Exploring the Lower Ottauquechee River

Michael J. Caduto

This is the second in a series of articles looking at the nature and history of the Ottauquechee River and human impacts on the watershed.

This historic photo shows Dewey’s Mills at the head of Quechee Gorge, which began operations in 1840 and eventually employed some 500 people. This was one of four sprawling woolen mill complexes along the Ottauquechee River at the height of Vermont’s era of sheep farming and wool processing in the early-to-mid-1800s. Others included the Bridgewater Mill, Quechee Mill and the Ottauquechee Woolen Mill in North Hartland. The Bridgewater Mill is the oldest surviving example of Vermont’s magnificent wooden-framed woolen mills.

This leg of your journey down the Ottauquechee River begins at a dam that once powered the massive woolen mill in Bridgewater, now called The Bridgewater Mill, which dates to 1828. From there the river runs toward West Woodstock along a course even and flat, then passes under Woodstock’s Middle Covered Bridge. The existing wooden structure, which replaced an obsolete iron bridge built in 1877, was completed in July 1969 by Milton Graton and winched across the river by a team of oxen. It was the first new public covered bridge constructed by the State of Vermont since 1889.

Flowing through the village of Woodstock, framed by the view of Mount Tom, the Ottauquechee is joined by Kedron Brook from the south and Barnard Brook from the north, which is fed by the Gulf Stream flowing from Lakota Lake. A disused, arch-shaped old dam stands near the mouth of Barnard Brook, behind which extremely shallow water flows atop some ten feet of accumulated silt.

The Ottauquechee meanders through the picturesque farmland of Billings Farm and Museum. Running next to River Road for several miles, we reach the hydroelectric dam and double-arched covered bridge at Taftsville, which spans 189 feet—the second of six dams along the mainstem Ottauquechee.

Quechee is your next stop. With broad sweeping curves the river flows through the Quechee Lakes development, consisting of over 2,000 residential units on some 6,000 acres—about one fifth of the Town of Hartford’s land area. This valley is a patchwork quilt of rolling hills and farmland punctuated with dwellings and recreational facilities, including two golf courses. In town, the river plummets over another hydroelectric dam, the Quechee Mills Dam, at Simon Pearce Glassworks and Restaurant. Here, in the mid- to late 1800s, a 6-storey grist mill and woolen factory produced some of the country’s finest baby flannel.

Shooting under a covered bridge and through a rugged 400-foot long bedrock ravine, the river eventually veers to the south, forms a lake, and drops over yet another hydroelectric dam at Dewey’s Mills. In the late 19th century a massive woolen mill stood here that employed nearly 500 people.

Surficial geology deposits reveal that more than 100,000 years ago, prior to the most recent glaciation, this stretch of the Ottauquechee River flowed about one mile further east of its present-day course. At the height of the most recent glacial period, a natural dam formed in the vicinity of Rocky Hill, Connecticut that created a 200-mile-long lake that reached northward to Bloomfield, Vermont. Locally, this body of water, known as Glacial Lake Hitchcock, backed up as far as Billings Farm in Woodstock. As the glacier melted and the natural dam in Rocky Hill was breached, Glacial Lake Hitchcock gradually drained and the Ottauquechee River emptied into an arm of the lake. As the lake level continued to fall, a bedrock ridge situated some 650 feet northeast of the east end of today’s Quechee Gorge bridge blocked the river from flowing along its pre-glacial course and directed it along its current route that now passes the historic site at Dewey’s Mills.

Over the next 13,000 years the river cut down into the bedrock schist and formed Vermont’s most spectacular gorge. Today the river flows 165 feet beneath the bridge where Route 4 crosses Quechee Gorge, which is listed in the Vermont Fragile Areas Registry to due its grandeur, geological significance and home for two scarce ferns and a rare ground beetle. The inaccessible, nearly vertical cliffsides harbor several acres of old-growth forest, including northern hardwoods, Eastern hemlock and white pine.

Each year, more than 100,000 visitors come to the Quechee Gorge State Park Visitor Center; a fraction of the several hundred thousand visitors from around the world who walk the bridge and peer wide-eyed into the chasm. Amid the clicks of camera shutters and cell phones, a visitor from the Big Apple exclaims, “Nature is beautiful.” An elderly gentleman from Alabama confesses, “I’ve been here many times before, and I’m sure I’ve taken these same pictures.”

Leaving Quechee Gorge, the river resumes an easterly course and, in a few miles, reaches the floodwater control dam in North Hartland where a fourth hydroelectric generating facility is located. Upstream from the dam is the North Hartland Lake Recreation Area—a popular spot for swimming, fishing and boating that the State of Vermont leases from the Army Corps of Engineers.

After roaring through the channel below the dam, the Ottauquechee flows under Route 5, where there was once another dam. It turns southward beneath Route I-91 and cascades over a pair of dams and waterfalls traversed by the pair of Willard Covered Bridges. Originally built in 1870, the western bridge was destroyed by the Hurricane of 1938 and replaced by a concrete and steel structure until a new covered bridge was finally built in 2001. Prior to the early 1900s, this was the site of a major industry dependent on the water-powered Ottauquechee Woolen Mill.

The river then flows under a railroad bridge. On approaching the mouth of the Ottauquechee, where it joins with the Connecticut River, you forget the bordering roads and houses and become immersed in your surroundings. This peaceful confluence of the two rivers marks the end of your journey. From the upland wilds of the Green Mountains to bucolic North Hartland, the giving waters of the Ottauquechee River and its tributaries are a vital resource supporting the ecological, recreational, economic and aesthetic well-being of the Upper Valley. The river is lifeblood and home for the natural and human communities that inhabit the expansive Ottauquechee Watershed.

Michael J. Caduto is a writer, ecologist, and storyteller in Reading, Vermont. His books include Pond and Brook: A Guide to Nature in Freshwater Environments. www.p-e-a-c-e.net


Learn more about our Vermont Standard articles.