Interpreting the Interstates
32,625 photographs tell a story of change
- By Joshua E. Brown
After midnight on Sept. 12, 1964, Romaine Tenney, a hardscrabble farmer in Ascutney, Vt, let his cows out of the barn to wander freely. Then he set his barn on fire. Then he went into his house and set it on fire. While the flames roared up around him, the autopsy suggests, he shot himself. The interstate highway was coming.
Tenney, 64, a bachelor and lifelong resident of Ascutney, didn’t own a car. Interstate 91 was planned to come straight through his property, and so his house and barn had been condemned under eminent domain. He had fought this taking and lost. Rather than accept a settlement check and move, he died where he had long lived.
In contrast, Vermont’s famous governor and senator, George D. Aiken, had willingly let his boyhood home be demolished and covered to make way for a stretch of I-91. “We’re on the verge of the greatest development Vermont has ever seen,” he said in 1961, at a celebration dedicating that section of the new road.
The building of the interstate highways, the largest and most expensive peacetime construction project in U.S. history, transformed the nation — and Vermont — in dozens of complex ways. Many people shared, and continue to share, Aiken’s view that the interstate was a symbol and channel of progress for Vermont, bringing markets, speed and freedom and access to an isolated corner of America.
But Tenney also became a celebrated and mourned symbol of what the interstate highways destroyed and homogenized — including some vernacular architecture, vibrant downtowns, waterways and forests, a certain pace and independent Vermont way of life.
The bulk of academic studies of the impact of the interstate highway have focused on urban areas, city neighborhoods. “But what was the impact of the interstates on the most profoundly rural state in the union?” asks UVM geology professor Paul Bierman.
One way to approach this question is through a newly assembled collection of photographs, part of a project, Interpreting the Interstates, that Bierman is helping to lead.
Out of the basement
Taken between 1958 and 1978, these images — mostly large-format black-and-white negatives — show the 321 miles of interstate roadway in Vermont before, during and after construction. Stored in plain envelopes in the basement of the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration, and largely overlooked for decades, Bierman and his students have now unearthed, scanned and digitized 32,625 of these more than 36,000 photographs.
“Some of the most haunting images are those of doomed homes,” Bierman and his graduate student, Analeisha Vang, write. “Often families were occupying the homes while the photographs were taken, and the things of daily life — family photos on the wall, toys on the floor, and fastidiously made beds — makes the viewer feel like a voyeur.”
Another part of the project, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a series of large interpretive banners that Vang helped to develop. She has been taking them on tour to various meetings and fairs.
The banners will be on display at Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library until Oct. 7, when they move to the National Life Building in Montpelier from Oct. 9-25.
The images are all available for public viewing online in a free, searchable database as part of the ongoing work of UVM’s Landscape Change Program, a larger archive of historic images of Vermont that has been supported by the National Science Foundation since 1999.
The interstate photographs were taken originally, mostly by Donald Weidenmayer, as a way to protect the state government in any potential dispute over the value of properties seized for the road building. As construction proceeded, photography did too, covering more than 20 years.
In addition to the haunting, intimate images of houses on the cusp of destruction, the collection also documents a truly staggering amount of earthmoving: tons of dirt, rocks and trees. “These photographs of empty or soon to be empty homes and altered landscapes are one legacy of the interstate,” Bierman and Vang write, “they show both destruction of what was and the creation of something new."
For several years, Bierman’s students and interns have painstakingly scanned and then captioned each image. “The biggest challenge has been describing these images and making them searchable,” Bierman says. “There’s been very large student involvement.”
And as the images have come online, former highway workers, engineers, local residents, schoolteachers, homeowners, local librarians and students have dug into the interstate collection, looking for their hometown or former place of work. “Some people have found their old houses or their grandparents',” says Vang.
Along the way, many people have provided locations, caption details, and corrections both through an online comments function in the website and at the various lectures and presentations that the team has made.
“Our goal is bringing these images to the community,” says Bierman, “and we’re accumulating stories along the way.”
“We’re questioning: what is the legacy of the interstates in Vermont? “ says Ana Vang, whose master’s project has focused on developing and interpreting the photo collection, re-photographing sites — and also on developing surveys and oral histories of people’s memories and thoughts about the creation of the highway. One data point: just less than half of those surveyed believe that the highway improves their quality of life on a daily basis, Vang reports.
“For the most part, people do enjoy getting around faster,” she says. “But you do lose some things: a slow pace of life and all these homes.”
The team working on the project has included UVM political scientist Frank Bryan; Professor Thomas Visser and others from UVM’s Historic Preservation Program — as well as partners from the Vermont State Archives, Vermont Humanities Council, the Vermont Folk Life Center and Middlebury College.
When he goes out to talk about the project and the legacy of the interstates, “the audience is always split,” says UVM’s Paul Bierman. Some talk about its benefits, others its costs. And that divided opinion is, too, part of the ongoing legacy and impact of Vermont’s interstate highways.