The Flow of History

Technology and Transportation: 1790-1870


by Richard J. Ewald

from Proud to Live Here

When we say a location is "an hour away," we imply a transportation mode without measuring the distance. Getting from here to there has not always been so easy. Old bridges, roads, and rails are the footprints on the landscape left by previous generations. Historic transportation structures and settings express the pace and aesthetics of their times. illustrate technological change, and establish a human scale in the realm of machines. It is important that modern modes and technologies contribute positively to community character and that public transportation spaces be designed to be compatible with their natural and built environment.

The Basic Story

The hilly, forested, and water-riven topography of the northern valley has always been a challenge to travelers and builders. From footpaths to sidewalks, from wagon roads to interstate highways, a network of routes and a variety of travel modes imprint the region with a legible history of transportation. The origins of many communities can be traced to decisions about where to locate a bridge, a road crossing, a rail depot, and even an interstate exit. Similar decisions today continue to affect community character and vitality.

Our region can claim several transportation firsts—the first bridge over the Connecticut River anywhere in its length, the nations first chartered canal company, and one of the first steamboats. Sprinkled throughout our local histories are the stories of Speculators and inventors and tinkerers whose breakthroughs changed society, like the man who built a steam-propelled, charcoal-fired, four-wheel automobile in 1875, in an old brick mill that still stands.

Before the arrival of European settlers, Native Americans traveled by canoe on rivers and streams and by foot through the forest. The Connecticut itself was a main travel corridor, linking people from Canada to Long Island Sound. The West and White Rivers provided routes to Lake Champlain by way of Otter Creek and the Winooski River, respectively. The Passumpsic and Nulhegan Rivers offered similar routes between the Connecticut River and Lake Memphremagog and the Canadian interior.

European explorers and settlers also traveled by canoe or adopted Abenaki footpaths. Early roads became corridors for settlement and commerce. The first roads in Vermont were built for military purposes while the first turnpikes in New Hampshire led directly to fertile floodplains suitable for agriculture. Some of the early roads followed Indian travel routes. Some of these and early "post roads" constructed in the late 1700s and early 1800s survive as our "river roads" all over the northern valley. These primitive roads were the focus of immigration, settlement and commerce. For the most part, early travel on land was slow and difficult, over roads that were too hard or too soft, depending on the season. Snow, ice, mud, or dust usually made travel unpleasant, if not impossible.

These difficulties help us understand the "canal fever" that gripped the public imagination around 1800. It was a vision of convenient travel for flat boats navigating a network of natural and built waterways. Canal lock systems would raise and lower boats around waterfalls and impassible narrow or shallow gorges. Speculators and governments dispatched surveyors and engineers all over New England. Many returned with wildly impractical and expensive schemes that resembled overly-optimistic marketing plans of our own day. Among the possibilities dreamed of were routes between the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain by way of the White, Waits, or Wells Rivers.

The Connecticut was the first large river in America to be altered for a significant distance for transportation. By the time ground was broken for the famous Erie Canal in 1817, a series of canals on the Connecticut already had opened it to river boat traffic from Long Island Sound as far north as Barnet, Vermont. Hartford, Connecticut, was the tidal head of the river and the transfer point between ocean-going vessels and smaller boats that plied the upper river. Some flatboats were 72 feet long and almost twelve feet wide, and had a capacity of 30 tons, yet drew only two to three feet of water. Sometimes propelled by men with poles, they also carried square sails. At least ten flatboats from the northern valley made regular round trips to Hartford, carrying lumber and farm produce down river and returning with goods shipped from American and foreign ports.

The invention of the steamboat represented the next advance in transportation technology. One of the first launched anywhere in the country was built by Samuel Morey, of Orford, New Hampshire, and Fairlee, Vermont in 1793. After 1815, the lower Connecticut River was lively with steamboat travel. Large ships steamed between Hartford, Connecticut, and New York City. But steamboats turned out to be commercially impractical and uneconomical on the upper river, where populations were smaller and the river more shallow, rocky, and narrow.

By the 1840s, canals on the upper river had deteriorated into decrepit relics. Government regulated tolls from small numbers of flatboats and steamboats failed to keep canal companies financially solvent, and locks fell into disrepair. The construction of railroads around 1850 made commercial traffic obsolete on the river. Some canals were modified for power generation and manufacturing purposes.

