A History of the Old North End, compiled and written by long-time St. Louis Street resident Megan Humphrey
The First Settlers
Initially, Abenaki Indians used the Intervale floodplain of the Winooski River (Winooski translates to “onion river land”) for both foraging and hunting. Called “Pasahana” to describe an intervale that runs east to west east to west, Abenakis grew the “Three Sisters” of corn, beans, and squash; foraged medicinals and nuts; hunted wild game; and fished in the Winooski River. In the late 1700s, white settlers utilized the Intervale floodplain to produce corn, flax, lumber, potash, and other grains. And in the 1800s, settlers began to live and farm there. Bill Seymour, a former Abenaki Chief, lived on Walnut Street for many years, finally moving away in the 1990s. He often walked down through the Intervale to look for arrowheads, watch birds, seek out animal tracks, and chat with people along the way. Bill loved to share his knowledge of the natural world with anyone he encountered.
In the 1800s, Burlington was the country’s third largest lumber port. Although the shoreline was originally long and sandy, it was constantly filled and expanded until the 1950s. Approximately 60 acres were added between the Burlington waterfront and North Beach! Logs were floated down from Canada and, besides lumber milling, the Burlington area produced boats, wooden boxes, window blinds, and sash and doors. (Our own porch ceiling was built with wooden window blinds—the family who lived here worked at the Winooski mills where those blinds were made.) Over the years, the waterfront industries shifted from lumber to a railyard to petroleum storage tanks—at one point, there were 83 tanks lining the shoreline. After tanks were disassembled, the City developed the waterfront with bike paths and community space. Merchandise moved from Burlington to Boston and New York, first by stagecoach and eventually through the Champlain Canal which opened in 1823.
Expanding into the Old North End
The City expanded into the Old North End (ONE), just to the north of the downtown area, in the 1880s. Once the heart of the city’s shopping district, its borders include as far north as the Intervale, south to the north side of Pearl Street, east to the Winooski Bridge, and west to Lake Champlain.
Ethnic neighborhoods and shops, farmland, an army unit (near Battery Park), elementary schools, cemeteries, a fairground, athletic fields, and parks yield hints as to what this area would have looked like over 100 years ago. Irish, French-Canadian, Italians, German, and Russian and Polish Jews settled in the ONE beginning in the mid-1850s and prospered in this part of town in the 1880s and 1890s. Many of the ONE residents worked at the mills in Winooski, along the waterfront, or as store owners and peddlers. According to the 1930 census, about 40% of Burlington residents were immigrants or first generation Americans. More recent immigrants from Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa continue to settle here and increase our ethnic diversity. The ONE now abounds with housing, businesses and nonprofits, restaurants, and art studios.
In 1889, there were 30 commercial businesses and 50 residential buildings on North Street. Often, families lived upstairs from their businesses on the ground floor. By 1995, there were only 17 commercial businesses and 52 residential buildings as neighborhoods clearly shifted over the years. Today, the numbers of businesses and restaurants is on the rise again.
Old North End Notes
Many immigrants traveled to Burlington through Canada, as passage fees to America were more expensive. Little Italy, Little Jerusalem, Little Canada, Irish, and German neighborhoods grew as the City expanded into the ONE. Italians lived near Pearl Street and St. Paul Street (near the former Bove’s Restaurant which opened in 1941), the Russian and Polish Jewish neighborhood was in the Hyde Street area, Germans lived close to the current German Club off North Avenue, the Irish neighborhood was near Nunyuns (the corner of North St. and N. Champlain St), and French Canadians lived by what is now Integrated Arts Academy.
Little Jerusalem covered a few blocks in the ONE and included 3 synagogues, the Hebrew Free School, and many businesses. Ohavi Sedek Synagogue was founded in 1885 on Hyde Street and is now on North Prospect Street. The former Chai Adam Synagogue on Hyde Street was the site of the Lost Shul Mural, found behind a wall and now at home at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. Ruach HaMaqom and Ahavath Gerim are currently at 168 Archibald Street in a synagogue built in 1885.
As early as 1794, Elmwood Avenue Cemetery was being used for burials. Fanny Allen (2nd wife of Ethan Allen and mother to Fanny whose name is on Fanny Allen Hospital), Levi Allen, Timothy Follet, Gideon King, and Zadock Thompson are buried there.
