Chittenden County lies in the broad valley between the Green Mountains and Lake Champlain. Although small in area, with 156,545 residents, it has more than twice the population of any other county. The Winooski River drains most of the county, flowing west from between the state's highest peak, Mount Mansfield (4,393 feet), and the distinctive Camel's Hump (3,933 feet). The river joins the lake above Burlington, Vermont's principal city, which has about 40,000 residents. Burlington is surrounded by South Burlington, the City of Winooski, and to the north and east what have become the suburban towns of Colchester, Essex, and Williston.
After the hostilities of the American Revolution ended in 1783, settlers flocked to this prime agricultural land at the intersection of the Champlain and Winooski valleys. In 1790, Charlotte, Williston, and Shelburne were the largest towns, each with several hundred residents. As a trading center in potash, lumber, and finished goods shipped to and from Montreal, Burlington quickly became the center of industrial and commercial development. In contrast with the wood-frame landmarks of Windsor County, the most distinctive remaining Federal buildings in Chittenden County are stone and brick. These can be seen on the old waterfront in Burlington, the road from there to the Winooski falls (Pearl Street), and in towns farther east, among the farmhouses of the Chittenden family.
Completion of the Champlain Branch of the Erie Canal in 1823 connected Lake Champlain with the Hudson River, New York City, and the other canal ports, redoubling Burlington's stature as a center of trade and commerce. As in Addison County, a sheep-raising craze swept Chittenden farms about the same time, but then the county took a lead in dairying, producing more than one-and-a-half-million pounds of cheese in 1850. This was due in part to the farms in the foothills of the Green Mountains, which reached full settlement during these years. In Burlington this era left small neighborhoods of late Federal and Greek Revival houses as well as a number of distinguished Greek Revival landmarks. At the Winooski falls, woolen mills joined mills already in operation there, and company housing inspired by Massachusetts models was erected. In the lake towns, a patchwork of farms with Greek Revival farmhouses covered the landscape, while the mountain towns developed small valley mill villages like much of eastern Vermont.
The Vermont Central Railroad following the Winooski River and the Rutland and Burlington Railroad coming overland from Middlebury converged on Burlington in 1849 and helped transform the former village into a small city of 7,500 residents. Waterfront wood-products manufactories fed off the lumber trade on the lake as large-scale logging in the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks got under way. This economic development had obvious results: a mixed industrial and commercial district on the waterfront, and a twelve-block downtown with brick, multistory commercial and public buildings, stylish Italianate houses for local magnates, and distinctive Shingle Style and Queen Anne residences in the 1890s. At the top of the hill, the University of Vermont populated its ample green with what are today its distinctive landmarks. At the Winooski falls, a new textile mill on the north bank attracted hundreds of French Canadian immigrants. And thanks to the efforts of former governor Redfield Proctor, then secretary of war, the U.S. Army built Fort Ethan Allen (CH49) nearby in Essex.
In the rural towns during this period, populations leveled off to between 1,000 and 2,000 residents and Richmond village on the Vermont Central Railroad developed as the commercial and industrial center for the mountain towns. County farms remained among the leaders of Vermont dairying, producing a number of mammoth bank barns that continue in use as agricultural landmarks. When local-boy-turned-railroad-magnate W. Seward Webb married a Vanderbilt, he built the preeminent gentleman's estate and model farm in Vermont on the shores of Lake Champlain (CH59).
Vermont's largest city had more than 20,000 residents in 1900, and Burlington continued to grow as the county's industrial and commercial center. Street trolleys served the hillside and neighborhoods north and south and through Winooski village to Fort Ethan Allen. New textile mills in Winooski attracted more French Canadian immigrants, boosting that village's population to more than 4,500 in 1910. Bungalows and Colonial Revival houses filled in the south end of Burlington and neighborhoods in Winooski and Essex Junction. Automobile-oriented businesses replaced liveries, and by 1929 cars and trucks rendered the trolleys obsolete. County farms remained leaders in dairying, with more than 28,000 dairy cows producing more than 10 million pounds of milk by 1930.
After World War II, the Burlington-Essex corridor and surrounding communities exploded in population as Vermont entered the suburban era. The Burlington airport, the armaments industry, an International Business Machines (IBM) plant, and completion of I-89, along with expanding enrollments at the University of Vermont and other local colleges, provided the infrastructure and employment that fueled the growth. At first, older communities suffered economic setbacks. The Winooski textile mills closed, as did the last wood-products mills; the Burlington waterfront declined; and federally funded urban renewal demolitions dramatically changed both downtowns. However, by 1980 commercial redevelopment on Church Street in Burlington and preservation and redevelopment of the Winooski mills gave new life to retailing in both cities. Even smaller rural centers benefited from new residents who commuted to work in Burlington and Essex. But at the same time, the number of dairy farms declined to fewer than one hundred as housing subdivisions consumed many former farms. Highway U.S. 7 south of Burlington became the state's longest commercial strip, and new automobile-oriented big-box retail and office centers developed in the former pastures at the Williston and Colchester interchanges of I-89.
Overall the county is the best place to view the urban history of Vermont, from early lake port to regional industrial center to small cities connected by streetcars to late-twentieth-century pedestrianism and suburbia. Chittenden County includes the largest historic downtown and waterfront in the state, architecturally significant religious and institutional buildings, and landmark houses and intact residential neighborhoods from all periods. In portions of the outlying and mountain towns that have not been transformed by sprawl, the nineteenth-century farm landscape remains intact as a reminder of the hill farms and rolling Champlain Valley farms that once filled most of the county.
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