Railroads transformed the physical and cultural landscape of the region. For the first time, there was year-round transport to hamlets formerly inaccessible due to poor roads and seasonal snow and mud. Farmers and manufacturers alike shipped products directly and quickly to major markets. Virtually overnight, daily trains served the once-isolated region to and from Burlington, New York, Boston, and Montreal. This weakened the region's previous cultural ties to other parts of central Connecticut and Massachusetts via the river, a relationship which dated back several generations to the earliest settlers.

The railroads focused industrial, commercial and residential development in the vicinity of rail lines and intersections. In northern New Hampshire, rail permitted paper companies to expand logging operations beyond previous limitations set by seasonal river flows for floating out logs. Tourist trains rode steep grades and rickety bridges to resort hotels high in the White Mountains. Passenger cars brought in travelers from around the U.S. and Europe, and permitted residents to broaden their horizons through travel outside the valley. Immigrants from Europe who constructed and operated the railroads introduced new cultures among the previously homogenous valley population. Urban downtowns evolved, employing the same styles of major American cities elsewhere.

The next major shift in transportation occurred in the first decades of the 20th century when residents of the region obtained automobiles. Roads were improved and some were paved for the first time. Road construction and widening increased in the 1950s, and accelerated dramatically in the 1960s when interstate highways opened up the northern valley to high-speed travel. The automobile became an integral part of peoples' lives and the truck replaced rail cars as the principal carrier of freight.

The arrival of the interstate highway in the northern valley required the construction of high, longspan bridges, engineering on a scale not seen since the railroads required similar daring a century before. All of our historic bridges—whether made of wood, steel, stone, or concrete—collectively represent two centuries of changing technology, engineering and style. Some 8o bridges in the region are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including more than 6o functioning covered bridges.

Modern bridges typically are supported by structures beneath the road surface while many historic bridges are formed of trusses and arches that soar above the road. They stand prominently in a landscape in which the predominant elements establishing a vertical scale are trees, and the tallest structures are church steeples.

Occupying an even higher vertical scale, airplanes played a colorful role in the region's early 20th century transportation. Small rural airfields featured barnstorming air shows and provided rapid transport to and from distant locations, contributing to the cultural homogenization of the region. Vermont's first airport was constructed in 1919 in Springfield.

Resources & Revelations


Most early road builders generally avoided low-lying wet areas in favor of hilltops where the ground was drier, although rocky, and the smaller upland streams were easy to bridge or ford. Oxen teams were equal to the task of pulling wagons over the hilly terrain.

Military purposes motivated the construction of early roads in Vermont. The Crown Point Military Road was the first, built across Vermont in 1759 - 1960 by military forces supporting the settlers during the French and Indian War. It linked the northernmost outpost on the Connecticut, Fort at No. 4 in Charlestown, to Chimney Point and the garrison at Crown Point on Lake Champlain.

Beginning at a Connecticut River ferry crossing, the road extended some go miles, much of it over hilltops. It passed through the river and tributary towns of Springfield, Weathersfield, Cavendish and Plymouth. Obliterated now by paved roads in many places, a few portions of the main route and its spurs may still be seen in substantially their early condition. There is a published guide to the trail and its extant mile markers.

The second road set out for military reasons was the Bayley-Hazen Road. Newbury, Vermont, was settled in 1763 when General Jacob Bayley, veteran of the Indian wars, led a migration of settlers from Newbury, Massachusetts, to the fertile land of a great ox-bow, or sweeping curve, in the river. Beginning in 1776, Bayley constructed a road 14 miles northwest from Newbury to Peacham, intending to create a better route for American Revolutionaries to invade Canada than through British-controlled Lake Champlain. It was never used for an invasion, but after Moses Hazen extended the road to Westfield, the Bayley-Hazen Road became an avenue for trade and settlement. Resulting hilltop settlements along the highland roads remain like guide fossils to the early road that produced them.

