Vermont - New Hampshire: The Hydropower Difference

Vermont - New Hampshire: The Hydropower Difference

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

If Vermont’s natural advantage in the twin-state rivalry is soil quality, New Hampshire’s is surely hydropower. It is easy to forget in today’s fossil fuel-powered economy that the best source of mechanical power in 1800 besides horses and oxen was waterfalls. Of the ten largest hydropower sites in the two states, all ten are in New Hampshire. Three of the ten – Bellows Falls, Sumner Falls, and Olcott Falls – are on the Connecticut River, but New Hampshire’s border is defined as the low water mark on the Vermont side.

How much hydropower are we talking about? When the Connecticut is shared evenly between the two states, Vermont has 9,000 horsepower of major hydropower potential while New Hampshire has 49,000, mostly on the Merrimack. These days, that’s not much power: only about 100 revved Cadillacs. Before the steam engine, however, it was equivalent to 49,000 of the fastest transportation money could buy. The whole state of New Hampshire in 1850 had only 34,000 horses of the living, breathing kind.

New Hampshire has this hydropower advantage for the simple reason that New Hampshire, broadly speaking, is a river valley. 67% of the state is drained by the Merrimack River. Vermont, meanwhile, is nearly evenly split by the Green Mountains, with not even the White River approaching the Merrimack in size. The Connecticut surpasses the Merrimack when both states are lumped together, but most of the Connecticut’s major waterfalls are downstream of the twin states.

In 1831, the largest woolen mill in the United States was in Somersworth, New Hampshire, near the Maine border. Why Somersworth? Because it had both a major hydropower site - the Great Falls of the Salmon Falls River – and direct access to the Atlantic Ocean below the falls. Somersworth was a new phenomenon in northern New England: the first city to be built inland from the seacoast.

As cotton began to rival wool as New England’s most important manufactured fabric, large hydropower sites mattered even more. In 1831, New Hampshire had 32 major cotton mills compared with only 6 in Vermont. The mill at Middlebury – Vermont’s largest – would not have ranked among New Hampshire’s top ten in size. By 1850, almost as many people worked in the factories of a single New Hampshire city – Manchester – as worked in all of Vermont’s factories combined.

The situation was even more dramatic by 1900, when the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester was on the verge of becoming the largest mill complex in the world and was producing wool and cotton cloth at a combined rate of 50 miles per hour. Vermont actually had slightly more factories than New Hampshire in 1900, but the average factory in the Granite State employed three times more people.

The Amoskeag and other large mills forever changed the human settlement in New Hampshire. Both Vermont and New Hampshire began the 1800s with their populations thinly yet evenly spread across the landscape. By 1900, however, New Hampshire’s population had begun the surge that would eventually make it twice Vermont’s. New Hampshire had also become one of the most urban states in the United States (based on the percent of people living in towns and cities with more than 2,500 residents) while Vermont remained – as it does to this day – one of the most rural.

Hydropower affected two non-human residents of both states just as significantly. Salmon and the shad were both eliminated from their native habitats as hydropower dams closed off the major rivers. Olcott Falls (now underneath Wilder Dam) was once among the most productive salmon fishing spots in all of New England. But salmon require the gravelly beds of shallow headwaters for reproduction, and the development of hydropower on the Connecticut extirpated salmon from the river. Recent efforts to restock the river with wild salmon from Maine have been frustratingly slow.

Shad numbers, on the other hand, have rebounded dramatically. Shad reproduce in deep river channels. As fish ladders reopened the Connecticut, shad, who had been waiting patiently in Long Island Sound for two centuries, swam back up the river and reclaimed their historical range. Unfortunately for the Upper Valley, however, this range extends only as far upriver as Massachusetts.

But if hydropower is the whole story when it comes to salmon and shad, it still doesn’t fully explain the human population differences between Vermont and New Hampshire. Why didn’t Bellow’s Falls, for example, support a mill complex to rival the Amoskeag? The hydropower potential of the two waterfalls is equivalent. The answer lies in the one natural resource difference between the twin states that has been more important to human development than either soil quality or hydropower potential. Overshadowing both of these differences is the fact that New Hampshire has a seacoast while Vermont is inland. More on this next month.

Chuck Wooster is an associate editor at Northern Woodlands magazine in Corinth, Vermont.


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