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Bellows Falls: Not Vermont's Prom Queen but Does Have its Own Special Beauty

Downtown Bellows Falls, Vermont

Dowtown Bellows Falls, Vermont.

by Eric Hurwitz. Article updated on 11/30/16

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  On a recent trip to Vermont, I had the chance to tour picture-perfect, classic village green towns that frequently show up in travel magazines and television shows. Been there, done that, love it immensely -- so, I thought, how about about visiting the Vermont that's on "the other side of the tracks?"

Bellows Falls, a southern Vermont working class village in the Town of Rockingham (bordering New Hampshire), is best known as a former mill town with a well-known canal and railroad presence (the Bellows Falls Train Station), and as hometown of baseball hall of famer Carlton Fisk.

The village has never been Vermont's prom queen, but Bellows Falls has graduated with honors in finding ways to restore some blight that had marred this close-knit community for years. The Great Falls Regional Chamber of Commerce (GFRCC), The Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance and various community and local and state appointed and elected officials have, together, clearly worked together with a vision to help create an appealing downtown district and community, in general.

Roger Riccio, executive director of the GFRCC, president of the village, and owner of the River Mist Bed and Breakfast at 7 Burt St., is excited about the village's progress and reinventing itself into a "destination."

"We're definitely 'real,' and also forgotten," said Riccio. "We're not the (Vermont) destination that people have in mind. People think that Vermont doesn't begin until you get to Rutland.  But once people discover we are here, they are very enchanted by it."

The hard-work has resulted in increased tourism, a walkable area with most storefronts filled, the emergence of an arts scene led by the opening of the Bellows Falls Opera House (at "The Square" in the heart of the village), a fascinating variety of revitalized industrial-age brick buildings, aesthetically pleasing landscaping, old-fashioned street lighting, appealing retail signage and colorful community flags. Add the village's innate appeal with the historical Town Hall Tower (the Opera House actually occupies the first floor) and Connecticut River presence and you have a destination that is an endearing mix of gentrification and imperfections. The Bellows Falls Train Station remains and adds to the small-town charm. The Green Mountain Flyer excursion train, runs daily from the Bellows Falls train station, and features scenic seasonal and holiday rides to beautiful Chester, Vt.  Amtrak and the Connecticut River Transit (linking Bellows Falls with other Vermont communities) also run out of the Bellows Falls Train Station.  Bellows Falls can also boast the oldest chartered canal in the United States -- the canal is still utilized today as part of a hydro-electric generating facility. Just north of the downtown, on Route 5, showcases some wonderful old Victorian homes along the Connecticut River, reminding us about Bellows Falls in its glory days -- and how very special sections of this village remain today.

"We've had revitalization over the past 10 years," said Riccio. "We keep moving forward and trying to reinvest. This is a community that comes together to make things happen. Not everyone agrees on the same thing, but we agree that we have to move forward. The better we make our community, the better off we'll be as a whole."

The aforementioned Opera House -- with live events and movies -- has really put Bellows Falls on the map with its $3.7 million renovation that includes:
State-of-the-art movie, sound, rigging and lighting equipment
A full-height fly-space with rigging grid and catwalk
A total of 553 fixed seats ~ 372 on the main floor and 181 in the balcony
A greenroom with several dressing rooms

With trip-back-in-time stores like Village Square Booksellers (at 32 Village Square), J & H Hardware (20 Village Square) and restaurants like the historic 1920s-built Bellows Falls Diner (90 Rockingham St.), and the Pretzel Bakery/Cafe (24 Rockingham St.), Bellows Falls seems to be making a grand comeback -- much like nearby Brattleboro.

Many years ago, Brattleboro was rather gritty, too,  but its downtown is now vibrant and artsy with lots of shopping, cultural and restaurant options.  Bellows Falls is, no doubt, headed in a similar positive direction, too -- with future vision, effort and funding deciding its ultimate downtown outcome. For now, however, Bellows Falls is "on track" for a community that, not too long ago, seemed to be riding down the wrong side of the tracks. It's an interesting, atypical Vermont community, most definitely, well worth a visit for those in search of "real" places.

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