In New Hampshire, the first major road was the Province Road from Concord to Haverhill, built about 1773 to promote settlement of the rich alluvial floodplains known as the Cohass or Coos Meadows. Returning veterans of the French and Indian Wars had brought back news of the area's agricultural possibilities as early as 1761, and later motivated the Assembly to construct the road. By the early 1770s, there was regular mail service between Hanover and Portsmouth, through Concord. In 1795, work was begun on a post road in Vermont from the Massachusetts border north to Newbury a route that approximates today's Route 5.

A decade of turnpike construction greatly accelerated the settlement of western New 1-Hampshire and eastern Vermont. Claremont was the terminus of the Second New Hampshire Turnpike (1799) leading from Amherst, Massachusetts. The Third New Hampshire Turnpike (1799) came tip from central Massachusetts through Keene to Walpole. The Fourth New Hampshire Turnpike (1800) led from from Boscawen on the Merrimack River to Lebanon. Haverhill also became the terminus of the Coos Turnpike in 1800s.

In some places, these early pikes have been widened and paved over for continued use. One example is the Grafton Turnpike, which brought travelers from Boston through Grafton, New Hampshire, and on to Lyme and Orford. Two centuries after its construction, most of its length is now a two-lane, wide-shouldered, paved highway, but some still snakes through the forest as a one lane unpaved adventure. In other places, the early roads are only traces through the woods, fit only for travelers on foot. After two centuries of development, many local roads in our rural region remain unpaved due to economics, aesthetics, a desire to keep vehicle speeds down, and advancements in the grading and compacting of dirt and gravel. Of nearly 70 miles of public road in Lyme, for example, only 28 miles are paved. Many towns designate their unpaved roads as "scenic" to deter large-scale clearing of the trees that may frame them. Muddy in the spring and dusty in summer, these country roads are an integral part of our regional character.


The Bellows Falls Canal Company was the first canal company chartered in the nation, in 1791. A flood washed out its first construction efforts, however, so by the time it was completed, in 1802, it was the third canal constructed on the Connecticut, after two in Massachusetts, at South Hadley (1795) and Turner's Falls (1798). Other smaller canals were constructed 1810-1812 at Sumner Falls, at Cornish Windsor, and at Olcott Falls at Lebanon-Wilder.

A narrow, rocky gorge between Bellows Falls and Walpole had required unloading of river boats and transport of their cargo—and sometimes the rafts themselves—around the Great Falls. A wing dam above the gorge diverted water into a long canal with eight locks-two stone and six wood-that raised and lowered boats a total of 54 feet. After the canal had ceased to serve a transportation function, it provided water and hydro power for a variety of industries, principally for paper manufacture. The upper section of the canal has since been widened and deepened several times, and now delivers water to an electricity generating station. However, unaltered walls of the lower canal section appear to survive in the basement of paper mill structures situated to use its waters in the second half of the 19th century.


In 1793, six years after the first successful operation of a steamboat in America, by John Fitch on the Delaware River, Samuel Morey successfully ran the first steamboat on the Connecticut River, the "Aunt Sally." First to use two side wheels, Morey received a patent signed by George Washington for his engine design. Lacking the finances to make his venture profitable, Morey loaned his plans to a potential investor, who showed them to Robert Fulton. Fulton based his "Clermont" on Morey's designs and ultimately received credit for inventing the steamboat when the Clermont ran up the Hudson River in 1811. Tradition has it that, upset by Fulton's success and fame, Morey sank his boat in the Fairlee lake later named after him.

Morey went on to patent an internal combustion engine in 1826, advancing technology later employed in automobiles and airplanes. Morey's Orford residence is among the "Ridge Houses" on a terrace facing the river, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1826, the "Barnet," named after the Vermont town it was intended to reach, traveled from Hartford, Connecticut, 125 miles upriver to Bellows Falls, Vermont. Even steamboats designed for the upper river, such as the "Vermont" and the "John Ledyard," were restrained by narrow locks, sandbars, and shallow rapids, and were not efficient or profitable for their Owners.

George Long, of Hinsdale, New Hampshire, adapted a steam engine for a four-wheel, charcoalfired automobile in 1875. He built another automobile, propelled by gasoline, which is now housed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Longs workshop was in the Holman and Merriman Machine Shop, which still stands.


