Friday, June 5, 2009
The Wayback Machine #2.2 – Bellows Falls, VT 1984
As you may recall, last week we took a tour of my old stomping grounds, Bellows Falls, VT. For those of you who don’t know (which easily could be just about everyone) Bellows Falls is a town in the southeastern corner of the state, about 25 miles north of Brattleboro. The town stands right next to the Connecticut River, so New Hampshire (specifically a little town called North Walpole) lies directly across the river.
Last week we toured the town courtesy of some photos I took in the summer of 1984. I haven’t been back to Bellows Falls since 1988, so I don’t know how much has changed. But this week we’re going to look at the two industries that were crucial to the town’s development, & also crucial to a marked economic downturn thru most of the time I lived in the area as those industries—paper & railroads—either moved away or became less relevant in the overall economic picture.
My father could remember the days when lumbermen brought the logs downriver from the forests of northeastern Vermont to be processed for pulp for the town’s mills. From what I understand, Bellows Falls was a booming town at the end of the 19th century & at the beginning of the 20th, with the mills in full swing & a thriving railroad industry. According to my father, it was the end of the log run—which meant payday, & some rather lively times for the men who’d come downriver. Apparently (again, according to him) the town of North Walpole (quite a sleepy little place in my day) was then nicknamed “Hell’s Half Acre” because it was the scene of so much rowdiness.
Three generations of Hayes’ men worked in those mills—my grandfather, my father (who was a millwright) & I (worked on the shipping crew). One of my earliest memories involves my mother & I riding a freight elevator into the Moore & Thompson mill to meet my father at the end of his shift. Later I worked at Robertson Paper, one of the last two mills in Bellows Falls. Moore & Thompson both made paper & “converted” it—they made construction paper, & I can recall the end of their workday when they’d pump the excess dye right into the Connecticut & the water would turn red or green or yellow. Robertson Paper was strictly a “converting” mill—we made Christmas paper (pretty much old school) & florist’s tissue & old style wax paper. I believe Robertsons closed in 1986 or 1987 (the last year I worked there was 1984), & I believe the one remaining mill closed shortly therafter.
Of course, the story of the U.S. railroad industry, especially in the Northeast, is pretty well known. As the interstate system developed, trucking became a more economical way to deliver freight, & the railroads diminished in importance. Was this a “wrong turn?”
The photo at the top of the post shows a C&P Trucking rig backed up to the Robertson Paper Co. shipping dock. In all honesty, I can't remember the name of the fellow represented by the "P"—don't believe I ever met him—but I'll always remember "C" for Charlie Miller, an old trucker who was also boss of the shipping crew. He was about as old school as they come, & I probably learned more working for him than I learned from any one man. He was a really great guy. It's true Charlie could yell at you with the best of them, but he cared about his crew & worked as hard as anyone—probably harder. He chain smoked, but he always had a smoke to offer to his fellow workers, & he had a great sense of humor. My father knew him well, as Charlie used to haul freight out of Moore & Thompson. Apparently Charlie's driving skills were pretty much legendary.
The dam. There really is a falls at Bellows Falls, of course, so there's a dam across the Connecticut producing hydro-electric power. Of course that's New Hampshire on the other side.
The depot at Bellows Falls. There were still cobblestone streets in this area well into my youth.
A C&P truck backed up to a freight car. The shipping crew also helped the receiving crew from time to time, especially when the freight cars rolled in. No one particularly liked that job. Robertson Paper was a throwback. We literally did everything with two-wheel trucks & pallet jacks—no fork lift. The rolls that came by freight car were very large (up to around 800 pounds) & the work was dangerous. Although I got banged up here & there, I was lucky never to have any major injury.
A beautiful arch bridge, built in 1905, used to span the Connecticut between Bellows Falls & North Walpole. The bridge was demolished in 1982, tho that was the stuff of local legend, since the bridge resisted five attempts to dynamite it. Eventually cutting torches were used. At the time the bridge was built it was a bit of an engineering marvel. The bridge you see under construction is it's replacement (there was/is another bridge between the two towns a little way downriver). I have a small piece of the arch bridge on a plaque in my sitting room. The postcard below shows the bridge when it was new.
Although the old arch bridge was deemed unsafe for traffic by 1971, I've always thought its demolition was a bit of a scar on the town's psyche at a time when the town was really in the doldrums.
The railroad bridge
Robertson Paper Company, est. 1892
The train tracks headed toward New Hampshire. The hill in the background (at least a hill by western standards) is Fall Mountain, a local landmark.
The shipper & the millwright at my parents' old home in Westminster, VT, an even smaller town outside Bellows Falls. That's my father's woodworking shop in the background.