St. Albans has been justly celebrated for the beauty of its setting along Lake Champlain, for its status as a major port of entry to the United States, and as the nation's greatest nineteenth-century rail center east of Chicago. Not surprisingly, St. Albans is also a place of notable architecture. In Norwood,his novel of 1867, Henry Ward Beecher proclaimed that “the picturesque scenery of New England reaches a climax at St. Alban's [ sic], a place in the midst of greater variety of scenic beauty than any other that I can remember in America.” St. Albans's town stretches from St. Albans Bay on the west to hills that rise toward the Green Mountains on the east. It was first settled on the bay, affording water access north to Canada and south to the emerging communities of New York, which established early ties with Franklin County as witnessed in the millwork and joinery of Whitehall, New York–based William Sprats. These ties became most evident almost three miles to the east in what would become the City of St. Albans. Here Ira Allen, soon to be a major proprietor in the town, surveyed the stagecoach road that became U.S. 7 (Main Street) to run adjacent to the common as mandated by the town's New Hampshire Grant charter. While the bay was the early commercial center for St. Albans, its docks and boatyards retaining importance through the era of lake steamers, the inland village at the junction of Lake Street and the north– south stagecoach road served as the political center for town and county. By 1793 the common had been cleared, and in 1799 land for a courthouse was donated by Colonel Halloway Taylor. Eventually, the common developed into a handsomely appointed park named after the colonel.
By the 1830s, while the St. Albans Steamboat Company was booming at the bay, village-area proprietor and former U.S. congressman John Smith used his Washington contacts to promote St. Albans as a railroad center. By the 1850s Smith was president of the Vermont and Canada Railroad, bringing trains from Boston to Montreal via St. Albans, and had laid the groundwork for a St. Albans–based family railroad dynasty. His successor and son, John Gregory Smith (governor of Vermont 1863–1864 and president of the Northern Pacific Railroad 1866–1872), engineered a series of mergers that produced the Central Vermont Railroad, and facilitated the transfer of administration and shops from Northfield to the western side of St. Albans village in 1860. Between 1860 and 1870 the town's population almost doubled to 7,014 residents.
St. Albans's strategic importance was signaled in 1864, when Confederate raiders crossed in disguise from Canada in a successful attempt to rob the city's banks and an abortive attempt to burn its downtown core. In the 1890s John Gregory Smith's son, Edward Curtis Smith (governor of Vermont 1898–1900), developed the main rail yard (called “Italy yard” because of its construction by Italian work crews) into the most extensive in New England. Railroad operations at their turn-of-the-twentieth-century peak provided 1,799 jobs in a community of 7,954 residents. They also drew businesses that depended on rail—from large tourist hotels to bridge fabricators and foundries. The St. Albans Foundry Company became a worldwide purveyor of horse-powered treadmills and later a pioneer of portable gasoline engines for farm power. Other industry included manufacturers of work clothes and garters, New England's largest creamery, a packing plant, and cold storage for butter, fruit, and maple sugar.
The railroad and the growth it fostered led to the village being set off from the town, first in 1855 as a fire-prevention district, next in 1859 as an incorporated village, and in 1896 as a city. The railroad yards developed on the flats to the west of Main Street with offices, depots, and shops on Lake Street, and adjacent workers' neighborhoods. A commercial area grew between the tracks and Main Street, and public and institutional buildings were built along the eastern edge of Taylor Park, which was formalized with a fountain (1887) donated by the Smith family. Beyond Taylor Park rose the houses of merchants, industrialists, and railroad managers on Aldis Hill.
Whereas Federal and Greek Revival houses had lined the Main Street stagecoach road, the area eastward developed during the railroad era with Gothic Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, and Queen Anne buildings. Bank, Congress, High, and Smith streets comprise one of the state's most stylistically varied and best-preserved Victorian neighborhoods, the houses becoming increasingly grand as they climb the hill, gaining views of the lake and the distant Adirondacks. While the city's two most extravagant houses, both built by Smiths, no longer stand, the neighborhood is dotted with the homes of their relatives and executives, a veritable catalogue of an ambitious half century of building. The commercial district by contrast is distinguished by striking homogeneity. A fire in 1895 destroyed one hundred and thirty buildings on seventy-five acres along the west side of Main Street. Rebuilt within two years, the new downtown was dense with three-to four-story masonry structures in Queen Anne, Romanesque, and Colonial Revival modes.
Subsequent fires, changing business patterns, and the diminishing importance of the railroad over the course of the twentieth century caused some attrition but also a relatively stable population, lessening the inevitable pressures for change. As a result, the built fabric of nineteenth-century St. Albans remains impressively visible.
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