A strategic mix of maritime commerce, railroad, milling, tourism, and proximity to the Canadian border made late-nineteenth-century Newport the most prominent community in Orleans County. Its striking site is an arrowhead-shaped peninsula where the Black, Barton, and Clyde rivers feed the south end of Lake Memphremagog, which extends northward into Quebec. From the heights of Prospect Hill on the west it descends to lowlands at the east, which were originally so marshy as to be marginal for farming. Development came with the construction of a bridge that carried the Burlington to Derby road across the narrows to Derby in 1832, followed by a more southerly “Long” Bridge (Mt. Vernon Street). The village's focus was the intersection of what is now Coventry and Main streets with a small green extending north toward the lake. In 1863 the Connecticut and Passumpsic Rivers Railroad, intent on exploiting regional lumber resources, crossed a trestle from the south to the tip of the peninsula. Within a decade it established ties north to Sherbrooke, Quebec; to the west (on a causeway following the edge of the lake) to Richford and Montreal; south to St. Johnsbury and Boston; and toward the lake via a wharf adjacent to its terminal.
Newport, with a population of 1,500, became a village in 1883 and a shire town the following year. Its focus was not on a lakefront given over to marshes, railroad, boat docks, and lumber mills, but on Main Street down the center of the peninsula. At the street's east end, the terminal and a cluster of hotels, at least one of which was financed by the railroad, catered to business travelers and to tourists who came to cruise the lake on the pleasure steamers that plied its waters from the 1860s through the mid-twentieth century. The largest hotel was Memphremagog House that grew between 1838 and 1907 into a 300-guest, five-story, mansarded and galleried pile. Located on the north side of Main, east of the green, it featured gardens, lakeside stables, and railroad offices. Main Street progressed west past an opera house and business blocks to a cluster of local, state, and federal buildings near its intersection with 2nd Street and then into a district of residences, churches, and school. In Newport's glory days, from the 1880s into the new century, Main Street was an impressively flamboyant place of largely wooden Second Empire and Queen Anne commercial and public structures, including a grand Shingle Style Congregational Church (1890) by A. P. Cutting. Its residential neighborhoods were a mix of Queen Anne houses for merchants and wooden tenements for the influx of French Canadian workers drawn by shipping and the mills that produced ten to eighteen million board feet of lumber annually.
Though the twentieth century began auspiciously with the village annexing West Derby and incorporating as a city in 1918, it proved less than friendly to Newport. Fires destroyed hotels, depot, opera house, yacht club, and the Congregational Church. With the exception of the rebuilt depot, the piecemeal reconstruction lacked the scale and coherence of the lost urban fabric. The largest of the steamers, the 800-passenger Lady of the Lake, ceased operation in 1917. During Prohibition commercial maritime activity was supplanted by smuggling from Canada. The lakeside International Lumber Mill, once one of the largest in the country, closed in 1930. The railroad ceased passenger operations in 1965 and demolished the depot. While civic structures and residential neighborhoods survived, the east end of Main Street bore little resemblance to its former self.
At the end of the twentieth century a new focus on the lake combined with a state initiative to address the erosion of the urban fabric. The large Hebard State Office Building (1999, Goldsmith Associates), built on the site of the long-lost opera house and original village green, was intended to revitalize downtown through a mix of commercial and public functions. It also defines the eastern entrance into the Main Street corridor, and reestablishes a visual and pedestrian link to the lake, where a bicycle path and pedestrian promenade connect it west to new waterfront recreational facilities.
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