Main Street from High Street, Brattleboro, Vermont (2)

Looking north on Main Street from the corner of High Street in Brattleboro, probably around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo is from an undated stereocard, and could have been taken anytime around 1865 to 1885. However, it may have been taken in the earlier end of that range, since the First Baptist Church is not visible on the left side of the photo. This church was completed in 1870, and its absence seems to suggest that the photo was taken before this year, although it is possible that it could be hidden by trees. Either way, this photo shows Main Street as it appeared in the second half of the 19th century, when Brattleboro was developing as a small but prosperous mill town in the southeastern corner of Vermont.

On the extreme right side of the first photo is the corner of the town hall, which was built in 1855 and stood here for nearly a century before its demolition in 1953. Further in the distance on the right is the Centre Congregational Church, which was initially built in 1816 on the town common. In 1842, the church was dismantled, moved, and reconstructed here on Main Street, where it originally featured a Greek Revival-style design that included a columned portico and a steeple above it. However, this steeple was destroyed in a windstorm in 1864, and was subsequently rebuilt with a new design that also eliminated the portico.

The first photo shows the 1864 steeple, possibly only a few years after it was completed. This steeple was damaged in a fire in 1929, but it was repaired and now looks essentially the same as it did when the first photo was taken. Today, the church is the only identifiable photo from the first photo that still survives. The buildings on the left side of the present-day scene date back to around the late 1920s, replacing the old Jonathan Hunt House that once stood on this lot. On the other side of the street is the old W. T. Grant department store, which was built in the mid-1950s to replace the old town hall. Overall, this section of Main Street has undergone far more changes than other parts of downtown Brattleboro, but some of these buildings – including the two churches – are now contributing properties in the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Main Street from High Street, Brattleboro, Vermont

Looking north on Main Street from the corner of High Street in Brattleboro, in May 1937. Photo taken by Arthur Rothstein, courtesy of the Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo was taken in May 1937 by Arthur Rothstein, a prominent photojournalist who worked for the Farm Security Administration during the 1930s. Like the other photographers of this New Deal-era agency, Rothstein traveled around the country, documenting rural life during the Great Depression. In 1936 he visited Oklahoma, where he took one of the most iconic images of the Dust Bowl, and the following year he was in Vermont, where his images included this scene on Main Street in the downtown Brattleboro. The photo shows rows of cars parked along the street, with a mix of houses, businesses, and public buildings on the east side of the street.

Probably the oldest building in this scene is the Centre Congregational Church, with its prominent steeple in the middle of both photos. The church was originally built in 1816, and was located a little north of here on the town common. However, in 1842 the building was dismantled and reconstructed here on this site, with a design similar to the old building. The new church was dedicated in 1843, and included a steeple and a columned portico at the front of the building. This steeple was destroyed in high winds in 1864, though, and it was rebuilt with a new Italianate-style design that omitted the columns at the front entrance. In 1929, the steeple was damaged in a fire, but was repaired and has not seen any other significant changes since the first photo was taken.

The other notable building in the first photo is the town hall, which is on the right side of the scene. Built in 1855, this building saw a variety of uses, including as town offices, post office, library, and the police department, and it also housed commercial tenants over the years. In 1895, the building was renovated, and an 875-seat opera house was added to it. By the time the first photo was taken, the opera house had the less-glamorous name of Auditorium, and was used primarily as a movie theater, with the marquee advertising Night Must Fall, starring Robert Montgomery. However, the auditorium fell into decline as newer theaters opened on Main Street in the late 1930s, and in 1951 the town offices moved just up Main Street to the old high school, leaving this building vacant. It was mostly demolished two years later, and a W. T. Grant department store was built on the site. However, portions of the exterior walls of the old town hall were left standing, and were incorporated into the new building.

More than 80 years after the first photo was taken, this scene has not significantly changed aside from the loss of the old town hall. The W. T. Grant building that replaced it is still there, although the old department store has long since given way to new retail tenants. The church is also still there, as is the three-story granite building on the far right, which was built around 1850 and was later converted into the Paramount Theatre soon after the first photo was taken. Today, these 19th century buildings are now part of the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Main Street from Elliot Street, Brattleboro, Vermont (2)

Looking north on Main Street from near the corner of Elliot Street in Brattleboro, around 1865. Image from Picturesque Brattleboro (1865).

