Burlington, Vermont
Early 20th-century Postcard Views

HP 206 Researching Historic Structures & Sites • 2012
Historic Preservation ProgramUniversity of Vermont

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The postcard above was published for H.C. Bessey of Burlington, Vermont, and printed in Germany. There is no postmark date. This photo was taken from a similar angle facing southwest near the breakwater of Lake Champlain on October 11th, 2012.


It may be hard for people familiar with crowded lakeside summer days at North Beach, but this photo postcard image of downtown Burlington and Lake Champlain was actually taken before this beach was municipally owned. During most of the first two decades of the 20th century the people of Burlington, in fact, did not have a place to legally swim.[1] In 1902, the new parks commission president, W. J. Van Patten, initially expressed an interest in purchasing North Beach, as it had already been referred to in the past, to be used as a park and municipal bathing area. He repeated these sentiments in 1914, and stressed North Beach in part because the beaches to the south side of the city were at the time polluted by sewage.[2] It took Van Patten and his cohorts nearly 16 years, but in 1918 the Burlington Municipal Bathing Beach was purchased by the city, and from that point on it has been one of Burlington's greatest summertime attractions.[3]

1919 was the first full season of Burlington's Municipal Bathing Beach, and in that year the parks commissioners stated, "the city was able to complete a very satisfactory building at Burlington Beach." Furthermore, apparently "only on 4th of July was (the beach) severely over crowded." In that year the commission spent money on a vast development project including water pipe valves, fire extinguishers, tables, lumber, fire insurance, cesspool, hardware, telephone co, water pluming, heating oil, advertising, American Express co., and others.[4]

In 1923, the parks commissioners secured redirection of the road so that pedestrians would not need to use the roadway making it significantly safer for locals who were walking to the beach. In that year, the head commissioner, D. C. Hawley, now in his third year, gave strong suggestions about city planning to city council.[5]

By the next year Thomas F. Conlon had assumed the chairmanship of the city parks commission and George P. Burns became the superintendent.[6] In the first report this administration would release the commissioners made it clear that the growing popularity the facilities had rendered them too small, and that issue would become a theme moving forward.[7] By 1925, the growing popularity of the beach made the bathhouse at the municipal beach more profitable,[8] but the next two seasons seem to have been cold and stymied further growth.[9]

In 1929, new tennis courts were constructed at the beach.[10] Over the next two years the commission would spend some money on grading to provide space for tennis and golf, and the fencing in and lighting of tennis courts building off of the earlier tennis project. However, the beginning of the Great Depression had a serious effect on the volume of revenue at the bathhouse, and as less money was flowing in development slowed to a halt. Despite the fact that revenue was low, the growing leisure time of the unemployed made North Beach one of the most popular places in Burlington during the summers at this time.[11]

Where municipal funding was lacking, however, the federal government picked up the slack, and in 1934 a federal Civil Works Administration project helped grade and fill a swamp at the back of the bathing beach. In contrast, and despite the work being done, in this year the parks commission could not pay some of their outstanding bills due to serious revenue decreases at the bathhouse.[12]

In 1936, Thomas F Conlon became the Superintendent of Parks succeeding George P. Burns,[13] and right away President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration bolstered his department. The W.P.A.'s purpose was to provide subsidized labor for improvements to public spaces, and the Burlington parks department took advantage from the start. The biggest project carried out during the W.P.A. years at North Beach occurred in 1937 when a new electric line was installed to the tourist lodge, and cooking, refrigeration, and lights for tourists were also hooked up. These improvements only resulted in a modest $1.00 charge for a day's use of the lodge.[14] Also, shortly after the W.P.A. Years, in 1940, a new sewage disposal field was constructed to serve the beach.[15]

In 1942, W. L. Hammond became the superintendent of the parks, and in that year the commission also first makes mention of Dutch elm disease, which over the next thirty plus years would rob the city's tree stock as well as the Parks Commissions annual budgets. In his first year, Hammond oversaw a good deal of development at North Beach including the building of fireplaces, safety lines, additional lifeguard towers, observation towers, lifeboats, ring buoys, and heaving lines.[16] Development continued into the following year with repairs to the bathhouse, an increase in number of lifeguards to six, additional lifelines, a diving float, and more stone fireplaces for family picnics.[17]

