In the early settlement days, towns along the Connecticut River and throughout the northern wilderness of Vermont and New Hampshire depended heavily on waterways to transport and receive goods and mail, as well as for travel.
The Connecticut River, named by the Indians “Ouon-eh-to-kot”, meaning “long river,” begins as a narrow stream out of lakes in what is now northern New Hampshire, and is a natural boundary line between much of northern Vermont and New Hampshire. It is reinforced by tributaries along the way and becomes a broad, swift river by the time it empties into Long Island Sound, some 400 miles south.
Writer and historian Lyman S. Hayes presented a detailed history of the Connecticut River to the Vermont House of Representatives on January 16, 1917. In his paper titled “The Navigation of the Connecticut River,” he described how commerce on the river evolved as settlers moved north from Connecticut and Massachusetts following up the river into Vermont and New Hampshire. The headwaters of the Connecticut River near the Canadian border are about 2,650 feet above sea level. The river flows for about nine miles southwest through northern New Hampshire and then turns south, forming the 238-mile-long border between Vermont and New Hampshire. The elevation of the river drops sharply in the first sixty miles from its source, and there are several waterfalls and stretches of narrow rapids. At Vernon, it leaves Vermont and enters Massachusetts. From there the river runs relatively flat and broad at only 250 feet above sea level and continues through Massachusetts and Connecticut to the Atlantic Ocean at Long Island Sound.
Only a few hundred residents lived along the river north of the Massachusetts border in the 1760s, and river traffic was mostly Indians or trappers with canoes or dugouts loaded with animal hides and furs. However, by 1791 there were about 44,000 people living in the Vermont counties of Windham, Windsor and Orange on the west side of the river, and at least twice that many on the east side of the river in New Hampshire. All of them needed better transportation methods than dugouts and canoes or overland stages to get goods and travelers to and from their settlements.
To meet this need, flatboats were built. They were flat-bottomed boats, typically 70 to 75 feet long and 12 to 14 feet wide that could carry some 30 tons. Fully loaded, they drew only about 12 to 18 inches of water, making them perfectly adapted for travel north of Massachusetts into the shallow reaches of the upper Connecticut River. According to Hayes, in the early 1800s the river was navigable as far north as Wells River, Vermont.
Flatboats depended on either wind or manpower. Most had a tall mast in the middle of the deck with one large sail and six men, three men working on either side, with poles that were about twenty feet long with a spike on one end. The men planted the spiked end of the poles on the river bottom and placed the other end against their shoulder and walked towards the stern of the boat, moving the boat ahead. Each man would then return forward in a constant rotation, often for long hours at a stretch and in all kinds of weather. A pilot who knew the river well guided the boat with a rudder that was operated from the roof of a cabin at the rear of the boat.
Hayes commented in his 1917 speech that there was much more water running in the Connecticut River in the early 1800s than there was then. At that time, due to dams diverting the water, deforestation of watersheds and changes in climate, between 35 and 40 percent of water flow had been lost. At falls and rapids along the Vermont/New Hampshire route, cargo had to be unloaded and transported overland around the falls by teams of oxen or horses to boats on the other side of trouble spots. Between 1800 and 1829, canals or locks were built around these hindrances, and this made off-loading cargo unnecessary, which substantially reduced the cost and increased the efficiency of transporting goods.
Even with the canals, navigation was still difficult. The riverbed changed with every rainstorm, and after spring runoff, previously unseen boulders and new sandbars appeared. Dry years and floods added to the ever-changing conditions that challenged even the most experienced riverboat pilots.
In the early 1800s there were opposing views about how best to transport goods to the growing towns in the northern region of Vermont. One proposed solution was to build canals and locks to connect major lakes and streams throughout Vermont. These people were called Canalites. They explored possibilities for a series of canals to connect Lake Champlain on Vermont’s western border with the Connecticut River on the eastern border. Another group called Riverites, felt it was better to spend money to improve the existing waterways by dredging and building locks at trouble spots.
After a bad flood in 1824 took out dams and bridges, a representative group of Riverites from various towns along the Connecticut River, met to discuss how to make the river more navigable. They raised money for dredging and canals, envisioning boats reaching as far north as the town of Barnet, north of McIndoe Falls. To prove their point, they engaged the Connecticut River Company of New York City to build a small steamboat, specially designed to navigate the rugged upper Connecticut River, carrying passengers and towing flatboats of freight all the way to Barnet, Vermont.
The little steamer was seventy-five feet long and fourteen and a half feet wide. It had a flat bottom, walled sides, and drew twenty-two inches of water. There was a cabin and a paddle wheel at the stern. It was finished in 1826 and was named the Barnet to honor the town it was expected to reach.
On November 24, 1826, the Barnet left Hartford, Conn. and proceeded north. A river boat captain named Palmer took her as far as Northampton, Mass., about 40 miles south of the Vermont border. From there Captain Strong, a noted river man who knew the upper Connecticut River well, took command. When the Barnet reached “Warehouse Point” in Brattleboro, it was greeted by bonfires and bell ringing as well-wishers followed along the riverbank in celebration. However, at the rapids called “the tunnel,” the little steamer came to a standstill. Lyman Hayes described how Captain Strong pushed the boat hard until, “with fire blazing from the smoke-stack” he grabbed a spiked pole “punching against the bed of the river,” trying to move the vessel forward himself. Strong lost his balance and tumbled into the rapids but was quickly rescued. At that point, he admitted defeat. A few days later the Barnet tried again, and that time, with the assistance of a winch commonly used to assist boats over the rapids, they made it through “the tunnel” and arrived safely at Bellows Falls.
Festivities there welcomed the steamer, and Captain Strong proudly showed off her speed and power by taking a few turns around the eddy. Several dignitaries were present that day and officers of the Association for Improving the Connecticut River boarded the boat, along with officials of the steamboat company that built the Barnet. Captains Strong and Palmer were both present as were various prominent citizens from nearby towns and states. The celebration lasted for two days, with plenty of food and many barrels of whiskey consumed. The general merriment continued as the boat departed north, and a joyful toast was offered: “To the town of Barnet – may she be speedily gratified by the sight of her first-born.”
However, it turned out that the Barnet was too large to go through the locks north of the Bellows Falls. Disappointed at the obvious error in calculations by the steamer’s designers, and some 80 miles short of its intended destination, there was nothing to do but give up the quest and return downstream. As the little steamer left, a cannon discharged one hundred and twenty-four rounds (probably representing the distance back to Hartford) to bid her farewell. Some two hundred people followed along the banks of the river as far south as Westminster where they watched her retreat down the river. She pulled into Hartford a few days later and never went that far north again, but she was used successfully on the lower Connecticut.
Although the historical society and officials in the town of Barnet have no record of the steamer named for their town, there is plenty of evidence in the Connecticut State Library to substantiate that the boat existed. The Barnet came to an unfortunate end near Milford, Conn. in Long Island Sound on November 2, 1827, when her boiler blew up and a river pilot was killed.
The need for better transportation of freight remained, and other steamers such as the Vermont and the John Ledyard successfully plied the lower Connecticut River until the mid-1800s when locomotives were introduced and proved to be a far more efficient and cost-effective method of moving goods and passengers. But the little steamer Barnet deserves to be remembered for its valiant effort to go where none like her had gone before.