Rockingham Meeting House, Rockingham Vermont

The Rockingham Meeting House around 1900-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company collection.

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The meeting house in 2015:

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The Rockingham Meeting House is one of the two oldest existing church buildings in Vermont. It is so old, in fact, that it was not built in the United States – construction began in 1787, four years before Vermont became a state. At the time, Vermont was an independent republic, and although the citizens overwhelmingly favored joining the Union, there were issues over conflicting land claims between New York and New Hampshire. By the time the building was completed in 1801, however, Vermont had since joined as the 14th state.

Although it was built at the end of the 18th century, its architecture is fairly conservative, and it looks more like meeting houses from the first half of the century.  Probably the most conspicuous difference between it and most other churches built in the late 18th and early 19th century is its lack of a steeple.  Many early 18th century churches did not have steeples, although by the time the Rockingham Meeting House was built they were fairly commonplace.  Another difference is the interior layout; the main entrance, as seen in this view, is located in the middle of the long side of the building, and inside the pulpit is directly opposite it.  Again, this was common in the mid 18th century, but by the start of the 19th century most churches were being built with the central aisle running the length of the building.

Like many other meeting houses of the era, this building was used for both church services and town meetings, and at the time of its construction it was in the center of the main village in the town of Rockingham.  However, as time went on, and as industry replaced farming as the livelihood for many residents of the town, the village of Bellows Falls along the Connecticut River became Rockingham’s center of population.  Church services here ended in 1839, and town meetings continued until 1869.  After that, the building was mostly vacant until the early 20th century, when the historical significance of the building came to be appreciated.  The first photo was probably taken around the time of its restoration 1907.  Overall, the building is one of the best-preserved colonial meeting houses in New England, in part because of its relatively brief use as a church and meeting house.  Today, the building is owned by the town of Rockingham, and is rented out for weddings and other functions.  However, because the building was never really updated or renovated since its completion, neither electricity nor heat was ever installed, so it is only usable in the summer months.

Post Office and Library, Bellows Falls, Vermont

The post office and library in downtown Bellows Falls, Vermont, around 1900-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2014, now the town hall for Rockingham, Vermont:

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The building in the first photo served as the post office and library for the town of Rockingham from 1886 until it burned in 1925.  The first photo shows the entrance to the library on the far left of the building, with the post office located in the storefront at the base of the tower.  There are no automobiles in the first photo, but the open-air trolley in the foreground provided public transportation in the village of Bellows Falls.  After the fire, the replacement building opened in 1926, and it has served as the Rockingham Town Hall for the past 89 years.

Tucker Toll Bridge, Bellows Falls, Vermont (2)

Another view of the Tucker Toll Bridge, from the downstream side, around 1907. Photo from History of the Town of Rockingham, Vermont (1907).

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The bridge in 2014:

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This is another view of the bridge across the Connecticut River at Bellows Falls, seen from the Vermont side facing upstream.  As explained in this post, this was the site of the first bridge across the Connecticut River when a primitive bridge was built across here in 1785.  The bridge in the 1907 photo was the second on the site, and opened in 1840.  This bridge, known as the Tucker Toll Bridge, was replaced by the current concrete arch bridge, the Vilas Bridge, in 1930.  However, the bridge has been closed since 2009, and as of 2015 it is unknown what will happen to it.

This angle gives a good view of the gorge at Bellows Falls, where the Connecticut River drops 52 feet through a narrow gorge.  It was originally known as the Great Falls, and an early stagecoach line that ran through here advertised that passengers would be able to “view one of the most stupendous works of Nature.”  Today, much of the river’s water is diverted into a power canal just above the falls, so it isn’t as dramatic as it would have been to an 18th century traveler, but it is still an impressive view looking down from the top of the gorge.

Tucker Toll Bridge, Bellows Falls, Vermont (1)

The Tucker Toll Bridge over the Connecticut River at Bellows Falls, Vermont, around 1900-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2014:

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As mentioned in this post, Bellows Falls became a major transportation and industrial center in the region during the 19th century because of its location on the Connecticut River.  As seen in these photos, the river drops 52 feet in elevation through a narrow gorge, making it an ideal site for hydroelectrically-powered industries, but also a strategic location to build a bridge.  Further south, the river was much wider and bridge-building viewed as almost impossible; one man reportedly commented on the idea in Springfield, Mass. around 1800, saying, “Gentlemen, you might as well undertake to bridge the Atlantic Ocean.”

