The Broken Tower

Winooski is a brawny old mill town built intentionally on a series of cascades on it’s namesake river that would power the woolen mills that built the city, and a prevalent French Canadian populace that affixed their surnames to street signs and brought down francophone media from Quebec. The textile mills both lifted the city up, and then let it fall when the industry went bust. The flood of 1927 was particularly harsh to business, when swells of rapid brownish watery destruction decimated most of the buildings along the riverfront. The mills never recovered fully, and went from the state’s largest employer, to limping along rather awkwardly until 1954 when they shuttered for good after they no longer landed government contracts when new synthetic fibers became the future.

The town was bruised for decades afterwards underneath economic blight, higher rates of poverty, and a humbling lack of identity. In the late 1970s, the one square mile burb made news when it ambitiously decided it was going to build a glass dome over the city to keep down the costs of heating prices in the winter, and partially for a publicity stunt inspired by a town meeting with lots of wine. That idea surprisingly almost happened, but was coffined in the 80s, when the Reagan administration came into power and decided that there were better things to spend money on.

A few more decades later, Winooski once again made headlines for another construction project; brazenly undertaking the largest downtown redevelopment project in state history, which simultaneously included the construction of a controversial rotary that was oddly blueprinted on a hill. It was intended to lessen traffic congestion where routes 2,7 and 15 met downtown, but instead confused and upset certain commuters and Winooski-ites, earning it the bad for business nickname “the circle of peril”. But their massive scale improvement project seemed to work, and years later, downtown Winooski has filled in with some of the best eateries in the Burlington area, a pretty enjoyable microbrewery and an awesome indie music festival which brings all sorts of converging artists into town.

Brawny industrial towns like Winooski have had their rises and falls, but if there is one good thing about old mill towns, is that their lasting impression comes in the form of admirable architecture. More precisely here, it’s spacious and handsome brick mills. Most of the old mill buildings have taken on new lives as very nice mixed office and apartment space, but a small vestige of Winooski’s raw and unrenovated industrial past can still be seen, if you know where to look.

Sulking behind the expansive brick edifice of the Woolen Mill, down in a recessed area of scraggly trees and the graveyards of stagnant mill ponds once formed by water entering through the low stone tunnels now being filled in by erosion, sits the crumbling remains of a brick tower.

 

These dangerous ruins were enigmatic to me, as I know practically nothing about early twentieth century mill operations, so with the help from my friend who was also the one who took  me here, a little research was done and was able to shed some light on what this tower once was.

Basically, there is a large intake pipe at the top of the tower. Using gravity, the water flows from the river to the top of the tower.It then is diverted downwards into a turbine where the rushing water turns a wheel before being used for power generation. This turning wheel would have been connected to a shaft that ran into the mill to turn and power the equipment. After 1930 however, the turbine would likely have been repurposed, so instead of using water to create mechanical energy to turn the actual machines, the machines began to use electricity  So the turbine would have been repurposed. Instead of turning a shaft and going into the mill, it turned a shaft that turned an electric generator and this power would have supplied the mill.  Or, something perhaps very similar to the diagram below. (If you are using this blog for any sort of essay information, I encourage you to find a more reputable source)

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Sure enough, there were the remnants of additional pipes and tunnels that formed a broken trail from this spot over to the bridge where the water levels were higher, making this a very plausible description of how this tower might have functioned.

But by looking at the crumbling, and rusted ruins today, they keep their secrets far from your presence, besides the strikingly obvious – this place is dangerous. The tower had made its mark on this part of the property since it’s construction, its shadow forever burning its impression into the wet ground around it, but a few more winters may finally bring this decrepit place down into the muddy recesses of the foul mill wastelands below it.

A surprisingly warm day for December 2nd in Vermont, I probably could have gotten away with just a flannel or a hoodie, but chose to bring a more protective layer just in case. And I’m glad I did. As we shambled over piles of soggy ground and driftwood to the arched entrance, the inside of the tower was noticeably colder – the air was dead inside. There would be no “safe” traveling, so much had fallen that we were constantly crawling over untold amounts of dirty bricks covered in slime and rust, underneath piles of the rotting wooden floors above that had long collapsed below.dsc_0209_pe

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Now this is where things became interesting. We climbed further inside the tower, and saw just what we were up against. Behind the massive bulk of debris infront of us, were very narrow crawl passages that hugged the dripping and filthy walls around the tower. To get inside any further, it would require us to squeeze through them. But to get there, we’d have to scale a 6 foot drop to a level below us, onto a series of rusted steel I beams that were glistening with ice, rust and slime. One wrong move, and a sprained ankle would be the least of your problems, as your body would tumble down into a dark rocky cavern beneath in a world where no one would hear your cries for help. Did we want to take this risk? Yes. So one by one, the both of us hoisted ourselves down the 6 foot drop, using the cold and dirty brick foundations as support, the bricks crumbling to dust in our hands.

