Support Article 8 in Rockingham
Editor of the Reformer:
Article 8 of the Town of Rockingham's February 29th annual meeting warning asks the voters to approve raising the sum of $100,000 to demolish two brick structures known as "the TLR buildings." I am writing to express support for the article.
In 1994, I was part of a three-member team that evaluated the structural integrity and historic significance of the buildings. The buildings were largely derelict but retained an enormous century-old papermaking machine. In a basement stood a long, curving, 7-foot-high stone wall, a survivor from the Bellows Falls Canal, constructed from 1792-1802.
In 1999, I became Rockingham's historic preservation coordinator. From 2002-2008, I was the Town's community development director. Since 1994, until now, I have advocated for the TLR buildings to become some kind of museum to interpret papermaking, the canal, and Connecticut River valley history and culture.
In Bellows Falls back then, it was a time of great aspirations, great achievements, and great possibilities. The renovation of the Exner and Howard blocks created affordable housing downtown and put thousands of square feet of first-floor commercial space back in use. The renovation of the Town Hall opened up the theater for live shows. The creation of the Connecticut River Scenic Byway – and the construction of a unique Waypoint Center on the Island – seemed to herald a new boom in regional tourism.
Since then, the EPA cleaned up the TLR site, demolishing most of the buildings and removing the paper machine. Since then, the recession of 2008 has sobered developers and dried up both private capital and grant sources. Low-hanging federal earmarks are a thing of the past. The Scenic Byway collapsed and now lies dormant. The two remaining buildings are in worse condition than they were and their access issues remain insurmountable.
The Bellows Falls Canal Company is said to be the first canal company chartered in the country. By the time the canal was completed, in 1802, it was the third canal on the Connecticut between here and Long Island Sound. Eight locks lifted and lowered boats some 55 feet in elevation, avoiding the un-navigable half-mile-long gorge of the river. Of those earlier canals on the Connecticut in South Hadley and Turners Falls, nothing original remains. In Bellows Falls, you can stand right where the water flowed 200 years ago.
The two brick structures the Town hopes to remove are indeed listed on the Bellows Falls Downtown National Register Historic District. But their continued existence prevents the canal space from being opened to the public and being passively interpreted in a way that would surpass anything that could be accomplished, at much greater expense, by trying to save the buildings and then continuing to wait for Tinker Bell.
In my opinion, the historic significance of that canal remnant trumps the historic significance of the buildings above and next to the canal. There are other old brick paper mills in Bellows Falls, but only one canal.
Historic preservation without a stiff dose of pragmatism is an empty, idealistic posture. I hope the voters of Rockingham take this positive step toward bringing back to view one of the unique attributes that make Bellows Falls a remarkable place.
For an example of what is possible, look to the remnants of the old Erie Canal along the Mohawk River. There, old stone and wood structures have been stabilized and surrounded with grassy picnic areas. Their history is told in plaques and interpretive panels. That's the kind of story – of water, gravity and time – that this site should be telling.
Richard Ewald Westminster, Feb. 21