].
While some of those logs would continue south to mills in Massachusetts and Connecticut, a large percentage were processed in Bellows Falls and across the river in North Walpole, New Hampshire. Timber was milled into framing lumber, furniture and cabinetmaking hardwoods, and interior trim.
In addition, many of the logs - in particular, poplar - became pulp for papermaking, and much of that was done in the mills that once stood in what is now Riverfront Park.
Some paper mills sat along Bridge Street on the southern end of the Island, including the 16-building Moore and Thompson Paper Mill Complex, built around 1880.
While most of those mills are gone, a few of those buildings are still in use, though most remaining are empty and in disrepair.
But the largest industrial complex in the village was built in the Under the Hill area along the aptly named Mill Street by the predecessor of the International Paper Company.
In 1869, William Russell, who would become a founder and the first president of International Paper, leased all the old factories and their water rights, and began construction of this Under the Hill site.
The advent of railroads in 1849 had made the Bellows Falls canal obsolete, so Russell removed the locks and rebuilt the original 1790–1801 canal, which by 1869 was in disrepair. He converted it to power the mills.
International Paper, today the largest pulp and paper company in the world, was co-founded by Russell and incorporated in 1898 when 17 Northeast pulp and paper mills, including the local Fall Mountain Paper Co., merged.
International Paper was actually founded in the Fall Mountain Paper offices in Bellows Falls. The building housing those offices is one of the few remaining buildings at the site, known today as the TLR Building.
In stark contrast to the park's present configuration, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of the site in 1896 shows that what is now an 8-acre green space was once completely covered by dozens of factories, lumber mills, lumber sheds, carpenter shops, acid rooms, paper machine rooms, shipping buildings, buildings for coal storage, pulp storage, paper storage, sulfite mills, blowpits, and digesters, as well as the Frank Adams Grist Mill, most of it owned by the Fall Mountain Paper and Robertson Paper companies.
The buildings were often connected directly or by overhead pedestrian bridges.
In 1896, the mills were all operated by water power from the converted canal, which Russell split into covered west and east flumes.
Each flume ran under the factories and emptied into the Connecticut River via two separate tail races, one of which is still visible. The buildings were heated by coal boilers and some wood stoves, so the threat of fires at the complex was a serious ongoing concern.
New papermaking technology, which used a mixture of wood pulp and rags to make usable paper, was installed in the factories. Parts of those original, huge papermaking machines are among the educational exhibits in the Park.
From 1870 to the 1920s, Bellows Falls was one of New England's major industrial centers, with a population of over 6,000, more than double the current population of 2,800.
By 1902, some 5,000 workers from the area were employed at the mills, which ran continuously in shifts.
Town life centered on the mills. Whistles blown at shift changes and other times of day could be heard around the town. Villagers used the whistles to schedule their days, time their meals, get to school, and set their clocks.
Frances Stockwell Lovell and Everett C. Lovell's History of Rockingham recorded the results when time keeper "Hosea Parker made the mistake of his life; he blew the noon whistle at eleven o'clock and the town was not the same for days!"
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By the early 1900s, things began to change.
The great northern forests of New England were largely depleted, and the last great log drive down the Connecticut River took place in 1915.
Smaller log drives of pulp wood, disparagingly referred to as "4-foot stuff," would continue for another 30 years, but the glory years were gone.
In addition, labor unions - at first, the International Brotherhood of Paper Makers and, in 1906, the creation of the International Brotherhood of Pulp Sulphite and Paper Mill Workers - became and remains an important part of the history of the paper industry.
That was very true in Bellows Falls. The local union helped fund a new firehouse in Bellows Falls, which included a union meeting hall on its top floor. Large union parades were held in the village around the turn of the century, and many local union leaders went on to national positions.
Fighting for improved working conditions and better pay, there were several strikes against International Paper for 20 years, starting with a 1907 strike in Bellows Falls.
There were paper mill strikes throughout the East in 1910. In 1919, some 5,000 workers went on strike in Bellows Falls for two weeks.
But 1921 was the beginning of the end when local workers went on strike for several months. International Paper in Bellows Falls laid off 400 workers, and union pickets and marches occurred daily. Union meetings had to be held in the Bellows Falls Opera House because so many attended.
Local union leaders were jailed for "intimidation," and two companies of the Vermont National Guard patrolled the streets to keep order during the marches. Pulp trucks trying to get to the mills were overturned by strikers.
