Bellows Falls, Vermont
54 Depot Street Bellows Falls, VT 05101
- Annual Station Revenue (2013)
- Annual Station Ridership (2013)
|Facility Ownership||Green Mountain Railroad Corporation|
|Parking Lot Ownership||Green Mountain Railroad Corporation|
|Platform Ownership||Green Mountain Railroad Corporation|
|Track Ownership||New England Central Railroad (NECR)|
|6 Long Term Parking Spaces||6 Short Term Parking Spaces||Accessible Payphones|
|Accessible Platform||Accessible Restrooms||Accessible Waiting Room|
|Accessible Water Fountain||Dedicated Parking||Enclosed Waiting Area|
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Located at a sharp bend in the Connecticut River, which separates Vermont from New Hampshire, Bellows Falls spreads along a series of terraces carved long ago by the river’s waters. The terraces provided a natural organization to the town from its earliest days, with the lowest holding the industrial zone, dependent on water power; the middle level supported the vital commercial district that attracted shoppers from miles around; and the highest provided a safe area for handsome residences away from the hustle and bustle of the riverfront. An incorporated village, Bellows Falls is also the heart of the larger town of Rockingham in whose borders it is confined. The Vermonter, which runs between St. Albans, Vt., near the Canadian border, and Washington, D.C., stops at the depot near the river.
A station has stood at the crossing of Bellows Falls’ two major rail lines since the mid-19th century. The current structure, known as the Boston and Maine (B&M) depot for one of the railroads that used it, was constructed when its predecessor was extensively damaged in a 1922 fire and could not be rehabilitated. Completed the next year, the one-storey brick station is located on a narrow triangular parcel bordered by tracks on two sides. Surface decoration is minimal and limited to the stone window sills and lintels Similar to depots built since the earliest days of railroading, the building is essentially a rectangular structure, but in response to the unusual shape of the lot, the designer added large polygonal pavilions to all but the southern façade. This allowed the main bulk of the station to be economically built to a standardized plan while providing additional interior space in the pavilions which projected out into the expansive platform area.
The seven-sided northern bay is the largest, and once contained a newsstand and a restaurant where passengers could have a bite to eat before departure; its numerous windows gave views out to the busy rail crossing and the river beyond. On the west elevation, the pavilion allowed the station master and office crew an unobstructed view down the north-south rail line so that they could monitor traffic. The south end lacked a pavilion because it held the baggage room and therefore required wide doorways that could accommodate the movement of hand wagons loaded with suitcases and parcels.
Passengers used one of two platforms depending on their destination: the B&M operated the north- and southbound services while the Rutland Railroad oversaw those heading east or west. A large canopy followed the edge of the platform and wrapped around the building to protect passengers from inclement weather as they waited for the arrival of the train. Inside, many of the original finishes such as the five cross-panel wood doors, cap trim, and pendent lighting with acorn shaped bowls remain and have been refurbished.
As a “union station” served by two railroads, Bellows Falls remained busy until the mid-20th century when federal priorities shifted funding to other transportation modes such as personal automobiles and airplanes. After the B&M ended service in 1966, Bellows Falls was without regularly scheduled passenger trains for 6 years until the newly-formed Amtrak instituted its Montrealer, replaced by the Vermonter in 1995.
In 1984, the Green Mountain Railroad began offering excursion trips into the scenic river valleys and mountain ranges north of Bellows Falls. In summer and fall, vintage diesel locomotives haul restored 1930s era passenger coaches. The railroad maintains the Bellows Falls depot, and train sets are often parked on nearby sidings. Southeast of the depot, the company offices are housed in the former Railway Express Agency building constructed in the late 1870s or early 1880s. From a distance, the building is identified by its cupola crowned with a hipped roof.
When European explorers first visited what is now southeastern Vermont, it was primarily inhabited by the Abenaki American Indians who belonged to the Algonquian language family. For many centuries, the area around the falls was known by American Indian peoples as a prime fishing spot for shad and salmon. The fish moved upstream to spawn, but many were held back by the falls and were therefore easy to catch. A collection of petrogylphs found among the granite outcroppings along the shore records the presence of humans at the falls, and the anthropomorphic carvings, which seem to depict heads with eyes and mouths, might be more than 2,000 years old.
Unlike portions of the New England coast, Vermont was difficult to access due to mountain ranges and thick forests. Many scholars believe that it was not densely settled and was instead used as a seasonal hunting ground by various tribes. Vermont remained beyond the sphere of European colonists well into the mid-18th century and acted as a buffer zone between the French towns of southern Canada and the English settlements of coastal New England. The region only became attractive to a greater number of English colonists after the British defeated the French in 1760 and gained permanent control of Canada.
Vermont did not come into existence as a separate entity until 1777, and until then the land was heavily disputed by New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. As early as the 1730s, Massachusetts claimed all of present-day Vermont, but settlement was not forthcoming. A generation later, Governor Benning Wentworth of New Hampshire began chartering numerous towns throughout Vermont, leading to complaints from the government of the New York colony. Wentworth was especially interested in the region due to its stands of timber which could be used in boat building, a lucrative industry on the New Hampshire coast. Trees such as white pines were highly valued for ship components such as masts. In 1752, the Rockingham parcel was divided among 72 proprietors, but not many settlers chose to move to the area until after the end of the French and Indian War of 1754-1763.
Early residents built homes around the falls where the watercourse tumbled more than 50 feet through a narrow gorge. Concentrating on fishing and the movement of freight around the falls, the village grew to about 225 persons in the early 1770s. By the end of the century, the falls and the adjacent village had taken the name of early landowner Colonel Benjamin Bellows, who had settled on the New Hampshire side of the river.