The scene in 2017:

The first photo shows downtown Brattleboro as it appeared in 1865, back when this section Main Street was still mostly lined with wood-frame commercial buildings. These included, on the far left, the Brattleboro House, which was previously known as Chase’s Stage House. Built in 1795 and subsequently expanded over the years, this was an important hotel throughout the first half of the 19th century, accommodating visitors and stagecoach travelers while also serving as a meeting place for locals. On the other side of the street, on the far right, was Hall’s Long Building, which was built in the 1830s or earlier. This building had a variety of commercial tenants over the years, and was the home of the post office from 1845 to 1849. The building also housed the town’s first telegraph office, sendings its first message in 1851.

This scene changed dramatically in 1869, only a few years after the first photo was taken. October of that year was a particularly disastrous month, beginning with 36 hours of heavy rainfall. The resulting flood on October 4 destroyed factories and homes along the Whetstone Brook, washed out most of the bridges over the brook, and killed two people. However, the flood also helped set the stage for another disaster at the end of the month. In the early morning hours of October 31, a fire started in the kitchen of a saloon on the left side of the street. The flames soon spread to the surrounding wooden buildings as firemen rushed to the scene, but their efforts were hampered by the aftermath of the flood. Their response was delayed by the washed-out bridges, and they also had difficulty getting water, since the flood had destroyed the water wheel that pumped water from the brook.

The fire ultimately destroyed the entire west side of Main Street, between Elliot and High Streets, including all of the buildings on the left side of this scene. Aside from all of the other challenges, firemen also had to contend with a strong northwest wind that blew embers across the streets. The Revere House, located just south of here on the other side of Elliot Street, caught fire several times, as did Hall’s Long Building across Main Street. However, both of these buildings were ultimately saved, and the fire was contained within just one block.

Ultimately, the fire spurred several large building projects on the site of the rubble, and the early 19th century buildings were quickly replaced by modern brick commercial blocks. The Crosby Block in the foreground, and the Brooks House in the distance were both completed in 1871, and both are still standing today. Meanwhile, the other side of Main Street would soon undergo some changes as well. Hall’s Long Block was destroyed in yet another fire, in 1883, and the following year the site was rebuilt with the brick, three-story Hooker-Dunham Block, which takes up most of the right side of the present-day scene.

Today, only two identifiable buildings are still standing from the first photo, and both are located far in the distance. The most noticeable of these is the Centre Congregational Church, which was built in 1842 and had its current steeple added in 1864, only about a year before the first photo was taken. This steeple still rises above the trees in the present-day scene, and is the only surviving feature from the first photo that is visible from this angle. Otherwise, the only other existing building from the first photo is the far less prominent granite-faced building at 165-169 Main Street, which is partially visible to the right of the church in the 1865 view. This building, although heavily altered, is still standing today, although it is hidden by the trees in the 2017 photo.

Main Street from Elliot Street, Brattleboro, Vermont

Looking south on Main Street from Elliot Street in Brattleboro, around 1850-1851. Image from Picturesque Brattleboro (1894).

The scene in 2017:

Brattleboro was founded in 1753, as one of the earliest towns in Vermont. For the first century it saw only modest growth, but by the mid-1800s it had grown into a small but prosperous mill town. This was aided in part by the arrival of the railroad in 1849, and over the next few decades the town saw considerable growth, more than doubling its population between 1840 and 1880 and becoming an important town in the southwestern part of the state. This growth contrasted sharply with that of Vermont as a whole, which saw a population increase of less than 14 percent during this same period.

The first photo is among the earliest photographs of downtown Brattleboro, showing the town as it appeared around 1850 or 1851. Main Street began to acquire its current form around this time, and many of the present-day brick commercial blocks were built during this period. The first photo shows a mix of the older wood-frame buildings, with a few newly-built brick buildings. These included the building on the far right, which was apparently the rear portion of the 1849 Revere House, and the Van Doorn Block on the far left, which was built in 1850 and is still standing today.

