Burlington is located on the east shore of Lake Champlain. Lake Champlain is the sixth largest fresh water lake in North America right behind the five Great Lakes. The Lake Champlain basin was gouged out by the Laurentine shield glacier which retreated from the valley about 12,000 years ago. At one point Burlington was buried under over a mile of ice. When the glacial shield retreated the melting paused for almost 1,000 years just north of Burlington, acting as an ice dam with a fresh water lake forming in the Champlain valley with a surface approximately 600 feet above sea level. This lake was called Lake Vermont. Evidence of Lake Vermont can be found today in the Champlain valley in the form of beaches, particularly on the south side of manadnocks in the valley that were islands in Lake Vermont, such as Cobble Hill and Arrowhead Mountain in Milton and Mt. Philo State Park in Charlotte.
When the glacial shield finally retreated further north about 11,000 years ago this fresh water lake drained, but because the weight of the ice had depressed the land in this area below sea level, salt water rushed in to fill the Champlain valley. Salt water whale bones were unearthed in Charlotte from this period. Some say that’s how the legendary Loch Ness style sea monster we call Champ got into Lake Champlain. Slowly the earth in this area rebounded and the surface of the current fresh water Lake Champlain now varies between 92 and 103 feet above sea level. The deepest part of the lake is now 400 feet deep. Lake Champlain is 12 miles wide at its widest point at Burlington and over 120 miles long north to south. Eventually, if the earth rebounds enough the outlet of the Richelieu River at the north end of the lake may become high and dry and Lake Champlain may instead drain to the south down the Hudson River valley.
The area around Burlington has been inhabited by Native Americans for approximately 10,000 years since the shield glaciers retreated from this area. They were mostly peaceful hunter/gatherers judging from archaeological studies of former encampments. No distinct community of these people exits today. There are no reservations in our area although there are people of Abenaki descent living among us. Although the native Abenaki among us have been fully assimilated they still continue some aspects of their native culture. The State of Vermont has formally recognized the Abenaki as a Native American tribe but the federal government has not. The Abenaki have made no claim to native land here and we have no “Indian casinos” so far. Hopefully it will remain that way.
The first European to arrive in this area was the French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1609. Thus the lake is named in his honor. Interestingly, Champlain was also the first European to report a sighting of the lake monster we now call Champ. There are also accounts of Champ in Native American legend. But the Burlington area remained a remote wilderness during the early years of the American colonies. Prior to the Revolutionary War Vermont was claimed by both New Hampshire and New York. The first land grants in this area were made by New Hampshire Governor Benning Wentworth in 1763. The fist log cabin in this area was built on Appletree Point in 1773. But the Burlington area remained uninhabitable for American colonists throughout the Revolutionary War period due to the threat of raids by British gun boats from Montreal. After the Battle of Yorktown in 1782 and a treaty with the British establishing the border with Canada some 40 miles to the north, the Burlington area became safe for American colonists.
The hamlet of Burlington was established in 1783. There is some dispute as to how the city got its name but the most likely explanation is that it was named after the English Earl of Burlington. Most of the first settlers in this area were heroes of the American Revolution. Ethan and Ira Allen stand out but there were many others and two of the Lake Champlain Islands are named North Hero and South Hero in their honor.
Burlington quickly became the leading port for the entire area on Lake Champlain. Back in those days there were no roads or railroads connecting Burlington to the rest of the world. Lake Champlain was the superhighway of those times. Everything that came into or out of Burlington did so by water. Burlington flourished on commerce conducted on the lake. When the Champlain Canal was completed in 1823, connecting Lake Champlain to the Hudson River, that was like extending that water superhighway all the way to New York City. The Champlain Canal greatly reduced the cost of imported goods to the area and made several early Burlington merchants rich. When the Erie Canal opened in 1825 it extended that water superhighway all the way to the Great Lakes.
Schooner Captain Harvey Mayo and Burlington businessman, Timothy Follet, built the Stone Store at the first dock in Burlington called the Salt Dock in 1827. The Stone Store is the oldest remaining structure in Old Town Burlington today. It is a prominent feature on historical tours offered through Burlington Segways, the Historical Trolley, Queen City Ghostwalk, Burlington History Tours and Preservation Burlington.
Timothy Follet has an amazing life story that is also recounted on these tours due to his most enduring contribution to Burlington – the Follet House. Follet became rich on commerce conducted through the Stone Store which quickly became the first Vermont “Walmart” in our area, and in 1840 built the Greek revival home on College Street that survives to this day due to its meticulous restoration by the Pomerleau Real Estate Agency in 1980. Many consider the Follet House to be the most important architectural gem in Burlington today. It was the home of lavish social gatherings in Burlington for more than three decades, sort of the Gatsby house of the 1840s through the 1860s. But it fell into disrepair thereafter as more lavish homes were constructed in the hill area and the Burlington waterfront was transformed into a busy industrial center. The Follet House barely survived the wrecking ball of Burlington’s disastrous “urban renewal” of the 1960s and almost burned down the night before the Pomerleaus received it in 1980.
Another prominent Burlingtonian from this era was sailing boat captain Gideon King, who King Street is named after. Preservation Burlington has affixed a plaque to a brick house on King Street they attribute to Gideon King’s residence, but noted legal historian, Gary DeCarolis (Burlington History Tours) disputes that assertion. Burlington grew rapidly in the era before the Civil War and was finally incorporated as Vermont’s first City in 1865. The first mayor of Burlington, Albert Catlin, declared Burlington Vermont’s Queen City in a speech in June, 1865 and this nick name has persisted ever since.
