Vergennes is the best-preserved Lake Champlain port city in Vermont. Located at the last falls of Otter Creek, with both mill power and lake access, this “Smallest City in America” flourished in the water-powered industrial era. As one would expect for a lake port, most buildings in the village predate the railroad's arrival in 1849. Main Street is lined with notable Federal and Greek Revival buildings and fine Italianate houses by Fallardo and LeBoeuf, a local manufacturer and architecture team.
The falls provided Native Americans a place for fishing and fording Otter Creek along the main overland trail west of the Green Mountains. After early settlers petitioned the legislature for a charter, Vergennes was incorporated in 1788. A small square of twelve hundred acres carved from three towns, it was named to honor the Comte de Vergennes, a negotiator of the Treaty of Paris of 1783 that ended the Revolution.
During the 1807 embargo and War of 1812, Vergennes became an important harbor and industrial site. The Monkton Iron Works at the falls helped make Vermont the nation's largest iron producer during the war. In the protected shipyard Commodore Thomas MacDonough built the fleet used to defeat the British at the decisive Battle of Plattsburgh in 1814. A stone armory constructed after the war on a plateau above Otter Creek is the most substantial reminder of the city's military past (now within the state job training school at 100 MacDonough Drive).
MacDonough and Samuel Strong, commander of the Vermont ground forces at Plattsburgh and son of settler John Strong of Addison, lived in the city. West Main Street south of the falls became the Strong family neighborhood. Among remaining houses and a farm are those of General Strong, his brother Luke, the general's son Samuel P., and Strong's two sisters, whose brick half houses face each other across W. Main Street.
After the Champlain Branch of the Erie Canal was opened in 1823, Vergennes prospered as a milling center, a lake port to Canada and New York, and a junction of overland stage lines. A towpath along the river, a state historic marker, and two brick warehouses on the waterfront identify the once-busy shipyard and wharves below the falls, which are now waterfront access and parking. On the hill north of the mills and warehouses, Main Street became the focus of public and commercial architecture. Its principal intersection, at the city square, is dominated by two stagecoach hotels, the Stevens House (1793, 1848, 1870) and the Franklin House (1848, 1886). On the eastern corners are several brick and stone commercial blocks dating from the canal era.
Beginning in 1849, the Rutland and Burlington Railroad initially enhanced the operations of the mills and the port, but it soon rendered them obsolete, leaving the city to become an agricultural center. By 1850 Hayes, Falardo, and Parker was one of the furniture and sash manufactories at the falls. After the Civil War, Joseph Falardo and Charles LeBoeuf produced most of the Italianate and Second Empire wood-frame buildings along Main Street. Designed by LeBoeuf and using Falardo's architectural products, these buildings give the city a distinctive cohesion in its Victorian-era architecture.
Notable churches include St. Paul's Episcopal Church (1834; 6 Park Street) with its original rood screen and St. Peter's Catholic Church (1874; 85 S. Maple Street), which ministered to a sizable French Canadian population at the mills and in surrounding farm towns. At the turn of the twentieth century, public amenities reached their peak with Chappell and Smith's Town Hall and Opera House (1897; 120 Main Street), Bixby Memorial Free Library (AD9), and a centenary monument for the Battle of Plattsburgh in the city square. On a hill at the west edge of the city, the Vermont Industrial School (1907–1921; 100 MacDonough Drive) is a Colonial Revival design by Frank L. Austin of Burlington.
Vergennes is architecturally striking in three ways. It retains enough of its historic fabric to clearly discern the milling district at the falls and the shipyard and warehouse area below. It has a complete late-nineteenth-century Main Street with a central square and Victorian mansions at one end as well as a small street grid that indicates the town's early urbanism. More subtly there is a wonderful mix of pre–Civil War vernacular house types, including forms more typically found in the largest villages like Bennington and Burlington. Taken together these create a small “city” with the scale and appearance of Northern urban centers associated with waterpower and the canal era of the 1840s.
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