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St. Johnsbury History

St. Johnsbury History

A Few Characteristics

St. Johnsbury is the Shire town of Caledonia County. St. Johnsbury sits at an altitude of 697 feet, 72*, 01' West and 44* 25' North. Bordering towns are Waterford, Kirby, Lyndon, Danville and Barnet. The Town lies about 45 miles south of the Canadian border and has an area of about 21,000 acres. The population in 1995 (U.S.Census of Population & Housing Estimates) is 7,741, with 3,596 year round housing units and 19 seasonal units.

St. Johnsbury is located at the confluence of the Passumpsic, Moose and Sleeper's Rivers. The Town is marked by a sharp difference in elevation. The principal business district is concentrated on Railroad Street in the Passumpsic Valley. Main Street, which runs parallel to Railroad Street, lies on a broad plateau, known as the Plain. Fine homes and prominent public buildings line Main Street. The two levels of the Town are connected by the steep and winding Eastern Avenue, also lined with businesses. The town is the largest in northeastern Vermont and has more diverse interests than commonly found in other towns in this area. The long-term presence of particular industries has influenced the evolution of the Town's social character and architectural style.

St. Johnsbury flourished as an industrial town at the height of the Victorian era. Many consider St. Johnsbury the quintessential Victorian, industrial city, including the paternalism of the Fairbanks family and its anti-union attitude. In 1891 St. Johnsbury Illustrated was printed, a review of the town's business, social, literary and educational facilities that provides glimpses of the Town's picturesque surroundings.

The completion of Interstates I-91 and I-93 has made the area more accessible, causing real estate costs to rise.

Civic Structure

King George granted the first charter in 1770 to Bessborough, later changed to Dunmore. There were few settlers until 1786 when Governor Chittenden granted a charter to Jonathan Arnold from Rhode Island. Arnold and his partners were from the same group of people that were granted a charter for Lyndon ten years before. The first settlers were four men of the Adams' family, two Trescotts and one each of the Cole, Doolittle, Todd and Nichols families. St. Johnsbury's first town meeting was held in Dr. Arnold's house on June 21, 1790. The first US Census in 1790/91 lists 34 families and 143 inhabitants. There was a steady growth in population during the next century, 663 in 1800, 1334 in 1810 up to 7010 in 1900. In 1792 St. Johnsbury and other towns were set off from Orange County to form the new Caledonia County. In 1856 the County seat was moved from Danville to St. Johnsbury.

The Vermont Legislature granted St. Johnsbury permission to become a city, but the voters declined. The town operates with selectmen and a manager.

What's In A Name?

St. Johnsbury was named for Michel Guillaume St. Jean de Crevecoeur, also known as J. Hector St. John, author of Letters from an American Farmer. St. John was a friend of Washington and Franklin, as well as a correspondent of Ethan Allen, and had an enthusiasm for the Republic of Vermont and for place names. He suggested the names Vergennes, Danville and St. Johnsbury. Realizing that several places already bore the name of St. John, J. Hector suggested the longer name, St. Johnsbury, which remains the only place with that name in the world. St. John became a naturalized citizen of the new country and in 1793 he was appointed to the post of French Consul in New York City.

Dr. Arnold, a surveyor, and a crew were surveying along the West Branch of the Passumpsic where the scale factory was later built. As the story goes, when the group traveled away from the river, they left their provisions, including certain necessary stimulants, with Thomas Todd. When they returned, Todd was rolled up against a log on the riverbank, sound asleep. Arnold woke him with a loud shout and made a proclamation, "let this branch be known forever by the name of Sleeper's River."

The station area of the Canadian Pacific Railroad was called Centervale. Also, before the village of St. Johnsbury engulfed them, there were the districts of Fairbanks, Paddock and Summerville all named for prominent business people of the era. During the last years of the 19th Century, the area in East St. Johnsbury near the railroad station was known as Griswold Station, for the stationmaster. On the Danville town line there was a village called Goss Hollow, named for David Goss who built the mills on the Sleeper's River. The Plain, the upland pasture in the village, was once known as the "Gates of the Kingdom." There was also once a hamlet called Coles Corner, a common St. Johnsbury family name.

Last modified September 12 2013 03:08 PM

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