Then Again: The Winooski River – power, pearls and politics
Visiting the Winooski River on a Sunday in 1854, Frederick William Shelton found it to be an almost religious experience. â(U) on this peaceful Sabbath, with no homes nearby, I heard a grander sermon than ever preached with uninspired lips,â Shelton wrote in Knickerbocker Magazine, a New York literary journal.
Shelton watched Middlesex Gorge and the river running through it from a bridge. (The gorge has since been dammed). “There, riveted in place, I watched the scene in silence – and I shuddered with dread.”
Below, in the waters, he saw a huge millstone that years earlier had been torn from an upstream building in a flood and carried there, along with other debris from the doomed mill. The scene shook him: “There is a feeling of horror and human weakness in the midst of such harsh convulsive elements, as if one is almost standing in the presence of one’s God.”
At this point, Shelton seemed to glimpse how the Winooski, like all rivers of the day, controlled the fate of the people through their sustenance power – driving millstones and thus the course of industry and the pattern of settlement – and also their power to destroy.
The Winooski climbed its banks several times, the most famous and destructive long after Shelton visited, during the 1927 flood. In November of that year, the state’s rivers rose up. and killed 84 people.
Fortunately, the Winooski and its tributaries have generally been a force for good. It is not known when people first saw the Winooski, but suffice to say it was a long time ago. Archaeologists believe humans first reached what is now Vermont about 12,600 years ago.
The Amerindians benefited from the Winooski, as well as its tributaries which extended east towards the Connecticut River and north towards Lake Memphremagog. They created paths that followed the course of the river and found its shore a fertile place to live.
People first visited a site near the river delta, in what is now the town of Winooski, nearly 5,000 years ago, according to radiocarbon dating, and small bands of Native Americans regularly inhabited the site as early as 400 AD 1700s.
The appeal was obvious. The river was teeming with fish. Deer, bears and other important game were abundant in the area. The occasional flooding of the river has made the neighboring lands lush with forage plants for food and medicine.
Land of wild onions
The Abenaki people called the Winooski region âthe land of the wild onionâ for the abundant onion-like leeks that grew there in the wild. The river itself, they called it Winooskitook, or “the river of wild onions”.
Europeans first hiked the Winooski in 1704, but not by choice. They were held captive following a raid on the colony of Deerfield, Massachusetts, by members of the Abenaki, Mohawk, Huron and Pocumtuc tribes, and were forced to march north along the Winooski River to in Montreal under French control.
Over the years, other European captives would follow, victims – like the Native Americans who ruled them – in the struggle between France and Britain for control of North America. The lucky ones survived the trip. Many of them were eventually ransomed and returned home, often via the Winooski Waterway.
Europeans did not really colonize the river valley until 1772, when members of the Allen family in Connecticut became interested in the area. They formed a company to buy, sell and develop land along the Winooski and beyond, naming it the Onion River Land Company.
In doing so, they gave the river a new name, avoiding the one that cartographers gave it – “Ouinousqui”, a French approximation of the Abenaki name – as they feared this would deter investors by reminding them of the recent unrest in the river. region. .
Ira Allen, who had his choice of land, chose a large plot for his house in what is now Winooski. What attracted him were the falls and the potential they held for a large colony. Over time, he would build mills on the site and, in fact, long after his death, giant textile factories would develop along the banks of the river.
Allen wasn’t the only one thinking. All along the Onion River, as everyone began to call it, towns had started to spring up. Six of the cities in present-day Washington County were already in existence, at least on paper, when Allen arrived.
In 1763, the colony of New Hampshire had chartered Berlin, Duxbury, Middlesex, Moretown, Waterbury and Worcester. But the settlers didn’t really start arriving until around 1780. When they did, they discovered that much of the land in their towns was hilly and not very suitable for agriculture, so they regrouped. closer to the Onion and its tributaries.
The new Vermont Legislature began issuing charters for other cities in the 1780s, including Wildersburgh (which would later become Barre), Cabot, Calais, Fayston, Marshfield, Montpellier, Northfield, Plainfield, Roxbury, Waitsfield, Warren and Woodbury.