Now this is where things became interesting. We climbed further inside the tower, and saw just what we were up against. Behind the massive bulk of debris in front of us, were very narrow crawl passages that hugged the dripping and filthy walls around the tower. To get inside any further, it would require us to squeeze through them. But to get there, we’d have to scale a 6 foot drop to a level below us, onto a series of rusted steel beams that were glistening with ice, rust and slime. One wrong move, and a sprained ankle would be the least of your problems, as your body would tumble down into a dark rocky cavern beneath in a world where no one would hear your cries for help. Did we want to take this risk? Yes. So one by one, the both of us hoisted ourselves down the 6-foot drop, using the cold and dirty brick foundations as support, the bricks crumbling to dust in our hands.

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At this point, our excitement had gotten the better of us, gawking at the incredible textures to photograph, the industrial gears frozen in rust and time as the shadows became wild. The inevitable and comic question of what the cold slimy substance our hands were touching was mentioned a few times, as well as how surprised we were that we hadn’t ran into any animals yet – these dark and cavernous ruins would make the perfect home for a mischievous creature.

Turning to the realization that we had spent an hour or longer (most definitely longer) inside a dank crumbling tower, and we were beginning to feel the effects. My hands were numb, and we were more than filthy. “I think it’s time we head out” I said. But it was then I realized exactly how much work we went through to get to our current position, and all that clambering and wedging through those tight damp spaces back to the entrance just didn’t excite me. “Think we can fit down there, and climb out that way?” I asked, pointing to the dark area below the steel beams that suspended us above the pit. Below us, was a crumbling shadowy world of filth and fallen bricks, with a tunnel type entrance out to the former mill pond. Going out that way would save us a lot of time, if we could make it. “We’re not 16 anymore” I jokingly called up to my friend – I am not nearly as limber as I was. Down there, it was so cold, icicles were forming on the pipes. “I’ll give you $5 if you eat one of those” my friend called above me. I declined the offer to fatten my wallet and made my way out. He soon followed.

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me

Self Portrait. Here, you can get a good idea of perspective, from where I climbed down and where my friend was standing.

It’s incredible to think about the ingenuity and complex systems behind how these mills harnessed the natural water power of the falls. Today all that remains of Winooski’s industrial legacy are the buildings, a few relics in a museum, and little else. The Winooski skyline as viewed from Burlington is a great picture and one of contrasts, the Champlain Mill and the new downtown symbolically rising next to it.

Nearby, on the rocky ledges of the Winooski River Gorge, there were a few more sites of interest, so before we wrapped up our adventure, we took a short ride from Downtown Winooski to Colchester.

The Walls

Years ago, you had to stumble your way along a riverbank of roots, swamps and thick northern jungle to reach this cool urban locality. Nowadays, there’s a path and a designated natural area that brings you here, which in a way is sort of a bummer.

The area underneath the interstate bridge that spans the Winooski River in Winooski city is colloquially called “the walls”, a youth minted term which is most likely a reference to the humongous concrete pylons supporting one of the busiest bridges in the state overhead. Those pillars are sprayed with some of the best graffiti and spray paint art in the state. In my humble opinion anyways. The robust and colorful artwork is always evolving, with some tags in seemingly difficult to reach places that conjure more questions and hint at the engines and the love of those who do their thing here.

I’ve met some local taggers down there before on a summers afternoon years ago. Most people you run into are friendly folk who will strike up a conversation with you. The other half are either people like me, or teenagers who are smoking swisher sweet cigars they got from the local Maplefields convenience store having fires along the beach areas. The area is a neat one, which is undoubtedly why it draws so many eclectic folks. It’s isolated and a bit of an inconvenience to get to, with thick vegetation, sandy river bottom beaches and the gradual limestone rises of the Winooski gorge giving it a dislocated feel from the pulse of Burlington, but never too far from the hum of the highway.

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There is an abandoned hydroelectric station amongst the ledges and evergreen forests of the gorge walls, but as we found out, access is almost impossible, and unless you want to risk a security encounter and some torn clothes as a result of climbing a very sturdy fortified fence. As I later found out from someone, if we had dared to climb down into there ruins, we would have been met with several feet of rapid flowing river water and foul mud that now flows freely through the complex. In this case, it was best just to admire it from a distance.

