Essex County has about 6,300 inhabitants, making it the least populous county in Vermont, as well as in all of New England. It extends about 45 miles from north to south and more than 20 miles from east to west. The county has been a prime source of timber production in the Northeast Kingdom and is distinguished as the location of Vermont’s largest land conservation project. In 1999 a coalition of organizations purchased a total of 132,000 acres in more than a dozen towns and unincorporated gores from the Champion International Paper Company to preserve the property for recreation, wildlife habitat and continued logging through sustainable forestry.
Essex County’s eastern boundary is the beautiful upper Connecticut River, which separates northern Vermont and New Hampshire’s White Mountain region. Before the county was colonized, the area was used as a productive hunting ground by various Native American tribes. After colonization, the Connecticut River became the main route for floating logs to sawmills every spring. The log drives ended around 1915 because of the danger to recreational boaters. The final drive was reported to have involved 500 workers managing 65 million feet of logs.
One challenging section of the river was known as the 15-mile falls, a vertical drop of nearly 400 feet where water cascaded over boulders and ledges from southern Essex County into Caledonia County. The 15-mile falls was submerged by the construction of three large hydroelectric generating projects – the Comerford and the McIndoes Falls dams in Barnet, both completed in 1931, and the Moore Dam, which was finished in 1951 and is in Waterford upriver from the Comerford Dam. The Comerford Dam was New England’s largest single hydroelectric plant at the time it started generating power. Reservoirs were created behind each of the dams, the biggest being the Moore Reservoir, which extends nearly 10 miles and covers some 3,000 acres. The reservoirs are available for recreational use, but boaters are warned to be alert for sudden changes in water depth.
The majority of Essex County’s residents live along the Connecticut River, which is New England’s longest river, flowing 410 miles from a series of protected lakes by the Canadian border in New Hampshire to its outlet in Connecticut on Long Island Sound. The river’s valley is known for its fertile farmland throughout its length.
The Vermont Historical Gazetteer, published in the 1860s, offered an extensive description of Essex County’s upper Connecticut River valley. It reads, in part: “To the lovers of natural scenery, the valley of the Connecticut, from the head of the fifteen-mile falls to Canaan, cannot be surpassed in loveliness. The meandering folds of the river, the abrupt headlands, the towering summits of the White Mountains, the variety of timberland, all conspire to render it a changing scene and one of peculiar interest and beauty. Almost every town in the county boasts of some hill or mountain from the summit of which scenes of peculiar beauty lay spread before you… The White Mountains are in full view from the river towns, and may be seen perhaps from every town in the county. The best view of the White Mountain range attainable is however from Lunenburg. Seen from that locality they stand out in all their boldness.”