BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CITY OF VERGENNES
Although Vergennes was settled as early as 1766 when Donald McIntosh built a homestead on Comfort Hill overlooking the Otter Creek Falls, most of the inhabitants left the county during the period from 1766 to 1783 when boundary disputes with New York and the Revolutionary War made peaceful settlement impossible. After 1783 the population expanded rapidly, and by 1787 it was evident the falls, with its milling and shipping activities, was very different from the outlying agricultural communities. In 1788, residents of the three bordering towns agreed to give up a portion of their land to establish a separate village on the Otter Creek Falls. On September 19, 1788, Vergennes was incorporated as a city, the third in the new nation and the first in the state. Its name was suggested by Ethan Allen to honor the Comte de Vergennes, French minister of foreign affairs and negotiator of the Treaty of Paris.
Vergennes grew rapidly in the next decade and diversified its manufacturing and trading activities. Many townspeople worked producing and transporting lumber and potash. A bridge was built across the falls, and by 1789 there were fifty-four households in Vergennes. The Monkton Ironworks Company was established on the falls, and at its height, around 1812, the company had nine forges, blast and air furnaces, a rolling mill, and a wire factory. A tunnel in the west bank of the falls, used to funnel water from the falls to the ironworks, and a towpath along the Otter Creek are some of the archeological remains of the once active industry.
Vergennes, with its navigable creek, access to the lake, and skilled work force, figured prominently into the War of 1812. A marker designates the site of the shipyard where Commodore Thomas Macdonough commanded the building of a fleet to defend Lake Champlain against a British invasion. On December 21, 1813, Macdonough brought his fleet up the Otter Creek to Vergennes for winter quarters. The navy’s instructions to Macdonough were to increase the size of the fleet dramatically. Vergennes was host to forges, furnaces, sawmills and a rolling mill. A shipyard was also already in operation.
At Vergennes, shipwrights built six row galleys, the schooner Ticonderoga, the brig Eagle and the frigate Confiance which was 146’ stem to stern. The 26 gun, Saratoga was completed in 40 days. The British and American fleets met in Cumberland Bay on September 11, 1814. The two fleets were nearby matched in size and firepower. The battle raged for two hours and twenty minutes and the American fleet was victorious.
The Battle of Plattsburgh in 1814 was a decisive victory for American forces. Macdonough’s fleet prevailed on the lake, and Vermont militia (commanded by General Samuel Strong of Vergennes) and New York militia drove back British regulars from outside Plattsburgh back to Canada. The treaty of Ghent was signed on Christmas Eve of 1814. The defeat of the British on Lake Champlain was considered the decisive battle of the War of 1812 and the City of Vergennes and its townspeople who worked nonstop to build the gunboats deserve much credit for the efforts.
The embargo on British goods was lifted at the end of the war, and by 1816 the Monkton Ironworks could no longer compete with less expensive imported goods and it closed. The Lake Champlain Steamship Company, however, thrived. Chartered in 1813, the company built four lake steamers on the site of the Macdonough shipyard over the next ten years.
About 1824, a new era of prosperity began for Vergennes with the opening of the Champlain Canal, which connected Lake Champlain with the Hudson River and reinvigorated the lake trade to both Canada and New York City. Many sloops and steamships docked in the city, loading cargo from buildings adjacent to the shipyard.
Many local improvements followed the increase in trade and commerce. About 1830 residents constructed the East School on the newly christened School Street. In 1834 the city laid stone sidewalks and planted shade trees along its streets. The same year local Episcopalian’s erected the brick Gothic Revival style St. Paul’s Church next to the village green, and Congregationalists built a new brick church on Water Street. Methodists followed in 1841 with their brick church across from St. Paul’s. St. Peter’s Catholic Church was constructed on South Maple Street in 1874.
In the late 1840’s plans were underway for the construction of the Rutland and Burlington Railroad, scheduled to be completed in 1849. Also, competition between rival steamship companies was improving travel on the lake. In 1848 Hiram Adams, speculating on an increase in Lake Champlain tourists and new railroad travelers, built the Franklin House Hotel, complete with a third-floor ballroom, on Main Street opposite the green.
The combination of the lake trade and a rail connection continued to support Vergennes industry through the 1870’s. Industries that used lumber to produce consumer goods prospered since their raw materials could arrive and their products could be shipped by water or by rail. By 1871, carriage, sash and door, hub and spoke, horse nail, furniture, and excelsior factories operated at the falls, as well as a tannery, grist and saw mills and a city waterworks established in 1868. The city waterworks incorporated a Flander’s pump, the Vergennes pump is the only one extant in the country.
Along Main Street during this period new commercial building were constructed in the Italianate style. Three commercial building were remodeled and connected to form one continuous block of stores. Both the Stevens and Franklin hotels were remodeled in the Italianate style with rooftop belvederes from which the thriving city could be viewed.
By the 1880’s and 1890’ the lake trade had greatly declined, but Vergennes continued to serve as the commercial center for a large and flourishing agricultural region. In 1893 the Vergennes Electric Company began power generation at the falls, lighting the city streets. And looking forward to the new century, residents in 1897 built a grand new City Hall and Opera House, designed by architects Chappell and Smith of Rutland.
After 1900 Vergennes continued much as it had in the last decade of the nineteenth century, improving services for residents and the agricultural community. In 1911, the Burlington Traction Company, chartered to produce power for Burlington’s streetcar line, built a brick power house on the falls. In 1912, funds from the estate of William Gove Bixby financed construction of the Bixby Memorial Free Library, a grand neo-Classical Revival structure designed by New York City architect G. Frederick Frost.
The State of Vermont Reform School for Troubled Youth, a part of city life since it was relocated from Waterbury to Vergennes in 1875, underwent a significant expansion during this period. By 1900 the school was housed in three buildings, including the former U.S. Arsenal, with residents working a farm acquired in 1892. In 1907 the school began a major building program that added about a dozen new structures over the next fourteen years.
During the 1930’s, business in Vergennes, as in the rest of the country, declined, and many industries along the falls closed. Among those companies that survived, the L.F. Benton Company, a manufacturer of spark plugs founded in 1907, occupied the old site of the Hayes, Falardo and Parker buildings. In 1941, the company was acquired and became Simmonds Precision Products and today the business is a unit of UTC Aerospace.
Vergennes today retains much of its historical character. The rerouting in 1962 of U.S. Route 7, bypassing the downtown commercial area, has encouraged growth without destroying the fabric of the city. Almost the entire length of Main Street, including the residential, commercial, and former manufacturing centers, is recognized as an outstanding example of town development and listed as an historic district in the National Register of Historic Places. In addition, the traditional residential area south of the business district and West Main Street are listed as historic residential districts in the State Register of Historic Places.
Vergennes residents have always recognized the value of this heritage and in the late 1990’s a Main Street revitalization effort was undertaken. The formation of the Friends of the Vergennes Opera House and the subsequent restoration of the 1897 Opera House was catalyst for public and private investment. In 1999, the Vergennes Partnership, a non-profit downtown organization was incorporated, with a charge to revitalize the historic downtown and create economic growth. As a result of these efforts, numerous historic buildings were rehabilitated and streetscape improvements were undertaken. Today, with its rich legacy of industrial and commercial history, Vergennes remains one of Vermont’s most desirable communities in which to live or visit.
The Historic Architecture of Addison County Vermont Division for Historic Preservation 1992
History: War of 1812 Lake Champlain Maritime Museum