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

“Right behind us here is the Pine Street Barge Canal, or as it used to be known, the Burlington Barge Canal. A barge canal has many different meanings. This barge canal was very important in the growth of Burlington as a worldwide lumber center,” began Perkins.

“The trees were coming from Canada, down the Richelieu River into Lake Champlain and they were coming to Burlington where they then could be milled, planed and transshipped out via railway. This was a huge rail center all through here.”

“So this brings us to the barge canal. So when we say barge, we’re talking about sailing canal boats not really barges. There was a guy named Lawrence Barnes, a very wealthy guy in Burlington. This is how he made his money. He realized that with all this cheap lumber coming down from Canada, that he could bring it down on these canal boats and offload it here in Burlington,” explained Perkins.

“He built a whole bunch of milling and planing factories that could then turn that lumber into finished boards or rough-cut boards that he could then put onto trains of the Central Vermont Railroad. The trains charged by weight. So one, he was increasing its value by turning it from logs into rough-cut lumber or planed lumber and then he was also saving himself money because he could put more boards on a train once he finished them off. He made a killing.”

“Burlington became a center of the lumber industry from the 1850s to the 1890s. Now, he wanted the most lumber as possible stacked up all along the waterfront and this was kind of a swamp in here. He said if we fill this in and build this canal system, the canal boats can come in and turn around, we can have more surface area to stack lumber.”

“By the 1890s to around 1900 they had really cut down most of the big-growth Canadian lumber that was coming to this area. Burlington started to replace it with other things, the shipping industry and other manufacturing of goods and services, all along this Pine Street corridor. It meant that the barge canal somewhat went out of use,” said Perkins.

“Now at the same time, we have to remember that all the cities in the United States were becoming gasified. They were adding gas services for lighting, heating and cooking. That gas did not come from natural gas as we think of today. It came from coal gasification.”

“They took coal, which was mined in the Appalachians, brought up by train to this area and we had what was called a coal gasification plant which was on the site of where Burlington Electric headquarters is now. It turned coal into gas, which was then pumped into the city of Burlington. The problem with coal gasification is that you end up with a lot of toxic byproducts such as coal tar, cyanide and other gross chemicals. What did they do with those chemicals from 1900 or so up until 1966 when the plant closed? They just dumped it out the back door.  And the back door is right here, the swamps all around this barge canal.”

“Ultimately today, we know this area as a Superfund site more than a great example of our industrial past. But if you want to know about our history, come down and take a look at our barge canal,” concluded Perkins.

At ‘This Place in History’!

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