The community put itself on the map when in 1785 Enoch Hale erected the first bridge across the Connecticut—Bellows Falls happened to be at one of the narrowest points along the river. The bridge ensured that stagecoach lines running between Boston and upstate New York passed through the town and spurred its development as a transportation hub. With abundant waterpower available through the river and numerous streams, Bellows Falls soon hosted a handful of grist and saw mills, industries essential to growth. Processed grains and finished wood could be shipped down the river on flat bottom boats and sold in lucrative coastal markets.
Unfortunately, the falls presented a major navigation problem, and goods had to be unloaded at one end, carted to the other, and then reloaded to continue the journey. In 1792, a group of British investors financed the construction of the first canal in the United States as a way to bypass the falls. Completed in 1802, it consisted of eight locks and effectively separated the land at the bend of the river from the rest of the shore. Bordered by the river and canal, this 30 acre parcel became known as the “Island.”
The canal not only provided improved navigation, but also controlled water power for new factories. Over the next few decades, manufacturers producing textiles and paper, among other goods, populated the canal edge. A large hotel called the Island House was built at the center of the Island near the depot. Its luxurious interiors and manicured grounds attracted tourists in search of cool summers and excursions into the White Mountains. In the antebellum period, a large part of the clientele came from the steamy southern states. The falls also challenged daredevils who attempted to survive their descent unscathed.
While the stage routes and the river provided good opportunities for shipping, Bellows Falls’ mercantile leaders sought faster and more cost-effective means, which only seemed possible through the railroads. An 1844 meeting roused interest among regional leaders and within a few years New Hampshire chartered the Cheshire and Sullivan County Railroads. From Keene, which had connections to Boston, the Cheshire reached the New Hampshire side of the falls on January 1, 1849; a bridge soon allowed trains to reach the Island.
That same year, the Sullivan County Railroad and the Rutland and Burlington Railroad entered town, connecting to communities in northern and western Vermont. Bellows Falls’ fourth rail link was completed in 1851 when the Vermont Valley Railroad was completed to nearby Brattleboro and beyond to Springfield, Massachusetts. Due to the topography of Bellows Falls and the required grade of the railroad, the Vermont Valley had to construct a 400 foot tunnel beneath the town square; it is still used more than 150 years later. By the early 20th century, these four lines would be under the control of two railroads: the Rutland and the B&M.
Railroads crisscrossed the Island which hosted a number of railroad related structures such as freight buildings, engine houses, repair shops, and a small switching yard on the north end. A two storey brick station was erected in 1851 near the crossing of the tracks in the approximate location of the current depot. Canopies met at the apex of the triangular lot and extended down the platforms. The faster and more efficient railroads sounded the death knell of the canal, which closed in the late 1850s. The locks were later removed.
Bellows Falls became an important junction. Manufacturers had the benefit of steady water power and rail links to major cities including Boston, greater New England’s most important international port. After the Civil War, the Island played host to an impressive paper manufacturing complex. The canal was then enlarged to generate more power for the mills which were constructed on a greater scale than their predecessors. With abundant stands of timber to the north, the mills began making paper not from the more typical rags, but from pulp. Logs were floated down the river where they were then ground and washed to make pulp. Products included newsprint, heavy cardboard, and wax and writing papers.
In addition to paper, farm machinery was also fabricated. Vermont was a leader in the dairy industry and producers had developed and patented a variety of machines to assist in their work, including ones that separated milk and cream and churned large quantities of butter. Other manufacturers focused on paraphernalia needed for tapping and processing maple syrup.
Prosperity continued well into the 1910s, only to be shaken by a series of events early in the next decade that threatened the survival of the town. Bellows Falls’ largest employer, International Paper, abandoned the community after a 1921 strike and moved operations to its other locations; fires destroyed the train depot, the car barns and rolling stock of the local trolley company, and the town hall; and in 1925 the Vermont Farm Machine Company, another important employer, fell into receivership. Two years later, the worst flood in recorded history inundated the Connecticut River Valley. Houses and businesses were swept away while the railroads suffered major damage. In addition to losing trestles and tracks, the new depot was four feet under water.
On the bright side, in the 1920s the abandoned canal was widened, deepened, and straightened to serve as the power source for a new hydroelectric plant at the southern tip of the Island. A cooperative creamery took over some of the abandoned industrial buildings and began daily shipments of milk over the B&M to a chain of Boston grocery stores. After World War II, Bellows Falls’ outdated factories and technologies resulted in the steady decline of the manufacturing sector. In the 1960s, a large paper mill and the creamery closed, and in 1987 the last paper mill went bankrupt, bringing two centuries of paper making to an end.
In the 1970s, Bellows Falls began to rethink its future and subsequently improved the irregularly shaped town square that had long been the center of commercial life. Presided over by the tall, crenellated tower of city hall, the area is again lively with new shops, galleries and restaurants. In addition to attracting a new creative community of artists and writers, the town remains a popular weekend destination for those seeking to understand the history of the Connecticut River Valley.
Rockingham’s white clapboard Meeting House, dating to the end of the 18th century, was the site of both religious and civic gatherings. It is one of the state’s earliest public buildings and is open to visitors during the summer. Closer to the center of town, the 1831 Adams Grist Mill, home to the Bellows Falls Historical Society, contains displays of machinery, tools and equipment used to refine grain. In early June, Bellows Falls hosts the “Roots on the River” music festival with live performances taking place throughout town.
Amtrak does not provide ticketing or baggage services at this station which is served by two daily trains. The Vermonter is financed primarily through funds made available by the Vermont Agency of Transportation, the Connecticut Department of Transportation and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.