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Hammond and the parks commission would attempt to make improvements to the municipal bathing beach. Requests in these years included a road of a more permanent character in 1944, and to make important changes to the beach including the usable area in 1946. But none matched the fervor of the greatest battle that Hammond could never win: his repeated requests for construction of a new bathhouse to replace the original wooden 1919 building.[18]

In apparent appeasement by the city council, in 1950 Hammed requested an extensive repair to all beach buildings and his request was granted in 1951.[19] A new roof and a metal drip porch were added to the south bathhouse, and a men's shower room. The roof was repaired to the north bathhouse, and boarding was placed on west and south sides. A new shingle roof was installed on the lodge, and the barn was strengthened with an extensive repair to its foundation and north wall.[20] These repairs, though agreeable, were not satisfactory for Hammond, and he would continue to push for a new bathhouse for the rest of his career. The agreeable conditions brought with them an increase in tourists at the beach in 1952. Hammond referred to this steady level of visitation as " the most consistent patronage in 10 years."[21]

However, by 1956 Hammond was again urging the city to release funds to modernize the municipal beach area and for a new bathhouse. His argument was that this project would increase tourist attraction and therefor revenue.[22] However, two years in a row, in 1958 and in 1959, the bond issue for his project would fail to receive the two-thirds majority it needed from voters in order to move forward.[23] So the next step for Hammond and the parks commission was to instal a parking fee structure to increase revenue and to build a fund for the new bathhouse.[24] The parking revenue however, increasingly went to support the general operation of the parks commission as the costs of tree maintenance continued to grow. In 1961 W.L. Hammond retired after 20 years as parks superintendent, sadly never getting to oversee the construction of a modern bathhouse at the Burlington municipal bathing beach.[25]

In 1962 the parks commission expanded the parking at the beach, and in turn income expanded from the parking revenue,[26] and in 1963 they once again installed a new sewage system.[27] However, certainly the greatest development to occur at North Beach in the 1960s was the 1964 approval of a new bathhouse, and construction of that new steel bathhouse began on May 25th of that year.[28]

By 1965, camping was growing in popularity, and Burlington was suddenly on the national camping scene. Thirty new campsites were needed just to keep up with demand, as the new bathhouse attracted more Burlingtonians than ever before due to streamlined concessions and a more functional and attractive facility at the beach.[29] Throughout the rest of the 1960s North Beach would overflow with both revenue and visitation.[30] By 1967, this patronage would lead the parks commission to a determination that North Beach could no longer be the sole city beach. Over 70,000 persons had used the small beach that year alone, and a sizable portion of the beach actually belonged to the Episcopal Diocese at Rock Point just to the north.[31]

1968 marked an important year in that the beach actually became so profitable that it operated without any tax appropriation for the first time, and the surplus cash was used to fund other parks.[32] This little beach continued to grow more and more crowded each summer as attendance topped 100,000 in that year, and 8,000 people were in attendance on the 4th of July alone. In order to control crowds in that year more lifeguards were trained, and a loud speaker was installed.[33]

However, confidence was shaken some in 1971 when the beach closed three weeks early due to very high coliform bacteria counts in excess of those recommended for swimming.[34] In 1972 attendance topped 100,000 again, but the beach had to close a few days once again for high lake bacteria counts. There was a bleak revenue picture in that year due to a rainy June that led to a deficit of $16,000; this was the first time the bathhouse had failed to meet expense in some years.[35] The coliform problems were not existent by the next year.[36] By the late 1970s, the beach was so predictably profitable that a small reserve fund began to grow.[37]

In 1982, the North Beach Development project, a $260,000 improvement, commenced in order to increase picnic areas, corrected drainage problems, and improved the quality of recreation experience in landscaping, organizing parking, and additional space for informal games such as Volleyball and Frisbee.[38] However, by the 1990s the Parks Commission reported limited resources and complained of "having to do less with more."[39] Still the commission managed to gather the funds to construct another new bathhouse, permitted in 1997– the building that stands today replaced the bathhouse from 1964.[40]

