When it comes to cooling summertime fun, most Vermonters seem to agree that Harriman Reservoir, also known as Lake Whitingham, is the ideal destination. This is the largest body of water in the state, measuring eight miles long and boasting 28 miles of coastline.
The shores of the reservoir are pristine and given over to nature. Wildlife sightings here include the American bald eagle and common loon, as well as other species.
Once a year, however, the water level is deliberately brought down, for ecological reasons. That’s when the strange artifacts will start to appear: stone walls, foundations, the remnants of various buildings. For Harriman Reservoir is host to a secret — the long-drowned town of Mountain Mills.
About 100 years ago, this was a bustling community, as the lumber trade was working at full vigor. The town of Somerset served as a logging beachhead into the southern Green Mountains. Old-growth spruce logs were driven down the Deerfield River, where they would end up in the sawmills of Mountain Mills.
By 1906, the lumber companies of the region recognized the need for better transportation facilities, to accommodate the increased demand. Accordingly, they devised a network of logging railroads that enabled them to reach 300 million feet of spruce and hardwood, and two million cords of spruce pulpwood.
They then laid down some 41 miles of track. Predictably, dozens of camps sprouted up around them, across Glastonbury, Stratton and Mount Pisgah. These were manned by French-Canadian immigrants and Abenaki Native Americans, for the most part.
Fed by all this industry, times were good in Mountain Mills. The Deerfield River wound lazily through the valley, feeding its fertile crops. In the late 19th century, the town harnessed the river’s power with the creation of Mountain Mills Pond, a holding spot for logs coming down from the Somerset Reservoir.
By 1912, the Mountain Mills settlement included a railroad station, a store, post office, a six-bed hospital, brick office building, boarding house, row housing and water tower. There was only a bit of a hiccup, when it was discovered that the town school was inadequate to accommodate the town’s 52 students, and some of them had to be shipped over to neighboring Wilmington.
Those were wild and wooly days; local history tells of the numerous brothels in the area, where lumberjacks spent a large portion of their paychecks. Additionally, there are tales of overloaded logging trains losing their brakes on icy rails, the crew bailing out just in time as the train leapt its tracks and headed off into the woods.
By 1923, however, all of that would come to an end. That was when the New England Power Company began intensive hydroelectric development along the Deerfield River, encompassing its entire length in Vermont and Massachusetts. More than 1,500 men labored for a year to bring the new reservoir to fruition to provide electric power to the entire Northeast, including workers from Nova Scotia, Maine and Prince Edward Island. Additionally, other workers, including Austrian-Italians, Canadians and Native Americans, pitched in to make the project a reality.
The Harriman Dam and the south end of the lake is named after Henry J. Harriman, engineer for the New England Power Company. Not surprisingly, the entire reservoir was also to bear his name.
For the residents of Mountain Mills, the writing was very definitely on the wall. Three cemeteries were relocated, and 14 miles of highway discontinued. As the waters steadily rose, the remaining citizens took note of the situation, and gathered their belongings to flee, even as the flood began to lap at their doorsteps.
There was one last-ditch attempt to save the mill, as the town appealed to the New England Power Company to save their jobs. This was rebuffed in a letter by Harriman, published in the October 6th, 1922 edition of the Vermont Phoenix:
“The present pulp mill will be flowed out in little over a year and of course must be relocated before that time. As you know we are presently spending over $300,000 in the installation of a paper machine at Monroe Bridge. That mill, which was recently acquired by our interests, had all of the space required for a second machine and it seemed best to us to utilize the pulp now made at Mountain Mills.”
Harriman further proposed that the mill could remain where it was, provided the town of Wilmington provide the company with a 10-year exemption on the relocated mill.
Obviously, none of this happened, and the mill drowned with the rest of the town.
There is another artifact of this time that stands to this day. The Molly Stark Byway is a black tube that snakes through these woods along the Deerfield River. This wood-staved pipeline carries water from the Somerset Reservoir to the Searsburg Power Station, a small brick hydroelectric station, built in 1921 on the south bank of the Deerfield River near the Searsburg-Wilmington town line.
There is little trace of Mountain Mills today, and many vacationers who swim and kayak on these waters have little or no idea of the history that lies just beneath these waters.