When strike breakers - often foreign immigrants - were brought in by train to salvage some of the pulpwood, they had to be protected by the National Guard carrying rifles with fixed bayonets. Shots were fired across the river into the campsite of the strike breakers. Nearly all the Bellows Falls stores and businesses refused to serve them. The situation divided the town for months, and mob rule became a political issue.
"It was," as Lovell's History of Rockingham understates, "a tense time."
Finally, in 1922, things came to an end, but not in the way the strikers had hoped. International Paper began shutting down machines and dismissing workers in what newspapers of the era described as a shift in its corporate strategy.
"Recent developments strongly indicate that the International Paper Co., intends to make itself a great hydro-electric company, with paper a secondary matter. If favorable legislation continues, it is very likely the company will follow out its veiled promises to get out of the paper business in the United States and go to Canada for that purpose," the Brattleboro Reformer reported on May 5 of that year.
That came to pass in March of 1926, with the announcement that almost all of the paper manufacturing operation in Bellows Falls would cease within two months, with plans for demolishing the majority of the mill complex over 3 acres, rebuilding and upgrading the canals to provide electricity for remaining industry.
Most of the Under the Hill buildings came to be owned by a new entity, the International Hydro-Electric Company. Though some paper mills, in particular the Robertson Paper Company, would continue in town for decades longer, the mostly abandoned Under the Hill site would soon begin to be dismantled and demolished.
Thousands of people lost their jobs.
"It was the end of a period of prosperity" for Bellows Falls, Lovell wrote.
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While the great river log drives and the paper mill industrial years have been romanticized to a degree, the truth is that in many ways they created environmental problems that we are still dealing with today.
The great lumber companies often logged without a sustainable plan, deforesting much of their holdings in northern New England. The colorful river drives were an ecological disaster for Connecticut River fish and wildlife.
The huge paper mill complex used vast amounts of water, as well as dangerous chemicals that ended up in the soil and the river. It has taken decades for the Connecticut River to begin to recover. And while the vast complex of factories and mills along the river in Bellows Falls are mostly gone now, the soil there remained contaminated and unused for the remainder of the 20th century.
Now, with the development of the Historic Park and Riverfront Trail System by the Bellows Falls Historical Society, all of that is changing.
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It could be said that in some ways, the Bellows Falls Historical Society owes its very existence to the park. In 1965, one of the last remaining buildings of the Under the Hill industrial area, Adams Grist Mill, was on the docket to be torn down.
The mill, built in 1831, was in continuous operation until 1961. Painted on the second floor of the building, and still visible today, is a message proclaiming the mill's offerings: "Hay - Grain - Feed - Flour."
The mill was in dire need of restoration and repair, but it was a diamond in the rough, with grinding machines, old motors, electrical fuse boxes, elevator shafts, storage bins, and transfer pipes all still in place and most of them still in working order.
Not wanting to see this community treasure lost, a group of citizens, spearheaded by locals Bob Adams and Bob Ashcroft, banded together and formed the Bellows Falls Historical Society in 1965.
The Society at first leased the mill from the New England Power Company.
When TransCanada bought the hydroelectric power system on the Connecticut River in 2005, it viewed the polluted site as a financial liability. The new owners donated the land, including the grist mill and the adjacent Wyman Flint Building, to the Historical Society on the condition that the power company be released from any liability to clean up the contaminated region.
In addition, the town of Rockingham eventually ended up also owning the nearby abandoned TLR Corporation building, which put all of the few remaining structures within the industrial complex in local hands.
Other parts of the eventually full 8-acre site that were owned by the town were also donated to the Historical Society, or bought from private owners via donations.
Rescuing and restoring, or if necessary removing some of these remaining buildings, has been a central project of the group ever since.
Acquiring and preserving Adams Grist Mill in the 1960s would evolve into the much larger concept of creating a historical community park, an education and heritage center, and a riverside trail system - a project that is likely to continue on for several more decades into the future.
A former long-term treasurer of the BFHS was the project manager through the grant writing and overseeing of the Riverfront Park project at the beginning. From 2005 to 2009, the group worked closely with the National Park Service, the Windham Regional Commission, Mount Ascutney Regional Commission Brownfields Reuse Program, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and other organizations and agencies to test the site for contaminants.
The soil tested positive for contamination by arsenic, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, and dioxin, all remnants of its use for paper production.
The studies provided the basis for applying for Brownfields Cleanup Grants, which were used for successful pollution remediation work on the site in 2010 and 2012. All the park's trails have been cleaned up, and contaminated public areas have been capped.