North Beach is still in use as a public park today, and is open May 1 through Labor Day. Parking costs are now $6 per vehicle per day and $8 for non-residents. Lifeguards are on duty from 11am-6pm from June 19-August 21 and on weekends until Labor Day. Amenities include a picnic area with grills and picnic tables, snack bar open daily 11am to 6pm, rest rooms, foot showers, and a new picnic shelter for groups. Water quality testing is done at North Beach weekly during the summer.  Results are available on Tuesdays and Fridays.  Any results which require closing of the beach are be posted on the front page of the beach's website. So we see from parking fees to picnic areas, to regular water quality testing, the history of North Beach park continues to effect the day to day experiences there to this very day.[41]


1. "The Value of Vacation," Burlington Weekly Free Press, May 28th, 1914. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86072143/1914-05-28/ed-1/seq-16/

2. "Col Benedict on Civic Beauty," Burlington Weekly Free Press, November 6th, 1902. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86072143/1902-11-06/ed-1/seq-14/
3. 1919 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1919) 65-6.

4.1919 Burlington City Annual Report, 65-6.

5.1923 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1923) 63-5.

6. 1924 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1924) 6.

7. 1924 Burlington City Annual Report, 55.

8. 1925 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1925), 58.

9. 1926 Burlington City Annual Report (Free Press Printing Co., 1926), 61; 1927 Burlington City Annual Report (Free Press Printing Co., 1927), 61.

10. 1929 Annual Report (Free Press Printing Co., 1929), 151.

11. 1930 Annual Report (Free Press Printing Co., 1930), 155; 1931 Annual Report (Free Press Printing Co., 1931), 151-2; 1932 Annual Report (Free Press Printing Co., 1932), 154-5.

12. 1934 Annual Report (Free Press Printing Co., 1934), 112.

13. 1936 Annual Report (Free Press Printing Co., 1936), 10.

14. 1937 Annual Report (Free Press Printing Co., 1937), 129.

15. 1940 Annual Report (Free Press Printing Co., 1940), 125.

16. 1942 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1942), 129-36.

17. 1943 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1943), 130-6.

18. 1944 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1944), 125-9; 1946 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1946), 136-7; 1947 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1947), 138; 1949 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1949), 121.

19. 1950 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1950), 118.

20. 1951 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1951), 104.

21. 1952 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1952), 107.

22. 1956 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1956), 129.

23. 1958 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1958), 37; 1959 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1959), 115-6.

24. 1960 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1960), 122.

25. 1961 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1961), 117-8.

26. 1962 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1962), 123.

27. 1963 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1963), 119.

28. 1964 Burlington City Annual Report (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1964), 133.

29. 1965 Burlington City Annual Reports (Burlington, VT: Free Press Printing Co., 1965), 126.

30. 1965 Annual Reports (Free Press Printing Co., 1965), 135-6.

31. 1966 Annual Reports (Free Press Printing Co., 1966), 131.

32. 1968 Annual Reports (Free Press Printing Co., 1968), 124.

33. 1969 Annual Reports (Free Press Printing Co., 1969), 130.

34. 1971 Annual Reports (Free Press Printing Co., 1971), 39-40.

35. 1972 Annual Reports (Free Press Printing Co., 1972), 36.

36. 1973 Annual Reports (Free Press Printing Co., 1973), 44.

37. 1978 Annual Reports (Free Press Printing Co., 1978), 51.

38. 1982 Annual Reports (Free Press Printing Co., 1982), 32.

39. 1992 Annual Reports (Free Press Printing Co., 1992), 78; 1996 Annual reports, (Free Press Printing Co., 1996), 48.

40. "Permit History", City of Burlington Department of Planning and Zoning

41. "North Beach" http://www.enjoyburlington.com/northbeach.cfm

Text and photographs by Daniel Leckie