Montpelier was settled relatively late in comparison to other Vermont towns. The first permanent settler was Colonel Jacob Davis in 1789. In 1791, the year Vermont entered the union, Montpelier organized itself as a town. It is not known why a town notable for an unusually large number of whiskey distilleries chose the name of a French town notable for wine and brandy, and there are various theories about why Montpelier was chosen by the state legislature in 1805 as the permanent state capital. The theories range from Montpelier's central location to promises of land and money. Some local historians hold that topography explains the development of Montpelier, as four branches of the Winooski River come together there to form what is generally regarded as Vermont's most important river. Since in Vermont roads follow rivers, they explain, the coming together of many roads caused it to become a meeting place for both government and commerce.
The town carried on a thriving trade during the early nineteenth century, attracting craftsmen, factories, sawmills, and ironworks. Nearby Barre's quarries attracted granite workers and sculptors from Italy and Sweden; stonecutters from Spain settled in Montpelier. The coming of the railroad in the mid-1800s stimulated business and brought in the first tourists. At the same time, Dr. Julius Dewey, father of Spanish-American War hero Admiral George Dewey, decided that selling life insurance would be more lucrative than practicing medicine and founded the National Life Insurance Company, now one of the oldest life insurance companies in the world. Following the Civil War of 1861–1865, resort hotels such as the Pavilion in Montpelier attracted visitors from throughout the country, further stimulating Montpelier's economy. The first state publicity service in the country was established in Montpelier in 1891, hurrying the flow of tourism. When the first rope tow in the country powered by a Model T engine was rigged up in Vermont in 1935, the ski industry was born. Montpelier is located near three of Vermont's largest ski areas.
In March 1991, ice floes acting like a dam altered the course of the Winooski River, sending much of it rushing through downtown Montpelier and leaving some areas under six feet of water. Damage was estimated at tens of millions of dollars. Montpelier, in many ways a classic small town, saw its ambitious plans for a riverfront and office park development take shape when construction began in 1997 on the Winooski Riverfront Redevelopment Project. Besides adding acres of parkland, including several hiking and cross-country ski trails, the city has developed some pocket parks. At the dawn of the new millennium Montpelier quietly enjoys its reputation as one of America's most livable cities, with a strong local economy, easy access to beautiful natural surroundings, and minimal growth.
Historical Information: Vermont Historical Society, Pavilion Building, Montpelier, VT 05602; telephone (802)828-2291