A Reservoir of History

The old beaver dam, 50 years later.

One of the best parts about having older fishing companions is that trips often double as history lessons. Last weekend one such lesson unfolded on the banks of Somerset Reservoir, a bucolic piece of water in the Deerfield lakes chain, nestled deep in the southern Green Mountains of Vermont.

The reservoir, owned and operated by TransCanada Hydro Northeast, is 6-miles long, 1,600 acres in total area. It sits in wild country, 11 miles from the nearest paved road. I was fishing there with my dear friends Andy and Jamie Crosier, father and son. In the fifties, Andy’s family had leased land from the power company and built a 16x24 camp on one of the bays. His father Ray Crosier, a strapping WWII tank driver with impeccable hair, possessed the peremptory outlook on life that was common of that generation, an optimism that insisted that hauling boards, cement, cinderblocks, gas refrigerators, stoves, children across a reservoir in a 14-foot boat was really no big deal.

Back then the reservoir was 40 years old. Stumps still jutted above the surface of the water, thousands of them, some lurking just below the surface.  This threat of impalement added an intriguing element to water skiing, although reportedly Andy’s mother never saw it that way. Better yet, the stumps provided great smallmouth bass fishing. As kids, he and his brother Billy used to tie into those snags and pop jitterbugs across the tea-colored water. “It was smallmouth after smallmouth after smallmouth,” he remembers.

In the sixties, the power company called off the leases and burned 13 camps to the ground. We spent some time touring the ruins. You could still make out the stone piers here and there amongst 6- and 8-inch yellow birch poles, the old ceramic chimney liners and twisted metal bedframes. We lingered briefly, then made our way up a nearby streambed towards a series of beaver ponds that Andy remembered as being filthy with trout.

Several hundred feet up the mountain we passed beneath an old logging railroad trestle, stabilized today by an enormous iron culvert. An untrained eye wouldn’t have guessed the railroad part. “You know these mountains were covered with tracks,” said Andy, his voice ricocheting off the iron walls.  I did know, but until Saturday, I didn’t quite know the extent.

Turns out, at the turn of the last century, the town of Somerset had been a logging beachhead into the vast wilderness of the southern Green Mountains. Old growth spruce logs accumulated at the reservoir site and were driven down the Deerfield to the whining saws and hungry digester in the town of Mountain Mills, Vermont (today buried under Harriman Reservoir, a body of water nine miles south of Somerset).

In 1906, the timber barons of the day devised a network of logging railroads that they used to reach 300 million feet of spruce and hardwood and 2 million cords of spruce pulpwood. Forty one miles of track were laid down and dozens of camps sprouted up across Glastenbury, Stratton and Mount Pisgah (today known as Mount Snow). French Canadians and Abenaki Indians worked these hills with Irish and French immigrants, even some drunk-tank Boston bums who sobered up to find themselves in the waist-deep snows of Vermont.

Andy, having recently re-read a fabulous story on the region by William Gove, retold the history in exquisite detail; brought to life the seraglios in Mountain Mills where commercially minded ladies extracted large portions of a lumberjack’s check; the harrowing tales of overloaded log trains loosing their brakes on icy rails, the crew bailing out just in time as the whole train leapt its tracks and crashed into the leeward fir whips.

When the place had a proper context, Andy felt free to tell his own boyhood stories of the place, of the deer and hare, the trout, the old timers who used to live there. One white-haired old woodsman who lived full time on the lake was Andy’s connection to the past – a lumberman when there were trees to cut, then a fern picker when there weren’t any left. His small home – no water, no power – was surrounded by piles of wood, from pencil-width twigs for the wood cook stove to 16” rounds for the iron barrel stove, wood hoarded against the deep Somerset cold. Through this old man there were just 2 links in the chain that separated 2009 from 1889, a house cat sitting on a suburban porch stoop from a she-catamount snarling from the crown of a craggy mountain-top birch.

In the streambed where we walked, fools’ gold sparkled against the dark stream sand, and here and there a small gauge iron railroad track jutted out into the streambed from beneath 100 years of detritus. To our east loomed the wild side of Mount Snow. To our west, the reservoir, parking lot full of “no camping” signs and port-a-johns and full sized pickups and bassboat trailers. To our north, 16,000 acres of power company land bled seamlessly into the Green Mountain National Forest, 35,000 acres of which is federally mandated wilderness – the old railbeds and lumbercamps fading as the second and third growth maple and birch and spruce obscure the forest floor, these memories fading as a new tribe hikes obliviously into areas known on topo maps as Kelly Stand, Macintyre Job, Mill Pond, Blueberry Swamp – names in this vast swath of decidedly un-virginal land that give hints of a rich and complicated past.

We found the beaver ponds that Andy used to fish as a boy but the dam had blown out some time ago. The silty river bottom here was tattooed with plate-sized bear tracks. In the quiet moments the whole place seemed touched, somehow, with a sense of both loss and gain.

Please read William Gove’s wonderfully in-depth article on the subject of the old logging railroads in the Somerset area. It first appeared in a 1969 issue of The Northern Logger and Timber Processor. You can download the whole story online at: http://www.hoosactunnel.net/HTW/images/SomersetVT_LOGGING.PDF.

  1. Carolyn Haley → in East Wallingford, VT
    Aug 25, 2009

    Dave’s line “We found the beaver ponds that Andy used to fish as a boy but the dam had blown out some time ago” reminds me of what happened around here approx. a year ago, when a beaver dam “blew out”—and how that event reshaped the surrounding forest.

    A series of dams atop a local mountain had been in place long enough to make it onto topo maps and old Google Earth photos. But after a prolonged heavy rain, the top dam let go, which overburdened the lower ponds and dams, until a 15(+)-foot section of the lowest dam gave way and dumped thousands and thousands of gallons of water several hundred feet straight downhill.

    The wave carved a new canyon through the forest, crossed the main road through the local “gulf” and undercut or scoured off its pavement, ripped out or drowned dozens of mature trees, flooded the drainage system, and swept over the hood of my firewood vendor’s truck as he was driving up to deliver our load, leaving behind a minefield of muck and debris. Thankfully, the driver was unhurt, his vehicle undamaged, and nobody else was on the road at the time. No one’s house was in the way of the deluge. But the road was closed for repair for several weeks, and the surrounding woodlands permanently scarred and reconfigured.

    We live a mile or two away on the other side of the hill this occurred on, and believe we heard the crescendo of the event. An isolated rumble/roar, that sounded like thunder but not quite, with no other weather elements involved, occurred around the same time.

    It’s hard to believe that a beaver dam caused such damage! But it’s a good illustration of system dynamics among the forests and waters—and humans who live there.

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