Connect the Dots: Shelburne Falls

Published December 3, 2020 by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group

Q: How is Shelburne Falls connected to Vergennes and Winooski?

A: When I cross the concrete bridge over the LaPlatte River in Shelburne Falls, I always remember the very first bridge built here. Built in the 1780s before covered bridges were invented, it’s described in town histories as a “rudely constructed log bridge.” But the log bridge was more than just a crossing for the locals. It was part of the first road north from Vergennes connecting a trio of waterfalls on three different rivers: Otter Creek, LaPlatte, and Winooski. When I learned the story, I had to dramatically rethink my mental map of western Vermont.

The first key to the story is the waterfalls, since water power was the main energy source at that time. The LaPlatte falls are Shelburne’s only falls of any size, making them strategic. The second key is that, not coincidentally, all three waterfalls were also the last falls on their rivers. The LaPlatte falls are about a mile from the lake, so the lake connection isn’t obvious at the bridge. But all three locations could be reached by boat from Lake Champlain, the main transportation in that era. These three falls meant both water power and access to transportation – a powerful combination at the time. 

The Shelburne Falls story begins where many Vermont village stories start:  a dam was built across the river. It was built upstream of the bridge, and a saw mill was built near it. The saw mill fashioned the surrounding old-growth forest trees into lumber for new wooden infrastructure. The eight European families in Shelburne before the mill was constructed had built log houses for shelter. But early settlers wanted sawn-lumber frame houses as soon as possible, so they considered a saw mill an absolute requirement.

The LaPlatte waterfall wasn’t done yet, though. The following year, another dam was constructed lower down, and soon a grist mill was built to grind grain. 

The families who settled here established farms, bringing with them the grain-based farming culture of southern New England. The Spear family arrived in Shelburne in 1783, four years before the grist mill was built. They cleared and planted a few acres around the log house they built. To grind their grain the first few years, they took it by boat to the nearest accessible grist mills in New York and Quebec, and then to Winooski. When the Shelburne Falls grist mill was built, their trips were significantly shortened. It’s little wonder the grist mill was usually the second industry built in early Vermont towns. 

While this was happening in Shelburne, what was happening elsewhere on the new north-south road? Vergennes’ and Winooski’s stories are remarkably parallel to Shelburne’s, although they started earlier and were interrupted by the Revolutionary War. At the Vergennes waterfall, a dam and saw mill were built about fifteen years before Shelburne’s.  Next, the grist mill was built, and it was such a critical industry that the New York and New Hampshire grantees destroyed it twice as they fought over sovereignty there. In Winooski, Ira Allen arrived by boat from Whitehall in the early 1770s to scout, and walked back south through the forest. The next year, he sailed back to Winooski, built a blockhouse for defense, then walked south marking trees for a road connecting Winooski Falls to the other two waterfalls (going along roughly what is now Spear Street to Shelburne). 

The Revolutionary War drove early settlers in northern Vermont back south to the Pittsford area until the hostilities ended in 1783. When they returned, Vergennes restarted its saw mill, and rebuilt its grist mill within a few years. In Winooski, saw mills were built at both ends of a new dam, and a grist mill was soon built. By the time the Shelburne grist mill had been built in 1787, all three places had the two critical mills running like three pairs of beads on a string. 

In the years to come, the LaPlatte waterfall remained the center of the Shelburne Falls mill village. Both mills operated into the 1920s, and continued to be the farming community’s cornerstones. The waterfalls at Vergennes and Winooski became city nuclei, both places eclipsing Shelburne Falls in size because of their rivers’ much larger water volumes.

Whenever I look at Shelburne’s waterfall, I remember how this feature created two cornerstones of the town’s early farm life. But, I also remember the bigger story. Instead of modern Shelburne organized around Rt. 7 in Burlington’s orbit, I’m back in the 1780s on the rude log bridge of the first road cut north through a densely forested area. I’m in one of three new villages all connected through waterpower, and downtown Burlington was barely a dream.

Copyright 2020, Jane Dorney