Railroad construction began in New Hampshire in 1835, and by 1840 there were 15 miles of track. In 1847, the Northern Railroad was completed from Boston, through Concord, New Hampshire to Lebanon. There, Daniel Webster (Dartmouth Class of 1801 ), stood on brand new tracks and declared, "It is an extraordinary era in which we live." By -1850 there were 376 miles of track in the state, and thirty years later there were 1,200 miles.

When Webster made that comment, a single farmhouse stood on the Vermont side of the Connecticut opposite Lebanon, at its confluence with the White River. The next year, 1848, the river was spanned by a bridge that brought the railroad west to Vermont. Rail yards quickly rose on a broad terrace, creating White River junction, in the township of Hartford. The construction of five railroads between 1848 and 1863 established White River Junction as one of the region's major transportation centers, and, as one without manufacturers, completely dependent on the railroad. A National Register historic district contains commercial buildings associated with the village's role as a rail center.

Also in 1848, Vermont's first rail line opened for traffic from White River junction up the White River Valley to Bethel. Quickly following was a line from Boston through Fitchburg, Massachusetts, to Keene, New Hampshire, and Bellows Falls, Vermont (1849). St. Johnsbury, was linked by 1850, and Littleton by 1853. By then, most of the northern river valley was interconnected by tracks, linking formerly remote towns and villages to Boston and coastal New Hampshire. While Woodsville and Keens, New Hampshire, became rail centers, and each retains some flavor and architecture associated with the railroads, the most significant rail hubs in the region probably were White River junction, St. Johnsbury, and Bellows Falls, Vermont.

Bellows Falls, a village in Rockingham, developed as both a transportation, manufacturing and commercial center after an east-west rail line was brought in from New Hampshire in 1849 and in 1851 was connected to a north-south line along the Connecticut River. In response to restrictive topography, a distinctive railroad tunnel was constructed in 1851 underneath the village's central square, which is within a downtown National Register district. The 275-foot-long tunnel, cut through solid rock, is lined with a continuous stone arch.

Bellows Falls, like many other downtowns and remote villages, retains its railroad depot, and this one, built in the 1920s, now serves as an Amtrak station. Many of the region's late 19th- and early 20thcentury train stations have been adapted for other uses. The oldest surviving railroad structure along the Connecticut is probably a c. 1860 wood-framed depot in Fairlee. Lyndonville is a commercial and residential village that was set out by the Boston & Maine Railroad in 1866, when it was the headquarters and terminal for the company's Passumpsic Division, and is the only known such planned railroad community in Vermont.

Rail accidents have been relatively few but spectacular, such as the one that occurred a few miles north of White River junction on February 5, 1887. In below zero temperatures, four passenger cars separated from the rest of their train and plunged off a bridge into the river below, where much of the wreck remains to this day. Thirty-nine people were killed and 49 injured. One of New England's worst train wrecks, it stimulated passage of the 1893 federal Railway Appliance Act, the first national legislation setting standards for railroad equipment.

In the northernmost New Hampshire town of Pittsburg, there are still traces of abandoned logging railroad rights-of-way. In other parts of the region, track has been pulled up but the rights-of-way have been retained for traveling by foot, bicycle, ski or snowmobile. These "rails-to-trails" conversions provide alternative means of transportation while maintaining the rights-of-way until such time as railroads might re-emerge as economically viable.

Since railroad companies preferred the gradual grades found in river valleys, and had the political clout to obtain the rights-of-way, railroads tended to be built adjacent to waterways, creating a pattern of private ownership of shorelines. Particularly along the Connecticut River in Vermont, that pattern has both prevented further development of shorelines and severely limited public access to waterways.


Light rail systems, or trolleys, served the northern valley's urban centers for about three decades beginning about 1890 and lasting into the 1920s. The Springfield Terminal Railway linked Springfield and Charlestown across the Connecticut. The Bellows and Saxton's River Street Railroad served those villages in the town of Rockingham. The Brattleboro Street Railroad ran between Brattleboro and West Brattleboro.


Before materials and technology were improved to construct bridges-or at places too wide to bridge-water crossings were made at shallow, rocky fords or upon flatboats poled or cabled from one shore to the other. The mark of these transits lasted no longer than ripples in the current. But every "Ferry Road" in the region today is a placemarker for those ephemeral crossings, as are the historic buildings clustered around what were once important cross roads.

