New Town Picture Gallery 49: Bethel, Vermont

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VT Bethel Main Street 12

Beautiful Store Front on Main Street in Bethel, Vermont.

It has been a bit more quiet here than we had hoped in the past few months. We learned that we have a new addition to the family on the way and, needless to say, has been quite a distraction.

At the same time, we’ve developed a bit of cabin fever with all the snow we’ve been getting. This has allowed us time to format and upload some of the pictures we took over the summer. It’s also nice to remind ourselves that there really is a summer 🙂

This post also marks a significant milestone here at Northern New England Villages–our 50th town featured  in our town picture gallery!

Today’s featured town, Bethel, Vermont, was not even on our itinerary for the day. Somehow we got off of the route we were following and suddenly found ourselves in this picturesque town. So we jumped out of the car and took some pictures.

Picture of VT Bethel Bridge View 01

View of Bethel Mills Hydroelectric facility on the White River in Bethel, Vermont

We were particularly struck by how much of the village is built on a bluff overlooking the White River. Of course, the old mill building, called Bethel Mills, practically sits in the river and, amazingly, still produces electricity to this day. Here is a historical clip of their electricity producing past and future from their website:

Hydroelectric Since 1941

When Colonel Joel Marsh established Bethel Mills in 1781, he built his mill next to the waterfalls of the third branch of the White River, taking advantage of the water’s energy by building a log dam to power his saw and grist mills. Though the water offered its power freely, it occasionally wreaked havoc on the very mills that relied on it, and more than one owner was forced to rebuild after the destruction caused by flood waters. The most notorious washout of the mills was created by the Great Flood of 1927, when the saw mill and grist mill were destroyed along with the dam. Consequently, the river was both appreciated for its abundant gift of power and feared for its destructive potential.

Almost 160 years after Colonel Marsh first built his log dam, Raymond Durfee, a minority owner of Bethel Mills, had a new vision for harnessing the power of the river to supply electricity to the sawmill. His efforts began with a simple disagreement over the price that Central Vermont Public Service Company (CVPS) charged Bethel Mills for its electricity. CVPS was apparently unwilling to offer Ray the same electric rates it extended to other local saw mills, so Raymond decided to create electricity off the power grid and consequently built a small hydroelectric plant at his mill site in Bethel.

Raymond read manuals and books on the subject and engineered the plant using his own ingenuity and employees to build a concrete dam and powerhouse. Because the company could not afford new equipment, Raymond searched all over the northeast for used equipment to complete the project. The only affordable generator he could find was a General Electric unit built in 1888, which he bought for less than $500. The unit was affordable, but had a horizontal connection instead of the desired vertical shaft connection. Because of this constraint, he needed to engineer a system of belts and pulleys to make the system work. Raymond persevered despite the challenges, and by January of 1941 he was producing electricity at the mill. He produced so much electricity, in fact, that CVPS approached him with hat in hand to see if he would sell them his excess generation (an arrangement that still continues today).

In the mid-60s, Raymond’s son John took over the stewardship of the hydroelectric facilities. He was in the process of growing both the grain operation and the lumber and building material business and, over the next 30 years, upgraded the facilities as finances allowed. John replaced the old leaking wood penstock in the early 80s with a steel one, and added a second turbine in the late 80s to increase production and allow for more efficient use of the plant during times when the river was low. He added a mechanical rake to remove river debris for more consistent operation and updated the electrical equipment to comply with changing regulations.

In 1996, John’s son Lang took over the day to day operations of Bethel Mills, and like his father and grandfather before him, is committed to responsible stewardship of the facility. This commitment was tested early in his ownership of the mill, when an electrical short in the old 1888 General Electric generator caused a devastating fire in the powerhouse that destroyed much of the facility and equipment. Faced with a decision to scrap, repair, or replace the hydroelectric facility, Lang and his father made the financially and emotionally difficult decision to modernize the antiquated, but very ingenious, system Ray had pieced together.
Within a year of the fire, a new generator was installed, the powerhouse was completely renovated, and new computerized equipment was integrated to help manage the facility.

Starting in the summer of 2010, an ambitious 3-year upgrade plan was set in motion, which included a fish passage system, a more efficient turbine, new dam gates, intake racks, a flashboard system, and new operating software. When the project is complete, Bethel Mills will have substantially increased its ability to produce local, green, renewable energy.

At the current selling rate of approximately three cents per kilowatt hour, the Bethel Mills site does not generate significant revenues from sales of its electricity, but it is a real testament of Yankee ingenuity, hard work, perseverance, and a genuine respect of Bethel Mills history.

Do explore their website more thoroughly as it weaves a fascinating tale of the local families and businesses that have made Vermont and all of Northern New England the special place that is today. Here is an article detailing the modernization improvements being made to the dam.

The New England Central Railroad also runs through the town. Amtrack’s Vermonter services runs on this line between St. Albans, New York City, and Washington, D.C., but does not stop in Bethel.

We hope you enjoy virtually exploring Bethel, Vermont and also hope that you will visit in person soon.

Picture of Vermont Town Map Bethel

Bethel, Vermont

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