Henry David Thoreau in Bellows Falls, Vermont

Sesquicentennial Hike
Sunday, September 10, 2006

150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau climbed the carriage road up Fall Mountain. I'll be starting my hike from the railroad station, just as Thoreau did. I'll leave at 9:30 so that the sun (if out) will still be in the east when I reach Table Rock. I'll stay up until noon when the Amtrak train passes under the Square. A local Audubon Society has organized Thoreau hikes up Wantastiquet for that September 9 anniversary sometimes, but there's never been a Thoreau hike up Fall Mountain. If no one organizes a hike, maybe there'll be a flash mob on Fall Mountain anyway.

From his journals, 1856.

Sept. 10. 10.30 A. M.—Took the cars to Bellows Falls, through Dummerston, Putney, and Westminster.
Looked at the falls and rocks. River higher than usual at this season, yet could cross all but about twenty feet on the rocks.


Ascended the Fall Mountain with a heavy valise on my back, against the advice of the toll-man. But when I got up so soon and easily I was amused to remember his anxiety. It is seven hundred and fifty feet high, according to Gazetteer. Saw great red oaks on this hill, particularly tall, straight, and bare of limbs, for a great distance, amid the woods. Here, as at Brattleboro, a fine view of the country immediately beneath you; but these views lack breadth, a distant horizon. There is a complete view of the falls from this height. 

Saw a pair of middle-sized black hawks hovering about this cliff, with some white spots, with peculiar shrill snapping notes like a gull, a new kind to me. 

Descending the steep south end of this hill, I saw an apparent Corydalis glauca, mostly withered, three feet or more, and more than usually broad and stout in proportion. (Vide press.) My shoes were very smooth, and I got many falls descending, battering my valise. ....

Sept. 13. Saturday. At Concord.—After all, I am struck by the greater luxuriance of the same species of plants here than up-country, though our soil is considered leaner. Also I think that no view I have had of the Connecticut Valley, at Brattleboro or Walpole, is equal to that of the Concord from Nawshawtuct. Here is a more interesting horizon, more variety and richness. Our river is much the most fertile in every sense. Up there it is nothing but river-valley and hills. Here there is so much more that we have forgotten that we live in a valley.

(I tried to descend part way down the south end and it was the blanket of dried oak leaves from prior autumns that made the descent slippery--heavy valise or not.)

Henry David Thoreau's first writing of Bellows Falls describes his view from the train Sept. 25, 1850. He came from Fitchburg, Massachusetts through Keene, New Hampshire on the new railroad. It was the only rail line then because the tunnel hadn't yet been built under Bellows Falls. The Bellows Falls station was actually in North Walpole, by the Tucker Toll Bridge. He apparently didn't get off the train here. In "A Yankee in Canada," Chapter One is the trip that day.

Every one will remember the approach to Bellows' Falls, under a high cliff which rises from the Connecticut. I was disappointed in the size of the river here; it appeared shrunk to a mere mountain stream. The water was evidently very low. 

Henry! It's 1850! A year ago, the canal stopped taking river traffic and started taking most of the river flow to power the mills. You think the river was low then? You should have visited a hundred years later when "Nine months of the year all the water of the river passes through"1 the canal and hydroelectric plant.

Part of Bellows Falls inset, McClellans's Map of Windham County, Vermont 1856At left is a portion of the inset for Bellows Falls in McClellan's Map of Windham County Vermont 1856. North is up and Fall Mountain is on the right side of the river. This map is very close to what Thoreau must have seen, just like the 1856 lithograph printed in the 1907 History of the Town of Rockingham.

My suggestion for a memorial hike

Thoreau started at the "Passenger House" and so will I. The trailhead is a mile away, but it's a pleasant river walk and there's plenty of parking. The trailhead is in a residential neighborhood and it's a pity to drive through those quiet streets just to get a head start on Henry David.

