This Place in History: Central Vermont Railway

Local News

SAINT ALBANS, Vt.

At ‘This Place in History’, we’re in Saint Albans with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins.

“Of course, Saint Albans and railroads are somewhat synonymous, so we’re going to meet with Alex Lehning, Director of the Saint Albans Museum and Denise Smith who has helped out with some projects around town,” introduced Perkins.

“So the Central Vermont Railway is interesting. It was started by the Smith family. There was a series of regional railroads in the 1860s that formed in 1870 the Central Vermont Railway. It was the biggest employer here in Saint Albans. There were thousands of workers, 23 tracks; now we have one here downtown. There was the building behind us, which was the administrative headquarters. There was a switchyard, a repair yard and other facilities so they could actually build their own parts for the cars here, as well as send them north to Canada or back towards New England and the rest of the U.S.,” explained Lehning.

“When we think of Vermont today, we think of small towns and small cities, but the Central Vermont Railroad was not just Saint Albans. It really had national and international reach,” said Perkins.

“Absolutely. The railroad stretched from New York to Canada and had connections even going farther out west. It operated in four states at its height. Again, it was really known for connecting Saint Albans to the rest of the world, getting dairy and products and things to Canada or to Boston.”

“There was actually a CVR pier in New York City, even transatlantic trade. Getting things from ship to shore to train to the rest of the U.S. was possible because of the reach of this company and because of the influence of the Smith family and the way they were able to build alliances and collaborations and leases with other regional railroads. That really turned CVR into a rail powerhouse. At one time, it was the seventh largest railway in the entire country,” remarked Lehning.

“Who was the most famous Smith family member, if we were to know one name?” asked Perkins.

“I think J. Gregory Smith is the one that jumps out. The Smith family is certainly synonymous with Saint Albans. We’re nicknamed the rail city for a reason. So I mentioned those regional railroads early. The Smith brothers were the first two presidents of the regional ones. J. Gregory Smith became the president of the CVR when it was founded here. He was a philanthropist. He was an entrepreneur. He was involved in seven or eight businesses. He was involved in the creation of the library and someone who also served in the State Senate, the State House and as our governor during the Civil War. When you think about the impact on the community and what he and his family contributed, that’s certainly the name that would come to mind first for me,” answered Lehning.

“Denise, in the past you were working for a watershed group and the Lake Champlain Basin Program provided funds to put signage around town to talk about the railroads. You did some focusing on the Smith family. Can you tell us a bit about them and how they were involved?” questioned Perkins.

“One of the things we firmly believe is that if people don’t know about a place, they won’t protect a place. The project really focused on three historic sites in Saint Albans and the railroad being one of them. The massive railroad tunnel used to be here. It was a structure that I’ve seen only photos of.” answered Smith.

“So we wanted to make a historic display that would highlight some of the historic buildings that were a part of our community. Working with the museum and all of their incredible resources, we put together three panels, one of them on the railroad and the Smith family. And the theme was the Smith family throughout all of this and the reason for this was because of their influence on this community and in the built infrastructure that we know are so proud to have. Protecting this iconic buildings in our community has been very important to the nature of place of our community,” concluded Smith.

At ‘This Place in History’!

For more from our series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historical markers, click here.

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