Today, more than 160 years later, the Van Doorn block is the only surviving building from the first photo. Some of the buildings in the distance at the bottom of the hill were destroyed in the 1869 Whetstone Brook Flood, while others – including the Revere House – were destroyed in fires. However, almost all of the major changes in this scene occurred more than a hundred years ago, and by the early 20th century this scene had largely taken on its present appearance. Starting on the far left is the yellow brick American Building, which was constructed in 1906. Just beyond it to the right is the 1900 Ullery Block, which hides most of the Van Doorn Block from this angle. The other side of the street includes the 1877 Pentland Block on the far right, the large 1915 Barber Block just beyond it, and the 1936 Art Deco-style Latchis Hotel, which is barely visible near the center of the photo. Today, all of these buildings are now part of the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Main Street Pedestrians, Brattleboro, Vermont

Pedestrians on the sidewalk of Main Street, near the corner of Elliot Street in Brattleboro, in August 1941. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo was taken in August 1941 by Jack Delano, a prominent photographer who was, at the time, working for the Farm Security Administration. Among the projects of this New Deal-era agency was hiring photographers to document living conditions in rural America in the wake of the Great Depression, and Delano traveled throughout Vermont during the summer of 1941. He took a number of photographs in downtown Brattleboro, showing everyday life in the small town on the eve of World War II. These two young people were the subjects of several of his photographs, and his original caption reads “On the main street of Brattleboro, Vermont, during the tourist season.”

The first photo does not show much of the surrounding streetscape, but several historic buildings are visible across the street. To the left of the lamppost is the stone building at 109-113 Main Street, which was built around 1850 and features an exterior facade that contrasts with the more conventional brick of the surrounding buildings. On the right side of the photo is the Union Block, which was built around 1861 and was evidently named in recognition of the patriotic sentiment at the start of the Civil War. Both of these stores housed discount department stores when the first photo was taken, with F. W. Woolworth on the left and M. H. Fishman on the right.

More than 75 years after the first photo was taken, this scene has not significantly changed. Most of the historic commercial blocks on Main Street are still standing, including the two in this scene, and even the present-day fire hydrant is still in the same location as the one in the first photo. The only noticeable difference – aside from the modern cars – is the change in the businesses occupying the storefronts. The era of downtown department stores is long gone, and both Woolworth and Fishman have since gone out of business. However, unlike many other downtowns, Brattleboro has managed to retain a thriving Main Street, and the storefronts here now house an eclectic mix of different businesses.

Aftermath of 1869 Flood, Brattleboro, Vermont

The scene looking north on Main Street from the Whetstone Brook in Brattleboro, apparently in the aftermath of the October 4, 1869 flood. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo is undated with no caption, but it almost certainly shows the aftermath of the October 4, 1869 flood, which was among the most disastrous floods in the history of Brattleboro. The town has always been vulnerable to flooding, given its location on the banks of the Connecticut River, but the majority of the damage in this particular flood was caused by the small but fast-moving Whetstone Brook, which passes through downtown Brattleboro in the foreground of this scene. Originating in the hills to the west of here, the Whetstone provided the water power for many of Brattleboro’s early industries. However, this proximity to the brook also made these factories vulnerable to flooding, which could come with little warning.

Although rapid changes in the water level were not uncommon, the October 1869 floodwaters were higher than any in recorded history up to that point, and came after 36 hours of heavy rainfall. The flooding began shortly after 11:00 on the morning of October 4, and initially the primary concern was removing goods from the basements of homes and businesses on Flat Street, which runs along the north side of the brook. However, within ten minutes the water level had risen to the point where the focus shifted from saving property to saving lives. The book Annals of Brattleboro, 1681-1895 provides a detailed description of the subsequent events:

