The La Platte River: the reason Shelburne is here


Water power, the energy to operate the industry of the 18th century, was key to the choice of locations for new towns.

Ira Allen, youngest brother of Colonel Ethan Allen of Green Mountain Boys fame, came to Vermont in 1771. He was a Lieutenant in the Green Mountain Boys but his primary career was surveying and purchasing land ideal for manufacturing and business. In 1775, Ira sent Silas Hathway to survey the area we now know as Shelburne. The water power from Shelburne Falls made it a highly suitable site for an industrial settlement and Ira assumed ownership of large tracts of Shelburne land, especially land in the area of the falls.

The La Platte River takes its rise in the southeast part of Hinesburg, runs through the northeast corner of Charlotte, through Shelburne Falls into Shelburne Bay. It is about 15 miles long.

Historical writings give the river several names. The two most frequent are the “La Platte”, meaning ‘the river moves slowly’ and the other is “La Plotte”. This name is the result of an event when several hundred Indians entered the mouth of the river concealing their canoes under a line of willow trees while they headed eastward plundering. A group of settlers found the canoes and riddled them with holes. Then they hid themselves and waited for the Indians to return. The settlers attacked and the Indians ran to the canoes. As they reached the middle of the river the canoes filled with water. The Indians either drowned or were shot. Several arrow heads and bullets have been unearthed in this area.

The first dam was constructed in 1785, just two years after the Revolutionary War ended, and within a few years there were more dams along the river in the Shelburne Falls area, powering saw mills, grist mills, a forge, woolen mills and many more (We’ll talk about the industries in more detail in our next Living Our Legacy column).

The river was also important to the social and recreational lives of adults and children alike from those early years to today. In winter the frozen La Platte River was a busy place. The young people would skate down the river to Shelburne Bay and out on the lake. Sleighing parties drove up the Bay to Burlington and back to the Falls.

The La Platte River was part of my growing up on Harbor Road. We would go across the field, through the woods to the river to fish for bullpout. They were fierce looking with their horns but great fun to catch especially when I caught one bigger than the fish my brother Marvin caught. We also would ride our bikes to go perch fishing off the rocks at the mouth of the river where the boat access area is today. Fond kid memories growing up in the 1950’s.

The La Platte is still flowing to the Bay, so spend some time exploring and creating your own fond memories, from the view from the Falls Road bridge and the overlook at the viewing area in the town’s recently constructed La Platte nature park, to the fishing access at the river’s mouth.

Next month: Industry booms on the LaPlatte at Shelburne Falls.

Research and memories shared by Judy Frazer

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