The village of Randolph, which lies at a bend and fall in the Third Branch of the White River, began as a sawmill site during settlement after the American Revolution. Randolph town soon became one of the most prosperous agricultural communities in Orange County, counting more than 2,200 residents by 1810. The village of Randolph Center developed on the hill between the Second and Third branches of the White River, while East and West Randolph, on the Second and Third branches, respectively, developed as mill villages. In 1840 the town had 2,793 residents and 17,792 sheep, and the west village alone had one meetinghouse, two stores, a tavern, post office, attorney's office, saw-and gristmills, and approximately twenty dwellings. West Randolph was then largely a linear village parallel to the north side of the river along what are today Central and Park streets.
In 1849 the Vermont Central Railroad was constructed from White River Junction through Randolph to Montpelier and Burlington. As the tracks ran along the south side of the river, the road that connected the old village on the north side to the depot became the Main Street of a new village. Neighboring Bethel village took an early lead in commerce, but by 1870 factories located along the rail line were producing furniture, sash and blinds, and butter tubs, and, along with older mills and a foundry in West Randolph, were providing employment for many new residents. The village grew from several hundred to more than 1,000 residents by 1880, and 1,500 by 1890. In 1910, it reached a population of nearly 1,800 and had witnessed successive waves of commercial and residential construction.
During this period, Randolph village grew to its present form and took on much of its present architectural character. At first the residential streets nearest the railroad tracks filled with small side-hall houses with late Greek Revival detailing. In 1867, F. B. Salisbury, owner of the furniture factory, built a brick Italianate house at 1 Franklin Street adjacent to his factory, which was emulated in the adjacent neighborhood along School, Franklin, and nearby streets. After a fire in 1884 burned most of the wood-frame commercial structures on Main Street, their brick replacements demonstrated that West Randolph had surpassed Bethel as the railroad commercial center for the upper White River Valley. The houses of several prominent summer residents established the hill south of the tracks as an upscale residential neighborhood. It filled with Queen Anne houses in the 1890s, and, in 1903, became the home of a hospital founded by native John Gifford. Several churches and civic landmarks erected during these prosperous decades remain the ornaments of the village.
In the twentieth century, Randolph continued as a regional center of agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing. Among the larger companies were the White Cross Milk Company, which opened in 1908 and lasted a half century, and the furniture factory later known as Ethan Allen, which closed in 2000. During the latter half of the twentieth century, as passenger service ended and freight traffic decreased on the railroad, downtown trade declined and the district struggled. More recently Amtrak returned to Randolph, the Gifford Medical Center became a major employer, and the south end of the village continued to grow. Fortunately, public investment has remained focused downtown.
The buildings erected during the prosperous years between 1850 and 1910 still define Randolph as a railroad village. The passenger and freight depots and coal pocket are here, as well as the small, brick, trackside Randolph National Bank building. Three-story brick commercial blocks occupy Main Street near the depot, while civic and religious buildings lie between them and the bridge over the Third Branch. A mix of houses line streets near the railroad tracks and in a small neighborhood by the furniture factory, while “hospital hill,” with its late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century houses, overlooks the downtown. Altogether Randolph is perhaps the best-preserved Victorian railroad village in Vermont, although Bethel, South Royalton, and Lyndonville are all in some measures its rivals.
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