What Really IS the "Upper Valley"?

A geographical region? An idea? Where is it? A little history too...

I moved to the Upper Valley from Connecticut in February 1984, and found out I was a "Flatlander".  Upon arriving here I was almost immediately made aware of the term, "Upper Valley".  It seemed like it had a lot to do with Hanover and Lebanon NH, and Norwich and Hartford VT, (or White River Junction).  As a recent graduate in geography, I was intrigued by the idea of the Upper Valley, as well as the geographic region that it seemed to encompass.  It was apparent, or at least seemed to be, that the valley referred to was the Connecticut River Valley.  So I wondered, shouldn't the Upper Valley really be north of here?  Isn't the Connecticut River the boundary between the states of Vermont and New Hampshire, and doesn't that extend to the Canadian border?  Shouldn't we be in the Middle Valley, or Upper Middle Valley, or Lower Upper Valley?  Somewhere along the line, someone coined the term "Upper Valley" to define this area where we live, basically a community that spans the Connecticut River, and includes parts of both New Hampshire and Vermont.   

1927 US Geological Survey map.  Note the lack of Interstates, the bridge from Wilder to West Lebanon NH, and the old road from Lewiston to Norwich.

     This whole area, along both sides of the Connecticut River, was settled by many people from Connecticut.  Look at some of the township names, which share place names with Connecticut, such as  Norwich, Hartford, Windsor and Lebanon.  In fact, in the late 1700's there was a movement to create a state called New Connecticut since residents on both sides of the river felt more connected to each other, and the local area, than either Vermont or New Hampshire. There was also a movement to annex the NH towns on the river to be part of Vermont.  Eventually around 1782, the CT River was deemed to be the official border between the states of NH and VT.  Technically the border is the west bank of the CT River.

Baker Library Tower, Dartmouth College, Hanover NH seen from Norwich VT, 3 PM, Jan 4, 2019

      In the early days, The Connecticut River was the most important route in the area for trade and transportation.  More trade was done with Springfield MA than with Boston, until roads and turnpikes were eventually cleared and built in the late 1700's into the 1800's, that created links with places like Concord NH and beyond.  In the 1840's the railroads finally came and changed the face of transportation and commerce for our area as well as other parts of our nation.  Similarly, in the mid-twentieth century, the Interstate Highways were developed. The introduction of quick travel on I-89 and I-91 may have added to the perceived size of the Upper Valley, as people became more mobile, and connected to the area by commuting from farther away.

view to NH from Norwich VT

But it was the Connecticut River that originally brought them here, with it's beauty and usefulness.  There were places along the river though, that could not be navigated due to the falls, and quick drops in elevation.  Eventually locks   were built to get boats past the falls.  Locally, the White River Falls, or Olcott Falls as it was later named after Mills Olcott, was a source of frustration until locks could be built.  Today those falls can't be seen due to the river being sixteen feet higher, on average, above the Wilder Dam, which was built in the late 1940's.  The log drives of the 1800's must have been something to see.  The last log drive on the Connecticut River was in 1915.

The White River or Oclott Falls at Wilder

     The river valley was an incredibly important place, and many people born here in the 18th and 19th century never ventured more than twenty miles or so from their place of birth and their home.  They had family and friends on both sides of the river and it was commonplace then, as today, that folks spent much of their time in both states. 

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      I came here 35 years ago for a job in digital mapping, and fell in love with the place and the people.  I've lived on both sides of the river, from Plainfield to Lyme to North Haverhill NH, and Sharon, Wilder and finally settled in Norwich VT by chance, or by the grace of God, almost thirty years ago. 

     This all brings me to this question:  Where does the Upper Valley begin and end?  Should it include Bradford, Wells River, Monroe and points north?  Should it include Claremont and Windsor, Springfield, Bellows Falls, Brattleboro?  I suppose it doesn't really matter.  Actually, I am glad there is no one, official definition.  If you live in Bethel, and work and shop in Lebanon, then you probably consider Bethel to be part of the Upper Valley.  If you live in Bethel, but work and shop in Randolph, you may not feel like you live in the Upper Valley.  Either opinion is perfectly valid, because the Upper Valley is as much a concept as a geographical region, even though the geography of the area, (physical, cultural, and historical), has to do with the coining of the term.

In 1985 I moved from Meriden NH to North Haverhill NH, about 50 miles north.  I worked in Littleton for a few months and definitely felt that I was NOT connected to the Upper Valley, (and I missed that!)  My housemates and I even called North Haverhill "North Hinterland" because we were so far away from what we considered to be the Upper Valley.  After a few months, I found myself working in White River Junction, and even though it was about a 45 mile commute, I again felt I was part of the Upper Valley.  Shortly after that I moved to Lebanon to be closer to work, and I felt even more ensconced in "Upper Valleyness". 

The old farmhouse where I lived in North Haverhill NH back in 1985-87.  It was built around 1830, but was torn down, unfortunately, a few years ago.  A beautiful old post and beam home.

      At some point I was told that to be a "native" Vermonter, you had to be at least third generation born in Vermont.  I guess it takes three generations to get most of the flatlanderness out of the genes.  My favorite quip was from an elderly gentleman  that said If you were born in Vermont, that doesn't make you a Vermonter because: "If the cat has kittens in the oven, that doesn't make them biscuits!".

I also fell in love with the local humor!

I'm Bob Totz, retired postmaster, former choir director, graduate of UConn with a Bachelor's degree in Geography, and a composer and performer of folk songs with guitar and harmonica.

If you like this post, please check out  Old Roads, Rivers and Rails on Dailyuv.com by clicking the avatar at the top, or subscribe to my blog posts.  Thanks for reading!

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