During this summer of stay-at-homeness, I’ve taken the opportunity to explore a fabulous place right in our backyard.
Groton State Forest is huge, 26,164 acres to be exact, and it is full of interesting features. It is our (we the people of the State of Vermont) second-largest landholding. (Your homework is to find the largest!) My walks in the Forest this summer have revealed lovely vistas, tranquil ponds, an amazing bog, the contrast of huge old-growth trees and active forest management, and the ruins of a lost era. It’s too much for one column, so let’s start with some background.
Like other state land holdings, Groton State Forest is an accumulation of parcels acquired over several decades. It now sprawls over Groton, Peacham, Marshfield, Orange, a little bit of Plainfield, and a little bit of Topsham. Almost a quarter of Peacham and a third of Groton are in the Forest. Contiguous to Groton State Forest is Vermont’s first state forest, the L. R. Jones, acquired in 1909, which includes Spruce Mountain. Both State Forests are managed as one unit.
Today’s highways bypass this land, but historically and pre-historically the headwaters of the Wells River and its string of ponds led travelers over the height of land between the Connecticut and Winooski Rivers. The Wells River enters the Connecticut at an elevation of 400 feet. If you were a Native American or early trapper wanting to bop over to the Winooski and hence to Lake Champlain, you could portage the falls just above Wells River village and then have a friendly paddle upstream almost to what is known today as Groton Pond or Lake Groton. The Wells climbs about 1000 feet over that 10-mile distance. To reach the height of land from the pond was a matter of ascending Stillwater Brook to Kettle Pond at an elevation of 1443 feet. From there it was a half-mile portage to the brooks leading a few more miles to the Winooski River a mile or so above today’s Plainfield. A longer but perhaps easier route from Stillwater Brook is to bypass Kettle Pond, walking a half-mile north to the headwaters of Marshfield Brook and thence down that brook to the village of Marshfield. With a canoe, the trip up the Wells and over to the Winooski would have been rocky and a bit tedious, but on foot, this was a pretty benevolent route. Legend has it that the 100 captives taken in the famous 1704 Indian raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts were marched via Groton Pond on their way north.
One can imagine that Native American hunters camped on one or more of the Groton ponds. It would be a logical satellite of the large native village on the Connecticut at Newbury. European settlement was not robust. After all, the land of Groton State Forest is not well suited to agriculture, littered with boulders large and small. What it did have was falling water, and in 1783 Captain Edmund Morse built a saw and grist mill at the outlet of Ricker Pond, and a mill would operate at the site for 180 years.
Trees don’t mind boulders and Groton grew an abundance of trees. Aside from Ricker Pond, sawmills operated at Seyon and Groton ponds, Stillwater and Coldwater brooks, and at Lanesboro at the headwaters of Marshfield Brook. Where water power left off, steam took over, fueled by the seemingly inexhaustible supply of wood. Logs were cut by the tens of thousands and skidded to the ponds where they were stored in piles until floated down to the mills for their date with destiny as the raw material of a burgeoning society.
About 1870, construction began on the Montpelier and Wells River Railroad to connect the Boston and Maine line with the Central Vermont Railroad. Completed in 1873, the railroad followed the path of least resistance and gentlest grade, north from West Groton, past the west side of Groton Pond to Lanesboro, then down Marshfield Brook to the depot above Marshfield village, where it turned down the Winooski valley. This railroad brought easy transportation of logs away from the forest and brought campers to the ponds for their summer hiatus.
The combination of heavy logging leaving huge quantities of slash and steam train engines throwing sparks was a recipe for fire. All across the northeast forest fires became common. These were not on the scale of today’s conflagrations in the American west, but they were serious fires. From Marion Proudfoot’s book “Camping at the Pond”:
“On May 13, 1883 a fire spread out of control at Lanesboro. Some say it was started by a spark from the railroad engine, others that the beginning was a brush fire. It quickly developed into a raging inferno which burned several buildings in the village [of Lanesboro] and extended to the Owl’s Head area and along the eastern shore to the south end of Groton Pond. At this time the Mill Company here had built many homes for its workers. . . . By the time the men reached the community the homes and mill had been destroyed but the families had been trying to save themselves all day and night by going out on the water in boats.”
Other large fires ravaged the area in 1876 and 1908, along with numerous smaller fires in that era. The Lake Groton Association website has interesting timelines, photos, and other tidbits: http://grotonpond.com/History/Pond%20History.htm
For 60 years the railroad was the only non-pedestrian way into the Forest. In 1919 Groton State Forest was established by the legislature and by 1922 over 5,000 acres had been acquired. Virtually all of it was heavily logged but visionaries like Perry Merrill somehow saw a different future. For the first several years the emphasis was on forestry and the planting of tens of thousands of trees. Thanks to the Great Depression and the New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps established a base camp above Osmore Pond and went to work. Starting in November 1933 they cut the first road through from north to south, completing a single track road by the end of the next summer. Widened to two lanes a few years later, the road eventually became Rt. 232. The Corps also built the Stillwater campground in 1934 and went on to develop most of the recreational facilities we still use today around the Forest. A second CCC camp was established at Ricker Pond and the scale of work is hard to imagine. In 1934 the CCC men worked over 40,000 man days! Various companies of the CCC would work in Groton for nine years.
For more detail on history take a look at the Groton State Forest History Guide, VT Agency of Natural Resources pamphlet, 2010. There are also several fascinating personal accounts, timelines, etc. to be found online.