In Weathersfield, Vermont, for example, along the 2oo-year-old river road, now called Route 5, there is a ferry Road that leads down to the sandy west bank of the Connecticut River. Directly across the water is the Ashley Ferry Ramp, a public boat launch, whose name is a reminder of the original purpose for the steep, twisting road that now descends to the water from Route 12A in Claremont, New Hampshire. On Ferry Road in Weathersfield in 1811, William Jarvis began to breed Merino sheep that stimulated New England's economy for a half-century. It is likely that the imported sheep were introduced into New Hampshire by the ferry in this place, which also probably transported wool to textile mills in Claremont.


Bridges are vivid elements in our physical and cultural landscape. More than two centuries of changing bridge technology and design have created a useful museum of historic structures throughout the northern valley. They include timber-Framed covered bridges, steel truss bridges, and concrete bridges. They have historic value due to their age, their association with noted designers or manufacturers, advances in technology or materials, and their links to the growth of our communities and industries. New Hampshire owns all the bridges that span the Connecticut, up to the point where they are supported on Vermont soil.

Natural events have dramatically shaped the character of the region's bridge inventory. Large-scale destructive weather events were followed by periods of rebuilding, which replaced one group of structures having distinctive materials and styles with another group representative of the new period. The most significant events were major floods in 1927 and 1936 and a hurricane in 1938. The flood of 1927 washed away-in Vermont alone- 1,200 bridges, including 200 covered bridges. Some, like the North Thetford-Lyme bridge, were never replaced.

Hilly topography and the great number of rivers, streams and brooks in the region rendered overland travel difficult until the establishment of sawmills that could manufacture bridge materials from locally abundant timber resources. Timber framing techniques widely known for centuries were adequate for spans up to about 50 feet. Builders adapted barn-framing techniques to develop a variety of wood trusses that supported spans of greater length. Stone arches were widely employed for short railroad bridges (and some highway bridges) while long spans for heavy loads motivated the design of iron and steel bridges by railroad companies. Steel and reinforced highway concrete bridges became predominant in the late 9th and early 20th centuries.

Timber truss bridges—also known as covered bridges—are to many people one of the symbolic icons of our region and New England. Many of our covered bridges are still in full service, while others have been retired for pedestrian use only. Within a couple of miles of each other, spanning the West River in Dummerston. Vermont, are two significant bridges made of different materials-an 1872 Town lattice truss covered bridge, at 280 feet the longest covered bridge wholly within Vermont, and an 3892 Hilton through truss steel bridge.

In the northern Connecticut watershed there are 63 functioning covered bridges, 28 in New Hampshire and 35 in Vermont Not so unusual in its day, but significant now because of its length, high use and visibility, is the Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge, spanning the Connecticut River between those towns. Built in 1866, it is the longest wooden bridge in the United States (460 ft.) and the longest two-span covered bridge in the world. The fourth covered bridge on this site, it employs a lattice truss patented by Ithiel Town.

The 1930 concrete Vitas Bridge, spanning the gorge between Walpole, New Hampshire, and Rockingham, Vermont, is considered to be of national significance. A rare concrete arch bridge in its original condition with outstanding architectural and engineering details, it has unusually fine proportions in an outstanding setting. Supported by two open spandrel arches, the bridge stands in the same location as the very first bridge on the entire length of the Connecticut, built in 1785. The observer with just a passing knowledge of architectural history may easily recognize features that link the bridge's design to Colonial Revival Style buildings of the same era.

Notable stone arch bridges include a c. 1848 railroad overpass bridge in Lebanon, unique in western New Hampshire, an 1862 stone arch in Gilsum, New Hampshire, and an 1899 masonry railroad bridge over the Connecticut River near the Vilas Bridge. In Townshend and Putney, Vermont, there are eight c. 1900-1910 vernacular stone arch bridges by James O. Follett, a local artisan. Another, slightly altered, spans the Cold River in Walpole, New Hampshire.

