1920's Central Vermont engine pulling passenger cars on an excursion through Northfield in 1972
Photograph from Picture Northfield, courtesy of Alan H. Weiss
At the time of the American Revolution, Vermont was not easily accessible. A few military roads and major waterways, such as the Connecticut River, Winooski River, and Lake Champlain, provided the best routes through the territory. In the early 18th century, small earthen roadways carried travelers by foot or horseback. Ox teams were used for hauling heavy or large loads overland, such as the Vermont granite used in the construction of the State Capitol. By the end of the 18th century, private individuals constructed several turnpikes, which greatly improved land transportation in the State, and enabled the establishment of stagecoach lines. Many sites on our tour were constructed during this period of slow growth when small communities were established close to waterways, with access to both water and land transportation routes. This settlement pattern was seen throughout the county during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Commercial shipping ports developed along Lake Champlain, connecting with the Champlain Canal and the Hudson River on the western side of the State. The Connecticut River, Vermont's eastern boundary, was also a major water route. Though never built, there was serious discussion of a canal route, connecting Lake Champlain with the St. Lawrence River to the north, which leads out to sea. Washington County was able to connect to these major shipping routes by the Winooski, Mad and Dog Rivers. While shipping remains an important element of Vermont's transportation infrastructure even today, it has almost always been supplemented by other means. During the first half of the 19th century, the stagecoach was the primary overland method for exchange of information, smaller goods, and frequently personal travel. Sites such as Kent's Corner and the Warren House Hotel, former stagecoach stops, reflect this era of Vermont's transportation history.

In the mid-19th century change was on the horizon. The coming of the railroad and telegraph lines to Vermont vastly improved the exchange of information and the transportation system. The railroad quickly became the preferred method for transport of passengers, raw materials, and manufactured goods. Like communities all around the country, rail transit resulted in the vast expansion of trade. Ground was broken in 1846 for the Vermont Central, the State's first railroad, at its headquarters in Northfield. Northfield was a small village which had previously relied on the nearby Dog River for transportation. The State's first line was actually a portion of the main route from Boston to the Great Lakes, and extended through the center of Vermont, and Washington County. Passenger train service started in 1848, and Northfield prospered until 1860, when the company moved its headquarter to St. Albans. However, the Central Vermont Rail Depot remained and became the lifeline of the town once again at the end of the 19th century, when Northfield's booming granite industry relied on the rails to ship their products.

In Vermont, like many other States, the arrival of the railroad directly influenced the transition of small villages to thriving towns and cities with expanded industries, populations, commercial cores, and cultural institutions. The town of Barre is a typical example. Rail lines were connected there in 1875 and 1888, resulting in a major expansion of the local granite industry. Barre's quarries were finally able to transport large amounts of stone to distant markets, fostering the greatest population and economic boom in the city's history. Thousands of skilled and unskilled European immigrants arrived in Barre by rail, where their craftsmanship and labor were in demand. Barre's downtown commercial core expanded, as did the variety of cultural activities, typified in the Barre Opera House, and in the Socialist Labor Party Hall which served the working class Italian community.

Warren Covered Bridge
Photograph courtesy of the Mad River Valley Planning District

The general condition of Vermont's public highway system also began to improve throughout the nineteenth century. By mid-century, individual towns purchased most of the early private turnpikes, primarily in response to rising protests against their tolls. In 1820, a statewide program of covered bridge construction began on the State's public highways, one of the highlights in Vermont's transportation history. Covered bridges were roofed and enclosed to protect the wooden structural elements from the weather, which in Vermont can be quite harsh. This period of public bridge construction continued until 1904, and the bridges dating from this period are some of the State's most cherished resources. With over 100 remaining, Vermont has the greatest concentration of covered bridges in the country.

In the 20th century, Vermont's greatest natural disaster, the Flood of 1927 destroyed many bridges and miles of roadways throughout the State. In response to the damage, a major building program ensued, which vastly improved the general condition of the State's highways. Great improvements were made in American standardized bridge design as a result of the numerous bridges constructed in Vermont after the flood. The Middlesex-Winooski River Bridge is a typical example of a post-flood metal truss bridge that affected this type of bridge construction throughout the county.

1913 Ford Model T touring automobile
Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress, Hult.407 2028.407
Improved road conditions were especially important in the late 1920s, as the automobile had already firmly established itself as the newest and most improved method of travel in the State. The covered bridges and winding highways that had once carried horses and carriages, began carrying cars and trucks as Vermont, like the rest of the country, embraced the automobile and the ease of travel it provided. Furthermore, the development of the automobile and modern roadways facilitated the growth of tourism in Vermont, which has become a major factor in the state's economy over the last century.

Vermont History EssayAgriculture and Industry EssayVermont Landscapes EssayTransportation Essay


Itinerary Home | List of Sites | Main Map | Learn More


Comments or Questions