With eighteen towns and two cities, Washington County encompasses the upper Winooski River watershed east of the Green Mountains. The City of Montpelier, with 7,855 residents, is the county shire and the capital of Vermont. To the southeast, the City of Barre is larger, with just under 9,000 residents, and more than 7,500 people live in surrounding Barre Town. Northfield village on Dog River, with 1,900 residents, and Waterbury village, with several hundred residents, are the next-largest population centers in an otherwise rural county.
Settlement of the county began after the American Revolution, but even by 1790 most towns recorded no inhabitants, although Cabot, Berlin, and Montpelier each had more than 100 persons. Montpelier became the state capital in 1808, and after the county was organized in 1810, it became the shire town as well. As settlement continued, small farms were established in the upland river valleys and hills of the county. By 1840 those areas had 23,000 residents. Although there are Federal and Greek Revival landmarks from these years, the eastern Vermont landscape of small farms with Cape and Classic Cottage farmhouses dominates. Mill villages such as Warren, Northfield Falls, East and North Montpelier, Plainfield, and Marshfield developed during this period to serve their surrounding farm communities.
The Vermont Central Railroad connected White River Junction with Burlington via Montpelier in 1849. Former governor Charles Paine, president of the Vermont Central, located the railroad's headquarters on family property in Northfield, and that village soon numbered more than 1,000 residents. Montpelier became a village of almost 4,000, with wood-product and granite-processing industries and lively commerce fueled by the legislature and county court. With a downtown largely rebuilt after fires in the 1870s and streets lined with a rich array of buildings from the second half of the nineteenth century, Montpelier gained much of its current size and character. At the same time, Waterbury village developed industrially and commercially as a milling and railroad shipping center for the Mad and Waterbury river valleys.
Construction in 1875 of a branch rail line to Barre led to the rapid development of its nationally significant granite industry, which fabricated stone products valued at nearly four million dollars annually by 1910. Barre village jumped from 1,200 residents in 1880 to some 6,000 residents when it incorporated as a city in 1894, one-third of them foreign born. Barre and Montpelier were connected by streetcar in 1898, and by 1910 Montpelier had 7,800 residents and Barre City almost 11,000. That same year the county counted 1,600 Scottish and more than 2,100 Italian immigrants, mostly working in the granite industries in Barre City and the East Barre area. New neighborhoods of wood-frame housing filled out Barre City and clustered near the quarries. Montpelier, too, added much new housing stock as the rail yards, granite sheds, and wood-products manufactories there thrived. Both cities produced some of the state's most distinguished public buildings of the period, including city halls, firehouses, churches, and even a labor hall.
Outside the cities, Waterbury village gained new prominence with the location of the Vermont State Hospital for the Insane (WA2), and in Northfield slate quarrying got under way, raising its village population to 1,900 in 1910. In the mountain towns, population began dropping, despite increased logging activity. The population of other agricultural towns leveled off and small villages with several hundred residents, such as Cabot, Plainfield, and Waitsfield, remained largely unchanged but for a new town hall or public library. Successful farmers built round barns and some of the last of the great bank barns, particularly in the Mad and Winooski river valleys.
Although local industries remained vibrant through the 1920s, the popularity of the automobile led to the demise of the streetcar and the Montpelier and Wells River Railroad. The Great Depression and World War II closed most local wood-products manufacturing and many granite sheds, and other businesses suffered as well. Farms concentrated on dairying but declined in numbers, and consequently, mid-twentieth-century barns are relatively rare in this portion of the state. Montpelier, though, continued to grow, powered by the twin engines of state government and the National Life Insurance Company. Many Barre City residents moved to the suburbs of Barre Town and Berlin, and their populations nearly doubled between 1960 and 1970. Development in 1949 of Mad River Glen and other ski areas in the Green Mountain National Forest brought out-of-state visitors, and many chose to make homes nearby, bringing much new residential development to the Mad River Valley. Completion of I-89 in 1970 accelerated in-migration, and in 2000 the county reached a new high of 56,000 residents. Central Vermont Hospital located at the Berlin interstate interchange is an important employer. Nearby commercial development now competes with the downtowns of Montpelier and Barre, but both the “Capitol City” and the “Granite City” are adapting to the new retailing, in part by promoting their architectural character. A drive in the hills of Cabot, Calais, East Montpelier, or Plainfield, or through the Mad River Valley, reveals both the remaining active farms and a landscape much as it was a century ago.
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