Focal Places in Burlington

The Waterfront: Industrial History

Colonial Settlement

The Burlington waterfront was not the first European settlement in the area, but it was home to the first permanent cluster of settlements. The growth of the waterfront began in earnest in the fall of 1772 when Ira Allen, his brother Ethan, and a handful of others settled near the Winooski River falls on the north side of the river. Industry was a driving force of the Burlington waterfront from the very start. In Ira’s own words, his goal was “to look for the best place for trade, at or near Lake Champlain...which I faithfully attended to, and gave Burlington Bay the preference of any part of the country." He was confident that “Burlington would, from its situation, become a place of consequence."

Other settlers came to the area as well; for example, in 1773 Felix Powell took up residence at Appletree Point. But by 1776 the harsh frontier life, the presence of Native Americans, and the turmoil of the Revolutionary
Burlington waterfront, mid-1800s
War drove the settlers away for the time being. After the war in 1783, the settlers came back to stay.

Even by 1792, there were a few buildings in present day Burlington. Most buildings were located near the lake shore in the oldest part of the city, on what was then called Water Street, but is now called Battery Street. The thoroughfare was named Water Street because the lakeshore came right up to the edge of the street, hundreds of feet from where it is now. Most of the shore was a steep bank, and the first settlements were around the Maple and King Street blocks where the land flattened out and access to the water was easier.

Maple and King Street also had different names in this era. The earliest map, located for this project by Ammi Young, shows that in 1830 lower Maple Street was called Wharf street, King Street was called Pine Street, and Main Street was called Fayette St. By mid-century, Main Street and King Street had taken up their contemporary names, but Maple Street was known as South Street.

Burlington waterfront, 1870

Before 1800, the waterfront was one of the few areas in the region without forests. The early waterfront of Burlington was cradled by a natural ravine that curved southward from what is now Prospect Street to what is now lower King Street. Present day Maple Street wouldn’t be able to exist in its entirety if the ravine still carved through the city today. because the ravine would cut the street in half. Keen observers might still notice the natural ravine between South Winooski Street and Church Street behind the Burlington Telecom building. In the mid-1800’s map of Burlington below, you can see where the old ravine once was, as the train tracks circling into town followed the same route. The oldest part of the town is in the southwest quadrant, between the ravine and the water.

Trade Along the Waterfront

One of the early inhabitants of Water Street was William Hickok, who ran a store in a small wooden structure on the bank of the lake, where the “lake house” is now located. Goods from Whitehall, New York, were shipped in scows to some of the earliest Burlington settlers. Some items, such as molasses and liquor, were thrown overboard from the scows and floated to shore because there was no wharf or dock until the turn of the century. Lumber shipment was also an industry from the very beginning of commercialism along the waterfront. A related early trade included the gathering and shipping of ashes, which were used to bleach textiles or make glass and soap; these ashes were profitable byproducts of the clearing of forest land to make way for agriculture (at this time, land was quickly being cleared in Vermont). Another early industry was wheat grown inland in Vermont, which was then shipped to Troy, New York.

After he died, William Hickock’s son Samuel took over his father’s store. When the business started to thrive, Samuel opened a second store on Main Street. This three-story brick building at Courthouse Square, currently known as City Hall Park, was one of the first brick buildings in Burlington, and may have helped establish that area of the city as a center for activity.

Meanwhile, back at the lake front, the shipping industry was growing. By the turn of the century, ship-building had become a profitable industry and commodities were being shipped by local merchants to places in faraway ports. In turn, the town began to grow out from its waterfront edge.

Gideon King House on King Street (2012)
Photo by Aaron Witham
Around 1800, the early village of Burlington bay had a handful of innkeepers and retail merchants, a couple ship-buildings, a silversmith, a blacksmith, and a few other specialty workshops.

Prominent businessmen began to rise from the newly created wealth. One of these men was Gideon King Jr., also known as “The Admiral of Lake Champlain." He was the son of tavern owner Gideon King Sr. Gideon King Jr. started in the shipping business in Burlington at age 16. His early years were in fur trading, working for John Jacob Astor of New York. But, it wasn’t long before he had his hands in most aspects of the early Burlington shipping industry. He controlled almost half of the early commercial sailing ships on the lake from 1800-1826. His powerful shipping fleet proved invaluable during the War of 1812, as it kept the town supplied with its basic needs while tensions on the lake made shipping difficult. His house still stands on King Street in Burlington’s old harbor section.