The region also includes unusual, one-of-a kind bridges such as the floating bridge in Brookfield, Vermont, set out in 1812 on 390 oak barrels across wide Sunset Lake, and recently reconstructed in the same location. The Monadnock Mills complex in Claremont includes an 1870 Moseley truss iron footbridge. Bethel, Vermont, is home to a rare survivor -an 1896 wrought-iron, pin-connected lenticular pony truss bridge.

Surviving from the pre-automobile era is a c. 1885 steel Pratt truss bridge over the Connecticut River at Stratford, New Hampshire-Maidstone, Vermont. Long closed to traffic, its rehabilitation and reopening will reinforce the close link between these two communities. An early ( 1911 ) steel arch bridge spans Quechee Gorge in Hartford, Vermont.

Among steel bridges of the auto era that span the Connecticut, the most notable are a 1923 steel through-arch bridge at Haverhill, New Hampshire Newbury, Vermont, a 1929 steel Petit truss bridge at Piermont, New Hampshire-Bradford, Vermont, a 1930 steel Parker truss bridge at Monroe, New Hampshire-McIndoe Falls, Vermont, and a 1937 steel Petit truss bridge at Charlestown, New Hampshire-Springfield, Vermont. Residents of Fairlee and Orford successfully nominated their 1937 steel arch bridge, the "Samuel Morey Memorial Bridge," to the National Register of Historic Places, saving the dramatic bridge from replacement by a one-size-fitsall modern highway crossing. Like large-scale models made with old Erector Set" kits, steel truss bridges are honest expressions of the forces of tension and compression that permit them to "fly" from one place to another.

Scores of modest concrete bridges built since the floods of the 1920s and 1930s stand as testimony to the modern bridge-builder's art and the adaptability of concrete. Their designs include side walls that resemble wood paneling, and poured concrete ballusters that look like classic urns and eases or the staircase turnings in Colonial-era homes. Some of these bridges still retain paired electric lamp posts at each end, creating gateways for villages and downtowns.


Hartness State Airport, in Springfield, was the first airport built in Vermont, constructed in 1919 by James harness. A governor of Vermont (1921-1922), Hartness was an influential leader in both the national air transportation movement and the regional machine tool industry. In 1915, at the age of 54, he became one of the first one hundred licensed pilots in America, earning his wings in a Wright biplane. In 1916, he was the founding president of the Aero Club of Vermont. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh landed at Hartness Airport and was a guest at the home of his friend Hartness.

Hang-gliding, more of a sport than a transportation mode, is particularly popular on two hillsides, in West Windsor, Vermont, and Charlestown, New Hampshire. Hot air ballooning is another mode of recreational "travel." On many an early summer evening, colorful balloons drift over the landscape from an airfield in Post Mills, Vermont.


The arrival of the interstate highway system in the 1960s dramatically altered our regional culture, as had the arrival of railroads slightly more than a century before. The new divided highway displaced or segmented farms, cut off old roads, directed traffic into small towns at new exits, promoted a rush of development in selected areas, and opened up the northern valley to travelers and new immigrants from eastern metropolitan areas. Today people can drive between the Massachusetts and Canadian borders it a small fraction of the time it took to walk or canoe half that distance two hundred years ago. Such speed costs us the experience of all the places in between While the interstates reduce unwanted through traffic in historic downtowns, they also deprive dowtowns of potential customers and reward strip development and sprawl at exits and interchanges.

The Connecticut River Byway is an opportunity for motorists to leave behind the generic monotony of the interstates to travel on local roads that border scenic waterways, wind through historic villages and downtowns, and offer a more intimate experience of the landscape, history, and culture of the region.


Remnants of historic transportation modes are visible in the landscape. The ages of buildings b% the side of the road are a good indication of how long a road has existed in that location. Stone bridge abutments stand in midstream and on riverbanks like monoliths of a previous civilization. Here and there in the northern valley, when traveling down a straight road it is possible to see traces of an older road, looping away and back like the dry oxbow of a former riverbed. Old railroad beds follow gradual grades on built-up berets easily legible in the landscape. A sharp eye can see these remnants in many places. For example, trolley rails arc still risible in a steel truss highway bridge over the Black River in Springfield about a mile upstream from its confluence with the Connecticut.

The above chapter is quoted from Ewald, Richard J. with Adair D. Mulligan, Proud to Live Here, © 2003 by the Connecticut River Joint Commissions.

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