The few areas that still contain contaminants are isolated from public access. The environmentally safe zones in the park are open to public access, and the park's hiking trails connect to others along the Saxtons River.
Though Bellows Falls has 3 miles of frontage on the Connecticut River, the village had never had safe public access to the river itself, and no boat access. To remedy that, stairs now offer access to the river, where people can now find a landing for kayaks and canoes.
Industrial artifacts recovered from the mills are displayed throughout the park, and more are being added. Train wheels have been converted to benches, and scenic viewing areas have been created.
On a man-made knoll at the south end of the park offering sweeping views down the Connecticut River valley, a meditative stone labyrinth has been created, along with a stone bench, called the Poet's Seat. The knoll was initially created when it was used as the dumping spot for dirt and blasted stones during the construction of the nearby hydroelectric station in the 1920s.
A gated, gravel road provides full access to the labyrinth for everyone, including those with disabilities.
Gary Fox, a founder of the Sustainable Valley Group, which has also been involved with the creation of the park and now owns the Wyman Flint Building, said that the next stage of plans for the park involves assessing and deciding what to do with the remaining buildings.
His group is also looking into creating a second, safer access trail or road into the park.
The park was developed with the stated purpose of creating a historical, interpretive park with a Connecticut River heritage center, museum, education space, and emphasis on the arts and recreation.
The significance of the site - dating back to the area's 10,000-plus pre-European-contact Indigenous times - will also be part of the park's future development and use.
Fox said that, in 2023, the Sustainable Valley Group had both the TLR and the Wyman Flint buildings assessed for contamination, as well as the Adams Grist Mill. Now that the park's trails have been cleaned up, what happens to the remaining buildings has to be decided.
"The next step," said Fox, "is to work with environmental organizations to clean up all the building areas and decide which buildings can be saved."
He noted that structural issues will have to be considered in deciding what buildings are still viable. A few remaining, but already collapsed, buildings on the site will need to be removed.
Annette Spaulding, a recognized world-class scuba diver, is the volunteer park manager and a member of the BFHS board of directors.
In extensive exploration underwater along the shore of the park, Spaulding has discovered, among other things, remnants of a steamboat dock, underwater springs, and numerous artifacts from the mills, including two pulp milling stones that, with the help of a local construction company, she was able to salvage.
The large mill stones are now part of the park's displays.
Spaulding said that plans are underway to get permitting to build a 20-by-30 foot roofed pavilion in the park, with picnic tables for both recreation and educational purposes. Compass School and Bellows Falls Middle School frequently bring students down to the nearby park for classes.
In meeting its goals for creating opportunities for the arts, the park was the setting for an outdoor concert this past year, and plans are in the works for other arts offerings this summer, including a Renaissance fair–type event.
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Among the more interesting features of the park is a small, partially human-made pond at the south end of the industrial site. Called Cold Springs Pond in the earliest maps of Bellows Falls, this natural pond was expanded during the industrial era for use in fighting fires. A small shed at the north end of the pond was intended to house water pumping equipment.
What makes this pond unique is that it never freezes over, even in the coldest of winter weather, making it a year-round open water refuge for waterfowl, including a flock of more than 200 Mallard ducks in January.
The never-freezing pond is evidence of the geothermal springs that feed it, and studies have explored the feasibility of using this thermal water source to help heat some of the town's public buildings. That idea has been abandoned for the time being.
Don't confuse the idea of geothermal springs with hot springs. As the name Cold Springs Pond indicates, this water is far from warm, but the springs keep it warm enough to never freeze.
The pond's waters have been tested for contamination, but Spaulding said that in recent years a healthy population of fish, frogs, toads, and crayfish has been closely observed there, leading her to infer that, like the nearby river, the pond is growing cleaner and healthier with time.
The Bellows Falls Historical Riverfront Park and Trail System is in its infancy, a product of the efforts of dozens of mostly unsung local citizens and volunteers.
But with the Bellows Falls Historical Society and the Sustainable Valley Group spearheading the efforts and creating a clear vision for the park's future, it is likely many generations to come will enjoy this unique and beautiful spot.
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Anyone who would like to volunteer at the park or with the Bellows Falls Historical Society should contact President Cathy Bergmann at [email protected].
Robert F. Smith, a freelance writer, reporter, and editor, writes about the Bellows Falls region for The Commons.
This News column by Robert F. Smith was written for The Commons.