Unit 3: How People and Geology Shape the Landscape



During the 1960s, the Vermont landscape was disturbed by construction of interstate highways 89 and 91 that cross the state. Large volumes of soil were removed and relocated, rock was excavated, and forests were removed. Corridors for wildlife movement were both blocked by the road and opened as the road cut through thick forest. This image shows an aerial view of construction occurring throughout the town of Waterbury as the exit ramps for the interstate are built. Several different areas appear to be under construction with a few houses and cars in the foreground. A corner of the Winooski River is visible on the left in the distance. The slopes are largely forested while the valley bottom is cleared or in fields. To see this image in the database, click here.

The Vermont landscapes we know today are not the landscapes of 100, 200 and 300 years ago. Indeed, the landscape of Vermont has been changing ever since the glaciers left and people began to live here, probably more than 10,000 years ago. Native Americans may have cleared or burned woodlands but were probably nomadic. The initial western settlement of Vermont began in the 1600s and with it came land clearance and the first major landscape changes wrought by humans. A useful time-line of Vermont history with emphasis on the post settlement period can be found by clicking here. There is a Vermont genealogy site with some interesting historical information that can be found by clicking here.  A wonderful reference on dating cultural changes in Vermont can be found by clicking here.

The first substantial landscape change involved clearing forests both for the wood they contained and to open fields for farming. Early on, fields were cleared for subsistence farms. By 1820, sheep farming was all the rage. By 1850, the sheep economy had been replaced by cows. In the later 1800s, lumber, and thus cutting forests for timber production, became economically important. Cutting trees, their transport, and lumber production all affected the landscape from the late 1800s right through to the present day.

By the mid to late 1800s more of Vermont was clear than forested. Today's Green Mountain State was more like the brown mountain state in the 1880s. Places that today are clothed in thick forest, were then open field. Check out this image of the statehouse in Montpelier. Today's woods were bare fields then. Click here to compare two images of Rutland showing the forest returning. Here is a graph of forest cover over time in Chittenden County. Note the almost total land clearance by 1870.

The removal of trees from hillslopes significantly changed how the landscape functioned. Stable hillslopes began to erode once the trees were removed. Landslides occurred where previously tree roots had helped to anchor the soil and subsoil. Can you spot the landslide in the image you'll see if you click here? Use the zoom tool to have a closer look at the landslide.  Some of the eroding soil and sediment moved into streams and was carried down major rivers in the region. It ended up on river floodplains (such as the Intervale) and in deltas built into Lake Champlain. Some of the sediment was deposited at the base of hillslopes in features called alluvial fans. Click here to see an image of cut logs with a snow-covered alluvial fan in the background. It's the triangular, snow-covered landform just behind the log piles. Fields kept open by plowing continued to shed sediment into waterways. Loss of vegetation in areas with sandy soils allowed wind to erode deep layers of sand.

The advent of the automobile was a massive force for change on the Vermont landscape. Dirt roads were no longer adequate to support heavier vehicles and road bases needed to be improved to bear more weight. The mud of Vermont spring swallowed autos and horses alike in the early 1900s, just as it does today. The Telford Road, built on a stone road base, was one of the more interesting techniques used to combat the mud. The technique is still used today in other parts of the world.

Paving and improving of roads began to change the Vermont landscape in a big way around 1930. Photos taken by predecessors to the Vermont Agency of Transportation document this transition clearly. Here, Route 15 in Underhill is being paved. In other places, roads were widened and large volumes of material moved. Image pairs, taken in the 1930s, document this landscape change all over the state. The advent of the interstate highway system in the 1960s was the third major landscape change occasioned by the automobile. Check out the magnitude of landscape change this massive road building project brought about. In some places, the AOT photographer took sequential images that show dramatically how the landscape changed. Click here and here to watch two of these sequences morphed by a UVM web designer, Inés Berrizbeitia.

The landscape affected people just as people affected the landscape. Perhaps most notable are the effects of floods, which ravaged river-side communities with alarming frequency. The most devastating flood occurred in 1927, when 6 to 9 inches of rain fell on saturated ground. Check out a module with numerous 1927 flood images. Floods damaged homes and they damaged the infrastructure that transported people and goods around Vermont. Some particularly devastating floods occurred when ice jammed rivers during the melt after a hard winter. Often triggered by heavy rain, landslides block roads and damage homes.

For a good overview of landscape history and interpretation, my favorite is the PLACE web site, found by here. You'll be most interested in the Analyze Your Town section, under which you can learn more about physical, cultural, and ecological landscapes. The case study on rural landscapes is particularly useful for understanding much of the landscape history in Vermont.





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