However, here in Bellows Falls the width of the river and the rocky outcroppings meant a shorter bridge and no need to build piers in the river.  As a result, the first bridge across any part of the Connecticut River opened on this spot in 1785, connecting New Hampshire and Vermont and facilitating trade from New Hampshire to Montreal and other northern destinations.  At the time, Vermont was actually an independent nation, which I suppose technically made the first bridge an international border crossing.

The construction of the bridge was authorized by the state of New Hampshire, who also set the tolls for travelers; in 1804, the tolls ranged from three cents for a person on foot, to 30 cents for a four wheel carriage with four horses.  Upon completion, the Massachusetts Spy gave a glowing review of the bridge, writing:

“We hear from Walpole, state of New Hampshire, that Colonel Enoch Hale hath erected a bridge across the Connecticut River on the Great Falls, at his own expense.  This bridge is thought to exceed any ever built in America in strength, elegance, and public utility, as it is the direct way from Boston through New Hampshire and Vermont to Canada, and will exceedingly accommodate the public travel to almost any part of the state of Vermont.”

The 1907 book History of the Town of Rockingham Vermont provides this depiction of the bridge, viewed from about the same spot as the two photographs:

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This first bridge was uncovered, which meant the wood deck and structure was exposed to the elements, so by 1840 it was in need of replacement.  The new bridge, which is the same one in the first photo here, was built directly over the old one, about 15 feet above it, which allowed the old bridge to continue to be used even as its replacement was being built.  The 1840 bridge became known as the Tucker Toll Bridge, named after the family who owned it for many years.  It remained in the hands of private owners until 1904, when the towns of Rockingham and Walpole purchased it and made it free for travel.  This bridge was, in turn, replaced by the current concrete arch bridge in 1930.  However, it has deteriorated over the years, and was closed in 2009 because of safety concerns.  At this point, it remains to be seen what will happen to the bridge.

Bellows Falls, Vermont

The Square at Bellows Falls, Vermont, around 1907. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2014:

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The village of Bellows Falls is probably best known to baseball fans as the birthplace of Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk, but historically it has been a significant settlement along the Connecticut River.  As the name implies, it is located at a waterfall on the Connecticut River, where the river passes through a narrow gorge.

The waterfall benefitted the village in several ways; first, the narrow width of the river made it easy to bridge.  In fact, the first bridge across the Connecticut River was built here in 1785, which made this a major transportation center, originally for stagecoaches and later for trains; it became a major railroad hub in the 19th century.  The falls also attracted many industries to Bellows Falls, and in the 19th century many industries developed along the river, powered by a canal that took advantage of the river’s 52-foot drop in elevation.

This scene shows the center of the village, much of which has changed in the past 108 years.  It retains its small-town appearance, but most of the buildings in the first photo have since been destroyed in a succession of fires, the first of which occurred in 1912 and destroyed several of the buildings on the right-hand side.  The two buildings just beyond the gabled brick building on the right date to the 1800s, but only the shells of the buildings survived the fire.  Closer to the camera on the right is the Hotel Windham, which was built in 1933 to replace the previous building, which burned in 1932.  On the left, the old post office and library, with its distinctive tower, burned in 1925, and was replaced with the present building the following year.

The only two surviving buildings on the square that are visible in both photos are the 1875 Centennial Block on the far left-hand side, which was itself damaged by a fire in 1978, and the wood commercial block in the distant center of both photos, which dates to around 1890 and is probably the only building in the 1907 photo that never had a fire.

Westminster Street, Bellows Falls, Vermont

Looking south on Westminster Street in Bellows Falls, Vermont, around 1907. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Westminster Street in 2014:

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Like many other towns and cities in New England, this main road in Bellows Falls was once lined with tall trees on both sides.  However, in the ensuing century, disease, hurricanes, and other factors resulted in a far less impressive streetscape.  Today, many of the houses are still there, but the street has been paved, the guardrail on the left-hand side has been replaced with something a little more substantial, and parking spaces have replaced hitching posts on the right-hand side of the road.