Battery Park filled 9 acres in 1812, when it was the property of the United States. In 1813, the park was the campground for troops gathered to resist the advance of British troops. About 3,000 men were housed in temporary barracks just north of the park. In 1831, Battery Park was sold to private citizens. And in 1940, it was deeded to the City of Burlington for use as public space.
Spring Street first appeared on maps in 1830. Most of the buildings on the street are plain, single-family homes in a working class neighborhood. Only one house is built with bricks and only one has decorative gables.
In 1853, Vermont Central Railroad still had tracks right through town, running near Hyde Street and looping down south around Maple Street in a ravine that has since been filled in. At that point in time, not much was developed beyond North Street. By 1861, a masonry block wall tunnel had been built. Railroad tracks were shifted to run through the Intervale and out to the waterfront.
The Baptist French Mission Chapel was built in 1873 where the Integrated Arts Academy currently sits. The City purchased the chapel in 1888, renovated the building and turned it into Archibald Street School in what was known as the “French Village” or “Little Canada”. Later, the school was named “H.O. Wheeler School”.
By 1869, there were some houses north of North Street. What is now called “Elmwood Avenue” was “Locust”, “Union” was then called “Maiden”, Battery was “Water”, and what’s now called “Prospect” was “Gough”. “Manhattan” was called “North Bend”.
In 1877, Riverside Avenue was called “First”, “Lower”, or “Winooski Road” and a trolley ran along on tracks. When the former owners of my home were kids, they used to slide from what is now Fern Hill senior housing all the way down into the Intervale.
They could only make 2 runs in an entire day with the long hike back up the hill. They’d station a friend on the Lower Road to yell when it was all clear from trolleys and other traffic.
Before Centennial Field was built in 1906, there was an athletic field just off Riverside Avenue on Intervale Road. With a trolley line on one side and the railroad on the other, people arrived by public transportation or walking.
John W. Roberts was an architect and builder of more than 50 homes in Burlington from the 1870s-1890s. Built in the Queen Anne style, they sold for as little as $900. Roberts’ houses have L- shaped porches, a bay window in front, and unique designs of circles and diamonds on the gable. Many of the homes are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
St. Louis Street still did not exist in 1877. Once developed, it ran north and south in two sections, with Roosevelt Park in the middle. Originally called “Shaw’s Lot” after an owner of the land, the park had a neighborhood skating rink and ball games…then as now. Later, it was named “Roosevelt Park”.
The north end of St. Louis Street was the neighborhood for many relatives of Peg Dumas as part of the French-Canadian section of the ONE. Once the entrance to the City dump (opened in 1942), the north end now provides access to the bikepath.
I am only the third owner of my home which was built in the 1880s. The French-Canadian Gravel family lived in my house for over 100 years prior to 1997.
I was lucky enough to hear stories from the Gravels about the neighborhood—tales of sledding in the winter all the way from Fern Hill senior housing down into the Intervale; playing croquet on their lawn in the summertime; dirt roads and horses and flies everywhere; horse-drawn carts that delivered food and other goods throughout the neighborhood; exciting tales from the Prohibition era including illegal alcohol brewed from garden grapes in the dirt- floor cellar; and a family tale claiming that a Gravel was one of the last people across the Winooski Bridge before the bridge was swept away in the Great Flood of 1927.
In a house that measured about 1,000 square feet at that time, with an outhouse out back, 12 family members as well as visiting young women from Canada who worked in the mills in Winooski must have filled every square inch. The spirit of the Gravel parents and their 10 children accompany me as I care for and cherish our home right here in the Old North End.
What is now a very desirable neighborhood, the Lakeview Terrace area of the City was just up the cliffside from Moran Generating Plant. From 1955 until 1986, the coal-fired Moran Plant produced electricity. Folks who grew up in that part of the City stated that laundry hung out was covered in black soot, respiratory problems frequently occurred, and windows were blackened.
The McNeil Generating Plant has replaced the Moran Plant. A different border of the ONE now hosts the wood-chipping burning station that provides electricity for the City.
Today, homes and apartment buildings line the streets in the ONE, creating unusual triangular patterns on a map. Construction mimicked those triangles and many structures come to a narrowed point on any given street corner. Neighborhood parks, community gardens, and flowered treebelts lend some respite to the somewhat tight quarters here.