The main sites of these towns, and those around which the villages grew, were along the Onion, or its main tributaries, the Dog and Mad rivers.
The power of water
Living near a fast-moving stream was vital in 18th and 19th century America. The rivers fed the factories of their time. Vermont was dotted with flour mills, sawmills, cotton mills, linseed oil mills, woolen cards. These small farms grew out of the land of Ira Allen, at Winooski Falls at the mouth of the river, to its source near West Hill Pond in Cabot. Farms began to line the river valley and communities grew around them.
A river community, Montpellier, had the distinction of becoming the state capital in 1805. Several other towns in the state had vied for honor, but the legislature chose Montpellier because it was centrally located and therefore just as troublesome to reach the competing elites. who lived in the east and west of the state.
Located at the confluence of the Onion and its North Arm, Montpellier had many flourishing mills. The natural advantages of the location had been evident to the early settlers. The Allens themselves had asked the legislature for a charter of the country, but it was eventually granted to others.
By the early 1800s, the city was prosperous enough to agree to build a Statehouse for the fledgling government, a prerequisite for any community hoping to be named the state capital. The first Statehouse was completed in 1808, at a cost of $ 9,000. The building soon turned out to be too small, so construction of a replacement building, this one in stone, began 25 years later at a cost of $ 132,000. It was fashioned from the granite extracted from the Barre. The stone was delivered by horses and oxen in the dead of winter after being pulled, in part, over the frozen Onion River.
As useful as a river was in winter for transporting goods, the Onion was of little use in summer. Its many sections were alternately too fast and dangerous or too shallow and slow for goods to be transported quickly and easily.
But the success of the Champlain Canal, which, from 1823, linked Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, gave some merchants an ambitious idea: they would tame the Onion River and link it to other rivers by a system of canals that would extend from Lake Champlain to the Connecticut River. The project would connect Boston to points to the west and enrich the cities along its route.
The idea had serious support until the 1840s, when the advent of a new, faster means of transportation – railroads – overtook the idea of ââa canal.
The pearl rush
This was not the last enrichment ploy involving Onion. In the 1860s, fishermen began hauling freshwater clams from the river. When opened, some of the clams contained pearls. A fisherman discovered a pearl measuring five-eighths of an inch in diameter – one of the largest ever found in the United States – and sold it for a considerable sum.
Men, women and children have abandoned their responsibilities to seek riches in the river. During the short duration of the pearl rush, people flocked to the onion armed with baskets to hold the clams, knives to open them, and boxes to hold any pearls they imagined they would find. Few pearls, however, were ever found, and the pearl hunters returned to their normal lives.
Around this time, the Montpelierais got annoyed about something about the Onion: its name. Residents loved their community and thought it deserved better than the odd nickname of Montpelier-on-the-Onion. Seemingly in a nostalgic mood, or loving the bell, they fought to get the river back to its Abenaki name, Winooski. The campaign was successful and by the 1880s maps of Vermont again bore the old name.
At the end of the 19th century, other changes were taking place on the Winooski. Entrepreneurs began to build small dams to replace the old waterwheels of the mills. Dams eventually began to generate electricity, and transmission lines followed to allow development beyond the river banks.
The river and its tributaries, however, have been largely left wild; and, despite the dams that were built for hydropower and flood protection, despite the bridges that cross it and the highways that run along it, the Winooski remains one of the state’s recreational gems. Its waters are used by trout fishermen and canoeists; its banks, in places, by hikers.
And who traveling along Interstate 89 or Route 2 isn’t struck by its pastoral beauty? Frederick William Shelton’s flowery words of 1854 can still apply. He said the Winooski meandered through âone of the most magnificent valleys my eye has ever seen. There were vast and level meadows, smooth and green, and neatly cut like an English lawn, with tall elm trees standing, (with) the Winooski, frequently separated by rocky islets, flowing in the middle.