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Burlington: History

Lumber Industry Supports Early Economy

Samuel de Champlain, adventurer and captain in the French Navy, was one of the first Europeans to explore the Burlington area. In the spring of 1609 Champlain was led on an expedition by a young Algonquian chief to the great lake of the Iroquois that now bears the name Lake Champlain. When the Iroquois caught sight of the party, a battle ensued into which the French were reluctantly drawn, inspiring the Iroquois animosity that caused them to align with the British against the French during the hostilities that occupied the territory for nearly 150 years over control of the area. In 1764 England's King George III ruled that the disputed land in Vermont, at various times claimed by kings, governors, and land speculators, belonged to New York. Burlington had been chartered a year earlier but few people lived there. Among them was Ethan Allen who, to prevent Vermont from being annexed by any other state, formed the Green Mountain Boys. This group began to drive New Yorkers off the disputed lands, but their efforts were interrupted by the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775. The Green Mountain Boys were called upon to assist Connecticut Captain Benedict Arnold in seizing the cannon at nearby Fort Ticonderoga for transport to Boston, where the rebels required artillery for their battle against the British. Despite this assistance, Vermont as a whole remained a fiercely independent territory, and following the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 by the original 13 colonies, Vermont declared itself an independent republic. In 1791, however, Vermont agreed to join the Union, becoming the first new state after the original colonies.

By the early 1800s Burlington, which had been laid out by Ethan Allen's brother Ira, was capitalizing on the abundant lumber in the region, carrying on a lively export business with Canada. The War of 1812 disrupted the city's economic life when President Thomas Jefferson ordered an extension on the trade embargo with the British to include trade with Canada, thus foreclosing the major economic outlet of the Burlington region. Citizens ignored the embargo, smuggling goods across the border. This situation, which might have resulted in Vermonters aligning themselves with Canada against the United States government, was resolved when the British were defeated on Lake Champlain in 1814.

By 1830 lumber supplies in the Burlington area were nearly depleted; the city shifted to importing timber for finishing into boards and wood products for shipment elsewhere. By the mid-nineteenth century, Burlington was the third largest lumber mart in the country, attracting many settlers of French-Canadian descent. In 1850 St. Joseph's in Burlington became the first French-Catholic parish in the United States. At the same time, the arrival of the railroad in Burlington portended the decline of water-borne commerce. The railroads brought products that could be sold for less than the small manufacturers in Burlington needed to stay solvent, and the trains made it easier for citizens to leave the city for the West, thus beginning Burlington's population decline.

Progressive History Greets High-Technology Industry and Future Economic Stability

Vermont's constitution, based on the liberal views of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, included a then-unique provision prohibiting slavery. During the Civil War of 1861 to 1865 Vermonters proved their dedication to the antislavery cause when the state suffered more casualties per capita than any other northern state. Vermont appropriated the then-enormous sum of $8 million to the war effort. The economic effect of that decision was felt for many long, hard years; many more young people moved West.

Burlington's fortunes took a dramatic turn for the better in 1957 when IBM Corporation chose the city as the site of its new plant for the design and production of computer memory chips. Immediately 4,000 jobs were created, and by 1980 the plant provided over 7,000 jobs. The economic wave continued as new recreational facilities and dozens of light industrial firms were built. The state launched a newspaper campaign urging former Vermonters to return home; many of them did.

As Burlington grew, so did concern over the impact of this growth on the environment. In 1969 Vermont voters passed Act 250, a stringent land-use law to restrict the expansion; billboard and bottle bans followed. Act 250 was invoked by Burlington to block a proposed shopping mall backed by New York State developers.

Burlington entered the 2000s a comparatively small and appealing city with an interest in attracting high-technology, manufacturing, and service industries while preserving control of its future. The city continues to be consistently rated highly for its quality of life: a diverse cultural scene, annual festivals, scenic views, historic neighborhoods, and recreational opportunities. These factors have helped to maintain the city's population between 1980 and 2000 as well as fuel the dramatic growth of the region during that same time (47 percent). In turn, residents and business leaders enjoy the positive effects that economic growth and a positive business climate bring.

Historical Information: Vermont Historical Society, 60 Washington St., Barre, VT 05641-4209; telephone (802)479-8500; fax (802)479-8510; email