John L. Ray’s livery stable floor was completely covered with water. Many ready and willing hands were there to seize his horses by the bridle and lead them to a place of safety; all his buggies and horses were taken to high ground on Main Street. So suddenly did the waters spring upon the workmen in the blacksmith shop of Mr. Hall, that the floor was afloat and the workmen were obliged to break through a back door and climb up a stone wall and take shelter upon Elliot Street. A frame workshop just beyond the smithy was washed from its foundation and swung completely around. Mr. Dunklee, occupying the first house on the right-hand side of Flat Street, had just begun to gather up his things on the first floor of his tenement when he was obliged to call for help for the rescue of himself, wife and two other females. Help was promptly given him by Mr. John Rogers of the Revere House, who did yeoman’s service and saved them, although they were all pretty well drenched. In the next house resided Mr. Frank Holding, whose wife had been for four weeks dangerously ill with typhoid fever; their lower floor was completely inundated. Ropes and boats were procured by the spectators, who numbered hundreds, and after much peril and great exertion, the family were taken alive. The house of Willard Frost, on the lower side of the street, was in a peculiarly exposed situation. Fences were broken down by the ferocity of the current, the woodshed was veered around, the barn was shaken on its foundation, and inevitable destruction seemed imminent. The house was occupied by the female members of Mr. Frost’s family together with Mr. Eugene Frost, Mr. Wells Frost and his mother. They all went to the upper chamber of the house and there made signals of distress from the windows to the assembled multitude on Elliot Street. The rapid current which eddied and whirled around the house on all sides made it next to impossible for a boat to live in the waters. Several attempts were made to reach the house, but without success and these people suffered agonies untold for many minutes, until at last the timbers which had floated between the buildings formed a raft, on which they safely passed to the shore.

The large dam at B. M. Buddington’s gristmill was washed away, and the tannery which stood below was demolished and two thousand hides taken down the stream. Spenser & Douglas’s shop was entirely swept away and the road all along ruined. The bridge near the old woolen factory went down, on which two ladies had stood a moment before, barely escaping with their lives. The swollen stream then swept over Frost meadow reaching Estey & Company’s organ factory, doing no damage to the buildings, but carrying off thousands of feet of lumber and tearing up the road badly. On the south side of the brook, Woodcock & Vinton’s canal for about two hundred rods was torn out and one of the buildings and some paper injured. The flood swept away in a moment, Dwinell’s furniture shop with all its contents, furniture, tools, stock and account books, the Main Street bridge, A. F. Boynton’s shoe shop, office of I. K. Allen, lumber dealer, and Boyd’s fish market. Several men were in the market, among them the proprietor – he felt the building tremble and singing out “Run for your lives,” quickly he followed his flying guests. He sprang out of the door, turned around to look and saw nothing but a mass of water where a second before had stood his place of business. On the other side the planing mill of Smith & Coffin was cleaned out of its machinery, tools, etc.; the machine shop of Ferdinand Tyler was struck by the timbers and a part of the underpinning knocked away, the sawmill near the bridge and the foundry below were swept into the Connecticut with all their contents.

Nearly all of the bridges across the Whetstone Brook were destroyed by the flood, including the one here on Main Street. The first photo shows a large ditch where the bridge had once been, with wreckage strewn across the scene. The flood caused an estimated $300,000 in damage, equivalent to about $5.6 million today, and also killed two people. One of the victims was Adolph Friedrich, a Prussian immigrant sho left behind a wife and five young children. Twelve years earlier, Friedrich had survived the sinking of the treasure ship S.S. Central America, which was lost in a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas. He had been returning from the gold fields of California, but he lost his fortune in the shipwreck. He eventually made his way to Brattleboro, where he found work at the Estey Organ Company. Friedrich was working there when the flood hit, and was swept downstream on a raft of boards. He was last seen going over the waterfall near the Main Street bridge, and his skeletal remains were later discovered on a riverbank. The other victim of the flood was Kittie Barrett, a 16 year old girl who had been watching debris float by at the tannery. She was killed when the upstream dam broke, and her body was recovered about a quarter mile downstream.

Today, nearly 150 years after this disastrous flood, this scene has remained remarkably unchanged. Some of the old buildings, particularly on the left side of the street, were replaced in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, but overall the area retains a similar scale in both photos. The right side, though, has been well-preserved, and a number of the buildings from the first photo are still there. The most noticeable of these is the Van Doorn Block on the far right, with its large, pedimented gable. Built in 1850, the brick building survived the 1869 flood and still stands, with few noticeable changes over the years. Further up the street, other survivors from the first photo include the Devens, Exchange, and Cutler Blocks, which were built in the early 1840s and form a continuous facade from 85 to 97 Main Street. Even further in the distance, near the center of the scene, are several other mid-19th century buildings that are still standing. Today, all of these buildings form part of the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.