An area landmark, and a cool one at that, a double railroad trestle bridge spanning the turbulent waters of the Winooski Gorge.

An area landmark, the double truss railroad bridge spanning over a ledgy oxbow river bend in the Winooski Gorge. Locals mistake this impressive feat of engineering as a haunted trestle, where a little girl was struck and killed by a train in the 60s. But that’s actually another truss bridge down the river a ways, crossing into Burlington’s intervale. It’s called “the blue bridge” because according to legend, the girl’s ghost hangs around the bridge and is a pale blue, like an oxygen deprived corpse. If the real blue bridge wasn’t weird enough, I’ve heard tons of stories of sketchy characters who hang out on the bridge. I once ran into a young couple (I assume) dressed in dollar store magician and assistant costume, with top hat and plastic wand, sitting in the middle of the train bridge and quarreling. I’ve seen them 2 additional times afterward. That’s an old ghost story though, not one I think many younger Winooskians are aware of nowadays. It’s easy to see why the double truss bridge would be the assumed monument to tragedy, given its striking location and unique construction. Just make sure you’re not eligible for a statistic if you decide to walk the tracks.

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9 Comments on “The Broken Tower

  1. Whoa! What an adventure! I loved the depiction of where you went…I could smell and feel the atmosphere quite well. And I enjoyed the bit of humor along with the history. As for the pics….really well done.

  2. Amazing collection of shots. I am slightly jealous of the experience 🙂 I’m afraid I would clamber the site for hours and hours, looking for that perfect capture, but you have provided plenty to satisfy and intrigue. Thanks for sharing, both words and photos.

  3. I’ve been down inside that abandoned hydroelectric station that you mention at the end of the post. I’d eyed the decrepit structure for years, from the vantage point of those fantastic railroad bridges that overlook it. It’s called Winooski Gorge #17, and it was built about 20 years before the still-in-use #18 hydro dam that is next to it on the south side of the gorge. Both were damaged by the 1927 flood, but #18 was rebuilt while #17 got shut down and left to rot. I have a feeling that #17’s basic dam design was already utterly obsolete by 1927 – it looks like a weird setup to my untrained eye.

    Anyway, a couple summers ago, over three expeditions from various approaches, I managed to access the top of the dam wall, the middle with the powerhouse & roof, and finally down inside the base of the dam. Once I worked up the courage to try the descent from the roof, it turned out to be perhaps 30 feet down on rusty steel and damp crumbling rock walls, in near-total darkness, with debris, foul water, and decades worth of mud at the bottom. It was a *terribly* stupid idea especially since I was alone, but thankfully I got back out with only some cuts and scrapes. I got a few nice photos out of it, which is good because I’m not trying that again.

    • Thanks for sharing Chris. I’ve seen that abandoned hydroelectric station in a few pictures on Flickr, and have heard a few stories of personal visits from people, so I’ve wanted to see it for a long time, but none of them warned be exactly how difficult it would be reaching it, or how dangerous it was. When we finally arrived, I realized how ill prepared we were, and with the dying sunlight, decided against the drop down. The new fence that they put up had razed edges, and would have probably sliced my hands to ribbons, before I made the descent down slippery cliff walls and through a canopy of dense pines. From what it sounds like, your approach was the approach we were thinking about taking at the last moment haha but after reading your comment, I’m glad we didn’t. It certainly would be a “no turning back” sort of idea if I followed through – but it seems like if you could make it down there in one piece, it would be a complete worth while place to explore. I’m glad you got some pictures! Maybe you can share them sometime if you feel inclined – I’d love to see them. Can you imagine the sheer power of the Winooski River waters going through the gorge during the flood? I can’t.

      • The top of the dam wall was easy – there was a spot where I could wade across about three feet of 1-foot-deep water to get to that rocky island. But I couldn’t get down to the main structures from there. To get to the lower portions, I had to clamber down from the south side of the railroad bridge and then down that steep, forested cliffside. At times when the river is low enough, there’s a slightly easier way but it still requires some climbing on the side of the gorge.

        I’d be happy to share the pics – I’ll send some links.

        Oh, and I saw what the Irene floodwaters were like in the gorge – what struck me is how LOUD it was. I think there were places where the sound got focused from bouncing off the gorge’s rocky walls, because it was really something.

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