Walk up Island Street, past the high point on the Island where the big Island House Hotel once stood. It was the main feature of the Island, but now it's an empty lot. It was overgrown until 2002 when Cota and Cota cleaned it up. Cross the Vilas Bridge, site of the first bridge across the Connecticut (directly below the site of the current bridge). The current 1930 bridge was a gift of Charles Vilas of Alstead, NH to the people of both states. Here the toll-man would advise against ascending with a heavy valise on your back, but the toll was discontinued on Nov. 1, 1904, when the Arch Bridge was under construction. [1907 Rock. Hist., p. 269]

Welcome to new Hampshire. The state line is the mean low water line on the Vermont side. You can peer down at the petroglyphs here and generally admire the Great Falls. Here is a good example that "falls" is a general term for any rapid descent of water. Here are no natural waterfalls (perpendicular falls), just a spectacular narrow gorge. The water will be very low unless the tail end of a hurricane has recently passed by.

It's possible to climb down onto the rocks below--at least there's nothing more than good sense that will stop you. In September 2005 I walked down by the paper mills to see if I could cross the river on the rocks, as Thoreau speculated. It was tempting to try. I got a couple of rocks into New Hampshire, but then good sense stopped me.

Walk north past the Green Mountain Railroad roundhouse. This was the site of the Bellows Falls station until 1851, when the problem of Bellows Falls was solved with a tunnel under the Square. Pass Green Street, the path of the old carriage road. Unfortunately, the land along Green Street is now private and you can't really get through to the power lines from it. There will be ripe wild grapes along the road. These are the kind that you just squeeze between your teeth to get the juice and then spit out the seed and skin. Delicious.

North Walpole is an under-appreciated old railroad village whose gems are well hidden. There are still signs of an old railroad line's demolition. This is New Hampshire, where homes, businesses and industrial debris coexist in harmony. Live free or die.

Up through the residential development and past the trailhead at the dead end. Did you remember your tree and bird identification books, binoculars, and some water? That's OK, I always forget mine, too. It's a 45 minute walk now at a leisurely pace. Thoreau probably climbed a bit faster, even with that valise on his back. My detailed thoughts on this climb are here.

I will not try to descend the south side of the mountain, just as I did not try to hop across the Connecticut. Besides, my friend Bronson and his daughter, Louisa May Alcott, no longer live here. I will pause for a moment and thank the transcendentalist for taking the time to document that Henry David pronounced his name THOR-eau rather than Thor-EAU, but I'll continue to pronounce it wrong. Likewise, I'll continue to say that Bellows Falls has one of the three "CARN-eg-ie" libraries in the state rather than "Car-NEG-ie" libraries.

Instead, I will retrace my steps--there is no other way back to the North Walpole side--and visit some of the sites in Bellows Falls. The Fish Ladder will be open if a volunteer has volunteered. The exhibits are good even when the underwater viewing window has no water.  The Waypoint Visitor Center under the Arch Bridge sculpture will be open. This is always worth visiting, with engaging displays and docents who are passionate about the area. I'll go to Dairy Joy and get a monster shake probably. For a meal, I'll probably stay at Dairy Joy or go to the Miss Bellows Falls Diner. The excellent food at Oona's, Leslie's, or the nearby Saxtons River Inn is all a waste on me. You could venture out 12 miles to the Old Tavern at Grafton where Emerson reportedly once stayed. I think it was Emerson. I get all those bearded transcendentalists mixed up.

This is a hike for anyone. Even if, like me, you can't remember whether Thoreau wrote "Civil Disobedience" or "Common Sense," the latter would tell you to come along anyway (and not be a Paine about details). This is a chance to take the hike with new, old eyes, as if you were climbing 150 years ago. It's a young country, waiting to be explored, full of opportunity.

1 - Lovell, Mrs. Frances Stockwell and Lovell, Leverett C. History of the Town of Rockingham Vermont 1907-1957. Bellows Falls, Vermont: "Published by the Town," 1958. p. 64

History and my thoughts of Fall Mountain

[Bellows Falls Historic District Walking Tour Home]

Photos and web page by Dan Axtell