To name just a few of the businesses and buildings, then and now: Nunyuns was First National Stores; 144-146 North Street was IGA Stores; 294 North Winooski was Fassett’s Bakery in 1932 (now home to many nonprofits and businesses); the corner of North Street and North Avenue housed Saiger’s Department Store (owned by the Colodny Family), Colodny’s grocery store, Burlington Collage, and currently COTS shelter; Rugoff Electric Company where Radio Bean currently resides; Church of the Nazarene was opposite Rugoff on the corner of Pearl and North Winooski; 86 Pitkin was Harold Mintzer Grocer; Gelineau’s Pastry Shop was at 184 North Street; 143 North Champlain was home to a private school, wholesale flour store, and then a grocery store; 106-108 North Street housed New York Fashion and then Great A & P Tea Company; 78 North Street was shoe repair, a grocery store, and a barbershop.
Louis L. McAllister was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1877 and passed away in the ONE in1963. McAllister became a well-known photographer who was responsible for documenting many of the street projects in the Burlington area as well as panoramic photos of crowds and scenes. In a home that was built in 1889, McAllister lived at 47 North Winooski Avenue from 1916 until his death. Many of McAllister’s photos show streets canopied with trees. Elm trees sadly disappeared from destruction by Dutch Elm disease, leaving the skyline open.
Abenakis called the lake “Pitawbagok”, the Mohawk name was “Kaniatarakwà:ronte”, and explorer Samuel de Champlain named it “Lac Champlain” when he arrived in 1609. The lake marks the territory between the Abenaki and Mohawk nations. I’ve read that Lake Champlain is anywhere between the 6th largest and the 13th largest lake in the United States—it runs 107 miles long with its northern border on Canada, and reaches depths of almost 400 feet. The lake’s greatest width is 14 miles.
Other Stories of The Intervale
George Reynolds initially lived on Elmwood Avenue, purchasing 50 acres of land in the Intervale in 1860 and bought an additional 50 acres in 1863. In 1868, he moved into a farmhouse built there— a barn already existed. His family operated a dairy farm and had horses, cows, oxen, and pigs on 126 acres. They also grew Indian corn, oats, rye, and wheat. The nearby railroad, running right through the Intervale, offered a way for the Reynolds family to deliver their milk to southern New England. George Reynolds operated the farm until he died in 1891. His wife, Maria, and their three children managed the farm until 1928. Fayette and Ella Calkins then purchased the farm in 1930.
In 1937, Ella moved to the farm by herself, having been separated from Fayette. Daughter Rena moved to the farm in 1941 to assist her mother. Ella passed away in 1947 and Rena hired help for the dairy farm. When Rena retired, she was the last dairy farmer in Burlington. She lived in the farmhouse until the age of 91 in1991. Rena died in 1997 in St. Johnsbury and the property then went to her nephew, Paul Calkins. Paul and Rita donated the farm to the Intervale Foundation in 2002.
The Intervale Foundation was established in 1988 with the mission of restoring the land and farmstead to a community agricultural, business development, and recreational resource. Paul and Rita Calkins donated an additional 53 acres in 2005.
Grants and an easement came from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the Preservation Trust of Vermont, and the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation as well as money from a number of generous donors. These monies were used for the restoration of the historic farmstead.
Kathy LaCross’s family lived on Intervale Road from 1958 until 1985. Her father worked as a salesman for McKenzie Meats. Pigs were kept near her house and there was a slaughterhouse where Gardener’s Supply Company now stands. Sadly, their house burned down in the 1990s.
Seven other families lived on Intervale Road when Kathy was growing up. Kids played baseball, picked berries, played on the railroad tracks, rode bikes, went fishing in both summer and winter, watched wildlife, and went sledding. Kathy loved growing up there.
The Intervale had its share of problems over the years. People dumped garbage and there was questionable human activity. More recent farming efforts, a large community garden site, Gardeners Supply and the Intervale Foundation, and pathways for biking or walking or skiing have helped alleviate some of those challenges.
Special thanks to Bill & Clarke Gravel, Judy Dow, Peg Dumas, Kendall Frost, Intervale Center, Jill Krowinski, UVM Special Collections, Vermont Historical Society, and Frederick Wiseman