History of Burlington, Vermont and Willard Street

Burlington, Vermont is nestled on the Western side of Lake Champlain. The town was granted on June 7, 1763, by Governor Benning Wentworth of New Hampshire. The name Burlington most likely came from the Burling family, originally of Westchester County, New York. Although no Burlings were grantees of the town of Burlington, ten members of that family were grantees in the adjacent town of Colchester and Williston.

The town at the time measured approximately 36 square miles of land, bounded by Lake Champlain on the West, the town of Williston on the East, the Winooski River on the North, and the town of Shelburne to the South.

Ira Allen surveyed the town and laid out the lots in 1772. The first settlers arrived in 1773, but the American Revolution prevented permanent settlement. Settlement of the area began after the war and the settlers came from all over the East coast to live in the land by the lake. In 1786, Ira Allen built a sawmill at Winooski Falls taking advantage of the power of the water. These early settlers could be found near Burlington Bay, the focus of transportation and trade. These pioneers were able to take advantage of the local resources. The Winooski Falls were harnessed for water power and the plentiful pine forests yielded timber for building. Clearing of the land allowed for the fertile soil to be cultivated adding another dimension to survival, farming. Burlington Bay and Lake Champlain also provided easy transportation for trade since Burlington was located between Boston, New York, and Canada.

As the population grew, the residents concentrated on building roads and bridges across a largely impassible ravine which ran from Pearl Street southwest to College, Main and Church Streets. In 1798, a system of streets was laid out on a grid planned by William Colt. Varying little from today's streets and confined to the downtown area, the system incorporated existing transportation routes and a public park in front of the Court House was completed in 1796. Early signs of urbanization, hotels, taverns, stores and offices, followed the construction of the Court House, so that in 1800, in addition to the settlements along the lake, population concentrated at the crossroads of College and Church Streets and at the top of Pearl Street near the University of Vermont Green.

By 1800, more than 800 people lived in the town. During the first half of the nineteenth century the town continued to grow steadily. The export of lumber was the most economic activity, but other goods, including window glass and agricultural products, were exported as well. All of this was made possible through the Champlain Canal which linked Lake Champlain with the Hudson River in 1823, hence bypassing a 70-mile overland route. This gave Burlington a competitive advantage over Boston with trade to New York City. Sheep farming also became an important commodity at this time. The farmers could sell their wool to New England's thriving textile industry. In 1835, The Burlington Mill Company was established at Winooski Falls attempting to develop a local textile industry. In 1840, nearly 7,000 sheep were kept in Burlington. More sheep than people were counted that year in Burlington, though the town had become Vermont's most populous town, with well over 4,000 residents.

During the decade of the 1840's, several significant changes occurred in the local economy. Unfavorable federal policies caused the price of wool to drop, and a transition from sheep farming to dairying began, and today is still an important industry to Vermont's economy.

After several years of conflict and debate, in 1865 the voters of Burlington decided to separate the densely populated village, mostly focused at the waterfront, from the surrounding rural areas. The village was incorporated as the City of Burlington while the remainder became the town of South Burlington. The village desperately needed public works; lack of proper sewage systems caused cholera outbreaks and firefighting was inhibited by inadequate water supplies. Rural residents were unwilling to pay higher taxes for something that would not benefit them directly. The separation finally enabled the village to make the much needed improvements.

The ravine that ran through the city was a trap for stagnant water and a source of smallpox. Gradually, section were filled in but not completely until around 1900. Electric power came to the city in 1885, the same year as the horse-drawn public trolleys were constructed.

Before the turn of the century the lumber and port activity declined for a variety of reasons. One reason was the widespread economic depression that occurred during the 1870s. As the prominent lumber industry declined, the local economy diversified.

New industries had been established, like Wells, Richardson and Company in 1872; wholesalers and manufacturers of drugs. The firms founders were Edward Wells, Albert E. Richardson and William J. Van Patten. Elias Lyman and Urban A. Woodbury were instrumental in organizing the Queen City Cotton Mills in the South end of the city, which opened in 1895. These five men represented most of the cities manufacturing and banking interests at the time. Impressive personal fortunes were made by these and other Burlington businessmen during this period.

Where did these wealthy businessmen call home? Willard Street or the "Hill District" was where grand mansions were built to accommodate their needs. The Willard Street area follows a fairly even grade as it parallels Lake Champlain to the West, traversing along the ridge to the East, as it rises gently from the South, cresting near Maple Street, then gently descends to Pearl Street to the North. Willard Street is named for Barty Willard. He came to Burlington in 1793. According to the Burlington City Directories, he was a wheelwright and blacksmith by trade. His home at the time was located on Pearl Street and looked down the length of the street. In 1805, he purchased the redstone quarry, known as Willard Quarry, located at the southern end of Willard Street. Although there is evidence of this streets existence as early as 1809, there were not any homes built on the street before 1830. Sometime around 1873 Willard Street was extended north of Pearl to Hyde Street. Today, Pearl Street is the dividing point between north and south Willard Street as shown On the 1890 Hopkins Map.

As a project for a Historic Preservation class (Researching historic Sites and Structures) at the University of Vermont, the city of Burlington was divided into sections that ran north to south. The students in the class each received one of those sections. The goal of the project was to research and document any structures that were built between 1869-1877 that still exist today. This website contains the structures that were found to have been built during the specified period and exist today.


Carlough, Peter, Bygone Burlington (Burlington, Vermont: Queen City Printers, 1976)

Carlisle, Lilian Baker, ed., Look Around chittenden County, Vermont (Burlington, Vt: Chittenden County Histoirical Society, 1976)

1869 Beers Map

Feaster, Laura Selene, Street names of Burlington and South Burlington, Vermont

1890 Hopkins Map

Vermont Division For Historic Preservation, Vermont Historic Sites and Structures Survey: Burlington

William S. Rann, ed., History of Chittenden county (Syracuse, New York: D. Mason & Co., 1886)

Zadock Thompson, A Gazetteer of the State of Vermont, (Burlington, VT.: E.P. Walton, 1824)


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