BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. — Ever wonder what lies under the current of the Connecticut River? Well, underwater explorer Annette Spaulding knows from first-hand experience, and now she is sharing her experience and findings with the community.
At a fundraiser for the restoration of the historic Grist Mill building on Thursday, Spaulding showed area residents a trove of historical artifacts nestled within the Connecticut River from remnants of the region’s early industrial age to the glacial sediments that formed the landscape in newly released video footage.
This collection of photography and videography was gathered during her summer of underwater exploration in the Connecticut River south of the Vilas Bridge.
“This summer was the best visibility I have had in 38 years,” Spaulding said. “I just wanted to show people what our wonderful river looks like.”
During the recent summer, Spaulding spent 300 total hours in the Connecticut River, doing 187 dives and spending an average of five hours a day exploring the depths. Her areas of exploration included the river behind the former Grist Mill and below the Westminster-Walpole Bridge.
The fundraiser, held at the Bellows Falls Opera House, included a one-hour presentation by Spaulding and a 30-minute geological and historical overview by local archaeologist Gail Golec of Walpole, N.H.
Below the falls, a combination of lower river levels and water clarity enabled Spaulding to uncover lost artifacts dating back to the mid-1800s. One in particular was a massive structure whose top was faintly visible from land.
Diving under to explore it, Spaulding found a mystery.
The structure itself was nothing recognizable to her. She discovered a cold spring underneath it that made the surrounding water 30 degrees colder than at the surface. The huge wooden structure was surrounded by sand, gravel and “enough brick to recycle and build 20 mansions,” Spaulding said.
She brought her images to Bellows Falls historian Larry Clark, who matched them to a mid-1800s drawing of a pier-like structure that docked steamboats. She said they believe the pier was part of the first lock of the canal, prior to 1848.
The area is still a popular fishing spot, though Spaulding showed the river’s jagged bottom of rocks to show why so many lures get caught in them.
“There is lots of bass, lots of pike and lots of trout, but lots of rocks, which is why I find so many fishing lures caught in them,” Spaulding said.
Some of her findings, like a couple of large pulp mill stones, are currently on public display on the historic walk in Bellows Falls Riverfront Park. Spaulding received help from some friends to pull the stones from the river with a crane.
“We all worked as a team for 45 minutes to get them out,” she said.
Below Westminster Bridge, the river depths exceed more than 50 feet. But the water visibility is so clear that Spaulding was able to make new discoveries in areas she had explored frequently in the past.
Among the mysterious objects in this stretch of river included horseshoes, an old cash register and two safes, one which Spaulding believes was a stolen safe from the former Abernaki Engine Company, which was robbed in the 1800s. Her exploration also found the door and the locking mechanism.
“No one ever knew what happened, or what was in that safe,” Spaulding said.
Another discovery this summer was glacial clay formation near the Vermont shore, which Spaulding discovered while exploring north of Westminster Bridge and south of The Island.
“You feel like you are on Mars,” she said. “It’s huge.”
The formation starts at the river floor, 52 feet underwater, and continues to 22 feet from the surface. It is comprised of jagged layers, each representing deposits of sediment from glacier runoff occurring over thousands of years.
In a 30-minute overview of the region’s geology and history, Golec explained that the land region was shaped from a 20,000-year-old glacial mass that receded, shunting melted water through the valley that the glacier had carved out.
For thousands of years, people were drawn to the region’s natural features. The Connecticut River and its connecting rivers, the Cold and Saxtons Rivers, provided a means of transportation and later, harnessing power. Centuries of erosion formed unique terraces, flat lands along the river with well-draining soil.
In her video footage, Spaulding showed several holes within the layers of sediment, which she believes could have been homes to small fish. Golec had told her that this formation may contain fossils of aquatic life.
Scientists often study fossils from these formations to learn what kinds of fish species existed during past periods of time, according to Golec.
Spaulding almost mentioned something else that she found in the glacial clay, but then stopped herself, saying that it is still being investigated.
“That will be in part two,” she told the audience.