Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Along the Muddy but Fair Otter Creek

If it weren’t for Otter Creek, you wouldn’t be reading this.

In fact, Middlebury wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for Otter Creek.

Those of us who live here might well have found our way to another beautiful part of Vermont. But likely not Addison County, given how so much of the region’s human history and habitation are tied to the misnamed river – it’s not a creek -- that runs through it.

The First People, or Native Americans, called it Wanakake-Took (Otter Creek) or Pecouktook (Crooked River).

Fortunately for chambers of commerce to come, the original European invaders didn’t translate that as the less-poetic Crooked Creek.

Crooked it was. But it was also, in the absence of roads, for many years the only way into the interior from Lake Champlain. And for settlers coming up from Connecticut, it was the only way to the lake.

Where the Otter ends its 70-some-mile northward journey, draining more than 1,000 square miles and flowing into Lake Champlain, the British and American naval forces fought a crucial battle in 1814 that focused on Fort Cassin at the rivermouth.

It was a much quieter aftermath the followed the wars that had crossed Otter land until then. The violence faded as American dominance supplanted the natives, the English and the French.

Today, casual visitors and many longtime residents alike think of the creek primarily because of its picturesque waterfalls in Middlebury and Vergennes.

For most of the 19th century, the two towns and their water-driven mills vied for local pre-eminence.

Vergennes had water access to Lake Champlain, making it a key trading town supplemented by mills. Four of the first five steamboats to ply the lake were built in Vergennes, according to James E. Petersen’s 1990 book, Otter Creek: The Indian Road, from which I have drawn most of the historical notes here.

When the mountainous fields and grazing lands were played out in the 1830s and later, many a young Addison County man left his home territory on a packet boat out of Vergennes, headed five days west on the canals to Buffalo and even farther west from there, seeking a new life unbounded by green mountains.

Those young men left behind them a county whose signature waterway remained the one that had carried them away. The Otter proved to be enough, along with the farms and timberland around it, to sustain a good-enough life here.

Not so good that the place got overrun, though,

“Its waters are muddy. Its bottom is muddier and in places it is no more than 10 feet deep,” Petersen writes. “It’s sluggish and ready to spring its banks at the slightest provocation. And this is what has saved it from civilization.”

The irony is that for nearly all of the last century, civilization itself turned away from the Otter.

Because of the growth of the railroads, the decline of the mills and the growing availability of coal and oil, the Otter was no longer needed for travel or power.

In Vergennes, the center of town moved up the hill along what is now Route 22A. In Middlebury, Joseph Battell built a downtown block that seems, even today, to almost deliberately turn its back to the river, shunning the watercourse as if it weren’t worth a second thought.

This neglect continued through most of the 20th century. The mill buildings of Vergennes and Middlebury, once the very reason these places existed, fell into ruin.

Except for hydropower facilities – four of them in four miles below Middlebury’s downtown falls – the river had essentially lost all its once-vigorous utility.

It wasn’t until 1989, with the construction of the pedestrian bridge over Otter Creek connecting downtown with the Marbleworks, that the shire town began to reclaim its riverfront.

That reclamation continues. The park area of the Marbleworks hosts the twice-weekly farmers market that overlooks the creek, its view now enhanced by recent brushclearing.

Plans call for further development of that area to take better advantage of the view – which on a good day might include a fly fisherman casting for browns below the falls, or even a kayaker plunging over the falls themselves.

Most noticeably today, the creek is finally being bridged by a second span in downtown Middlebury. The booming of bridge construction resounds through town. It must make for some pretty interesting lunchtime conversations at the nearby Mr. Ups.

But I’d say that the real pleasures of Otter Creek, beyond its every-mesmerizing waterfalls, are quiet ones.

I’ve come to see this thanks to my recent move to the upstairs of a converted shop building in Middlebury right on the banks of Otter Creek.

To the north I can see the restored span of Pulp Mill Bridge, completed by the Waltham Turnpike Company in 1820 and restored in 1980. Beyond the covered bridge, the falls simmer in the breeze from the north.

Beavers and otters, Canada geese and Mallards ply the banks. Occasionally from across the way in the wonderful new Otter View Park, a wary deer will come down to the bank to drink.

In 1881, Henry Ripley Doerr read his poem at a celebration commemorating what was billed as a centennial celebration of Otter Creek. Most of the 28 stanzas have been lost, but this description remains:

O, valley of the Otter, fair
As eyes have ever seen
With clustered hamlets, mighty peaks
And hills of emerald green

In that valley, from the deck where I’m writing this overlooking the fair Otter, I can see upstream to the new viewing deck on the riverbank. Beyond there lies the top of the spire of Mead Chapel, at Middlebury College.

I first came to that campus in 1969. Looking upstream from my new home, I can measure how far I’ve come during the past four decades.

I calculate it in river terms, as the First People did: about a half-mile downstream along the Wanakake-took.

- 30 -


Blogger Rosemary Carstens said...

Greg, this is a lovely meditation. You make me see it my mind's eye and I've never even BEEN to Vermont. I see you continue to write as beautifully as ever. I'd like to catch up and my last email plus a link to FEAST (http://www.FEASTofBooks.com ) just was returned and it's the only email address I had for you. If you don't still have my email address, you can reach me through the zine. Rosemary

5:19 PM  
Blogger stevew said...

Greg, two Midd grads just tumbled across you posts and we like this very much. '71 for me, perhaps we crossed paths. I just read this aloud to a (blind) class of '45 grad and she told me that I must write our thanks for your descriptions, right now :)

We'll stop back by.

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