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Waterpower

Once land was cleared for agriculture, the first order of business for a settlement community in northern New England was the establishment of milling operations on a fast-moving river or stream. Clearing the land produced an abundant harvest of raw timber which became valuable as building material once milled into planks and boards. Timber could be processed by hand in a sawpit, but even the simplest waterpowered sawmilling operation dramatically improved on the efficiency of manual sawmilling, and provided urgently needed building material as well as a source of commercial income for frontier communities. Gristmills appeared alongside the sawmills, providing an alternative to long trips with heavy loads of grain, or to massive manually operated mortars and pestles. Environmental historian Harold Meeks describes these waterpowered mills as the "earliest nonagricultural pursuits" in colonial New England.

Ad for a mill-seat in New York

A "handsome mill-seat" is advertised as having the advantages of a "durable" 16 to 18 foot head and access to the Lake by water. From the collection of the Stewart-Swift Research Center at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History

Throughout the settlement period, the crude milling operations established by soldiers and frontiersmen before the American Revolution were natural sites for development as the Champlain Valley's population increased. In Middlebury, the village green, courthouse, churches, school buildings and taverns sprung up around the pre-Revolutionary milling operations on the falls of Otter Creek, some two and half miles away from the geographic center of town, where development was expected to occur. [Lesson Change Over Time: Industry on the Falls] Lakefront towns such as Shoreham, Vermont incorporated two centers of activity: a harbor or ferry-landing on the Lake attended by stores and warehouses, and a popular mill-site on the most suitable stream or river. Early maps of Shoreham show Larrabee's Point, with its ferry-landing on the Lake, and Richville (or Rich's Mills), the center of milling operations on the Lemon Fair River, as two points of density in a predominantly rural landscape.

Consequences of Damming

Establishing a waterpowered mill required the construction of a millpond that could feed into a sluiceway on demand. [Lesson What is Waterpower?] Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, countless tributaries of Lake Champlain were dammed to create millponds. Damming, combined with a generation of zealous forest-clearing, contributed to the dramatic changes in water tables and drainage patterns that characterized the Champlain Valley's waterways during the settlement period.

Detail of 1780 Map of Lake Champlain by Simon Medcalfe The remains of Moore's Saw Mill, 2004

LEFT A detail of a map of Lake Champlain drawn by Simon Medcalfe in 1780 shows two sites of pre-revolutionary sawmills in the Southern Lake region. "Moore's Saw Mill" refers to the mill site developed in the late eighteenth century by Paul Moore on Prickly Ash Brook in Shoreham. From the collection of the Library of Congress

RIGHT The remains of Moore's Saw Mill photographed in the spring of 2004. Used with permission of Edwin James

The construction of a millpond amounts to the transformation of a fast-moving waterway into a pond environment. This transformation directly affected the speed and volume of stream flows, water temperatures and patterns of sedimentation and fish migration. Millponds trapped sand and silt, effectively filtering the water and ultimately changing the substrate of the waterway. During the warm months, the water temperature in the millpond increased, leading to reduced oxygen levels, and thus limiting native species of aquatic life. Perhaps most significantly, damming blocked the route of migratory fish such as the Atlantic salmon, a once-plentiful native species that disappeared from Lake Champlain by the mid-nineteenth century due to the combined effects of damming and overfishing. In modern times, diminished populations of native aquatic species such as the Atlantic salmon have been restored by stocking. By and large, however, the Champlain Valley's aquatic habitats have not yet benefited from the type of large-scale restoration efforts directed at forest habitat.

Environmental historians Christopher Klyza and Stephen Trombulak state that the most significant effect of industry on this region "was not pollution but mills to create power, which altered river and stream ecology throughout Vermont." The settlement period saw the development of milling operations on nearly every available stream and river in the Champlain Valley. Combined with the dramatic effects of rapid deforestation, the widespread use of waterpower during the settlement period caused an ecological transformation of the watershed.