Numerous docks and wharfs were built at Burlington and the city became the center of the logging industry as trees were cut from the Green Mountains and floated down the Winooski River to be milled on the Burlington waterfront. In those days the lake froze over almost every winter. It rarely freezes completely these days. But back then it was necessary to store a winter’s worth of lumber from the mills on the shore until the ice went out in the spring. In order to create more flat land to stack lumber the mills simply dumped the saw dust and trimmings from the logs into the Lake. Over a period of almost 150 years more than 40 acres of filled land was added to Burlington harbor. This becomes very important in the 1980s due to a little known concept of law called the Public Trust Doctrine. See Burlington Parks. In the 1870s Burlington was the third largest lumber port in the United States, behind only Chicago and Albany, New York.
Another prominent Burlingtonian emerged during this period by the name of Lawrence Barnes. Barnes built the first planing mills on the Burlington waterfront. Many others followed his example and built similar mills to take advantage of tariff laws at the time that taxed lumber from Canada but left whole logs tariff free. By that time the virgin forest of the Green Mountains had been stripped clean. Most of that forest was burned to create potash which was very valuable as an export product. So instead it was logs imported from Canada that made Burlington the third largest lumber port in the 1870s.
By the 1890s the lumber party was over and the railroads took over the industrial mess on the waterfront mostly sitting on filled land. Lawrence Barnes was history but for the elementary school named in his honor on North Street today. As the automobile became more popular in the twentieth century the railroads declined and oil storage tanks popped up along the Burlington waterfront. At one point there was a plan to bring supertankers onto Lake Champlain to supply these tanks. Fortunately the Lake Champlain Committee put the kibosh on that idea along with a proposal to build a nuclear power plant on the lake in Charlotte!
As the railroads declined, particularly after World War II, the Burlington waterfront descended into a derelict industrial wasteland. The Moran Electric Generating Station was constructed in 1954 and soon started belching thick black smoke and soot from burning coal. The city choked in coal smoke for years and a thick black residue often settled on cars and houses near the plant. Moran was converted to burning wood chips in 1977 as the Green Mountain forest rebounded and biomass fuel became cheaper and more prevalent, but the plant couldn’t keep up with environmental regulations and it was finally mothballed in 1986. The city replaced Moran with a new modern wood burning electric plant in the Intervale that was able to meet strict environmental standards in 1985. The McNeil Plant is still in operation today and supplies much of Burlington’s electric power. Together with a hydroelectric plant Burlington now derives almost 100% of the electricity used in the city from renewable sources.
By the 1970s the Burlington waterfront was a post industrial wasteland with oil storage tanks and mostly empty rail yards as far as they eye could see. The City Council could see that something needed to be done. They enacted ordinances and zoning rules that would phase out the oil storage tanks as they became fully depreciated. But the railroads were a bigger problem. Some of them had gone bankrupt in the 1960s but the ones that remained exerted a chokehold on the mostly filled in flat land in Burlington harbor and then decided to sell out to the highest bidder late in the 1970s and into the early 1980s. Of course the highest bidders were developers with deep pockets who then needed to make a profit by covering all that filled land with expensive hotels and condominiums. Ugh!
The first two mega-proposals for redevelopment of the Burlington waterfront with hotels and condominiums failed in the early 1980s. But the second proposal by the Pomerleau Real Estate Agency for twin 18 story condominium towers on the waterfront in the area that we now call the event space in Waterfront Park spawned the Citizens Waterfront Group and their proposal for a waterfront bike path instead. See The Burlington Bike Path.
The story of the third redevelopment proposal by the Alden Corporation in 1983 is recounted under Burlington Parks.
In the 1960s Burlington took federal redevelopment money and flattened about 250 older buildings in the center of downtown called Little Italy under an ill-conceived plan called “urban renewal”. Little Italy was the name of the Italian ethnic community in Burlington. These homes stood in the way of “progress” so the Italians were all evicted and their land was taken by eminent domain over their strenuous objection. The ethnic Italians were dispersed throughout the Burlington area and the wrecking balls and bulldozers quickly created a bunch of vacant lots in their place downtown. Although a two story shopping mall was built on a small portion of this “urban renewal” land, cutting off two important north/south streets in Burlington’s street grid, most of this “urban renewal” land sat vacant for over 30 years.
The Radisson Hotel (now the Hilton) was built on this land shortly after the demolition was complete and remained the only hotel downtown for over 30 years. Finally in the early part of the twenty first century, after the successful completion of the Bike Path, Waterfront Park and the Church Street Marketplace that led to a vast increase in demand for hotel rooms downtown, even though they rent for $100 more than similar rooms available at interstate exit motels, the remaining vacant lots downtown were filled with three new hotels: the Courtyard Marriott Burlington Harbor in 2009, Hotel Vermont in 2013 and Hilton Gardens in 2015. Burlington is currently in a hotel construction frenzy that will not likely be repeated for 200 to 300 years, if ever.
Finally, the old Moran generating station is about to be renovated into a new cultural arts center, mircro-brewery and glass blowing shop in a $33 million project called New Moran.