Today, the Winooski River plays an important role in the areas of hydropower, waste water disposal, farming and recreation. Agricultural land use has evolved from original extensive practice (fallow period) by the Indians to today' s intensive farming (labor intensive). One aspect of the river that has yet to change is its intrinsic beauty and its value to those who use the Winooski for recreation and leisure.
The watershed area of the Winooski River covers 1,080 square miles and comprises nearly all of Washington County, half of Chittenden County and parts of four other counties. Starting at the head of the Winooski, the principal communities are: Cabot, Marshfield, Plainfield, Barre, Berlin, East Montpelier, Montpelier, Middlesex, Moretown, Duxbury, Waterbury, Bolton, Jonesville, Richmond, Jericho, Essex, Essex Junction, Williston, Winooski, South Burlington, Colchester and Burlington--a length of 90 miles. The river and tributaries from the head to Montpelier are mostly narrow and steep with heavily timbered valleys. Beyond Montpelier the river has a relatively consistent gradient with fertile open land well suited for cultivation except for a few steep gorges. The Middlesex, Bolton and Winooski gorges facilitate the harnessing of hydropower and have attracted mills and the development of towns dating to the late 1700s.
The river has seven major tributaries: Waterbury (Little) River, North (Worcester) Branch and Kingsbury Branch enter from the north and the Huntington River, Mad River, Dog River and Stevens Branch enter from the south. The Winooski River has played a key part in the development of many of the towns and cities on the river, where hydropower from the mills produced basic necessities such as lumber and flour. Subsequent mills, in addition to lumber and flour, produced paper, refined cotton and wool. In the 1880s, many mills started to produce electrical power as a secondary source of income. Eventually many of the mills were converted entirely to hydropower.
Mills and Textiles
The first mills on the Winooski were two saw mills powered by timber crib dams built by Ira Allen in 1786. The two mills and others that were later built in Winooski were periodically flooded. Mills followed in Montpelier, Middlesex and later in Richmond, Bolton and other towns. The timber industry experienced a decline in the early 1800s due to over-harvesting of the forest. This deforestation and subsequent runoff contributed to flooding of the Winooski.
Growth in the emerging textile industry promoted the revitalization and replacement of many existing structures with larger mills capable of greater output. A cotton mill was established in Montpelier in 1810 and a woolen mill opened on the North Branch in 1820. In 1835 the Burlington Mill Company was organized. The success of this new industry was reflected in statistics recorded in 1840: Merino sheep imported from Portugal numbered 1.7 million, a six-to-one ratio over the human population of the state. The Colchester mill, built in 1888 and the third in the Woolen Mill complex, manufactured cotton and merino hosiery yarns and now houses the Woolen Mill Apartments. The Champlain Mill was built in 1912 and produced worsted dress goods and is now a revitalized shopping mall. Many of the original mills on the river were destroyed by fires and floods.
The Winooski River and its tributaries have been a major source of hydroelectric power for more than a century. Many mills produced power as a secondary income. In 1886 Standard Light and Power Company started producing hydroelectric power for local use in Montpelier. At about the same time Burlington Light and Manufacturing Company was also selling local hydroelectric power. Later hydroelectric projects included Bolton Falls built in 1899 and Station #19 built in 1917 in Essex Junction. In the 1920s many of the power companies were acquired by what is now Green Mountain Power. The Winooski River and its tributaries are the state's second largest hydroelectric source with a total of 15 hydroelectric sites of which eleven are now in use.