Old Stone Store on Battery & Maple Street (2012)
Photo by Aaron Witham
Built in 1798, it is arguably the first brick building in the city. The city’s street plan was approved here at a meeting.

Another important early figure in Burlington was Timothy Follet. He was a state’s attorney and a county judge at a very young age (24). But, when the Champlain Canal opened in 1823, Follet saw an opportunity to dive into the mercantile business. He resigned as judge and joined schooner and steamboat captain Henry Mayo in a partnership business venture. They controlled the South Wharf and a fleet of canal boats. In 1827, they built the Old Stone Store, which is still standing at the corner of Maple and Battery Street. The structure was built with Isle la Motte limestone.

At the time the store was built, the waterfront went up nearly to its edge. It was perfect

Timothy Follet House on College Street (2012)
Photo by Aaron Witham
for unloading goods. Many of the commodities that arrived in early Burlington went through the store.

In 1841, Follet built the iconic white house that still stands on lower College Street to celebrate the wealth he had gained. This building is also one of the oldest remnants of Burlington’s past. It is currently used by Pomerleau Real Estate.

It was odd for a wealthy businessman to build his mansion so close to the waterfront during that time period. Most of the merchants and lumber barons of early Burlington built their mansions further up the hill on South Union Street and in the steeper part of the city, where they could avoid the loud noises and the smell of the lumbering activity. People speculate that Follet either craved a close waterfront view or he wanted to watch over his businesses. Unfortunately for him, after buying one of the major railroads, he drove his company into bankruptcy.

The early 1800’s trade sent cattle, cheese, butter fish, flax, furs, grain, maple sugar, potash, pearl ash, sheep, and tobacco to Canada. In return, Canada was shipping gin, rum, salt, and luxury items from Europe like chocolate, coffee, tea, and textiles to Burlington. During the warm months, ships or log rafts carried the goods. When the ice was frozen, horse-drawn sleighs did the job.

The Steamboat "Vermont"
UVM Landscape Change site
Photo courtesy of Andrew Turgeon

But, it wasn’t long before a bigger, more reliable form of water transportation was developed. In front of the present day “Ice House,” the world’s second steamboat, named Vermont, was built in 1808 by John and James Winans. In 1809, unfortunately, the boat became stuck in the mud when they were attempting to launch because the engine was so heavy. They had to call a lumber sleigh to come to the harbor and hoist the steamship onto logs so it could be rolled all the way into the lake.

The historic ice house building was built in 1809 as John Winan’s home, but the property served multiple uses until its present day function as a restaurant. The original structure burned down in 1868. A new house was built on its original red rock foundation and would become the location of the Consumers Ice Company. They used this building to store ice that they harvested from the lake in the winter months, which they then sold to citizens to use for refrigeration. So that the ice could last through the summer, the walls of the building are extra thick with 19th century insulation. By the 1890s, the company was cutting about 60,000 tons of ice from a half mile in front of the Burlington breakwater, using an army of 60 men and 20 teams of horses. A tunnel was dug from the water to their warehouse, so that the ice could be more easily transported from the lake with a conveyor system.

The early shipping years of the Burlington waterfront were not always easy. In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson started an embargo on trade with Britain and Canada because of the mounting tension with the British leading up to the War of 1812. This embargo was an enormous blow to the Burlington merchants, as Canada was Burlington's biggest trade partner. As many merchants were not willing to give up their profits, they began to smuggle goods into the harbor. U.S. customs agents were stationed on the lake and kept a close watch on the activity. One day in August of 1808, a U.S. customs ship named Fly got into a skirmish with a smuggler ship known as the Black Snake on the Winooski River. Three U.S. officials were shot and killed. Some of the crew of the Black Snake were sent to prison, and one of them was executed by a public hanging in Burlington in front of a crowd of 10,000 people.

Once the war broke out, goods continued to be smuggled in and out of Burlington harbor; unfortunately for the U.S. effort, some of these goods kept the British war effort supplied. Eventually, the United States stationed 4,000 soldiers at Battery Park. At the time, this was more than twice the population of the town of Burlington. Cannons were placed on the bluff to protect the town and its fleet of ships. Burlington harbor was only attacked once when the British fired cannons at Battery Park.

After the war, the quaint town of Burlington nestled along the harbor was poised to go through some big changes, changes that would alter the natural harbor in significant ways that are still an important part of the waterfront we know today.