On a Thursday in late November 1970, the Spaulding High School marching band disembarked its bus. The afternoon sun threw long shadows on the road as the Barre-based band walked the freshly painted highway just outside of Montpelier. Over marching band uniforms, students wore plastic bags to keep dry from the imminent rain. The drum major wore his as a cape. Anyone without uniforms huddled in puffy jackets and woolen hats. The students readied instruments, including trumpets, flutes and sousaphones. This was the opening ceremony for the final segment of Interstate 89.
What song do you play for a highway? A booming patriotic march? A state folk song? A hopeful prelude?
The fall foliage had passed and naked trees reached skyward. Men in fedoras and long trench coats gathered in clumps of two or three. Women in plastic bonnets, dry under their umbrellas, peppered the crowd. More than 100 cars were lined up in rows of three. They were organized on fresh asphalt that stretched, for the first time, from Bow, New Hampshire, to the Canadian border.
And there was the cannon. For a decade, the cannon had been carted up and down to openings along the interstate from Highgate to White River Junction. It would be filled with powder, (no ammunition) and it would boom to signal the opening of a segment. Over 10 years (in construction), the interstate would shape the spirit and the future of Vermont.
The marching band played its usual repertoire: “The Star Spangled Banner” and “O Canada.” Mimi Holtz played piccolo; she was a junior from the Barre school.
Ten years earlier, the first section of I-89 had opened a few hundred yards away. It stretched north — just six short miles from Montpelier, connecting the capital to Middlesex.
Holtz’s father, Arthur Brookins Delano Jr., was a civil engineer for the Vermont State Highway Department. She remembers her dad took her and her brother to see the unfinished highway sections. He’d show them where future roads would be. Surveyors had marked the long exits from I-89 to South Barre in spray paint on snow.
Holtz’s dad worked in the Right of Way division. His job was to travel around to speak to the owners of properties the government planned to take through eminent domain. His division would show the land owners surveys, invite them to public hearings to protest and, ultimately, buy their land. The highway would often split farms in a way that it would make some of the land inaccessible. Sometimes the state would offer to build a cattle pass underneath the new interstate. Delano had been a farmer until he was 33, and his job now was to take land from those like him and his own father. It was tough on him.
Mimi remembers her mother thinking her father couldn’t handle the job anymore. He’d said it wasn’t so much the taking of the land, but how it was handled. He was often depressed in winter, but this job was making it worse. He wanted to return to farming.
Delano transitioned to engineering work on Interstate 91, and worked on the cloverleaf interchange in White River Junction, which he loved. Delano did return to farming, albeit briefly; in 1969 he moved his family — wife, four kids, dog, cat and guinea pig — to North Carolina to raise cattle. They rented land from tobacco sharecroppers. But after just 23 days, he announced they were moving back to Vermont and he was going back to work on the interstate.
Returning to that blustery day in 1970, when Interstate 89 was finally complete, all the land that needed to be taken had been taken. All the mountains had been blasted through. All the pavement had been graded. All that was left was to drive down the completed highway for the first time.
When the marching band finished playing, the Burlington Free Press reported that then-Gov. Dean C. Davis made his remarks, “When high-quality transportation is available, we know we are in the vanguard of development.” He cut a custom-made ribbon that read, “I 89 Opening November 19, 1970.”
The motorcade drove down the final segment of Interstate 89 and turned off the highway 30.5 miles later at the Randolph Rest Area, where the wives of the Greater Barre Jaycees provided hot coffee and doughnuts and cider.
Under many interstate road signs, is a bright blue square with five white stars, in honor of the five-star general after whom the highway system is named, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
When he became president, Eisenhower authorized the Federal Interstate Highway Act of 1956, and within a few short years, construction began on the interstate highway in rural Vermont.
By 1958, the very first segment of Interstate 91 had sneaked over the Massachusetts border toward Brattleboro. The first section of Interstate 89 started in the middle of the state in order to connect the Capital City with the Queen City of Burlington.
Bruce Chappell lived outside Montpelier in a ranch-style home with his parents and siblings in a post-war housing community. The highway was being built behind his backyard. The neighborhood children were excited to see bulldozers and excavators working right out their windows.
The highwaymen would come by and tell them, “We’re gonna blast today at 2 p.m.” The mothers would round up the children and head down to the ToyTown creemee stand. The children would eat ice cream while listening to the sounds of blasting. (At the time, crews didn’t use blast mats, so the dirt and rocks would go flying; Bruce remembers his neighbors’ windows being shattered, and a piano-sized rock falling through someone’s roof.)
Down the road from Bruce, Jill Carnahan grew up on 10 acres just outside of Montpelier. Her father started a small animal hospital on their property. Carnahan, her siblings and the neighborhood children would play in the woods behind the house with the best backyard amenity a child could ask for — a three-foot tall waterfall that tumbled into a brook.
She was 12 in 1956 when highway surveyors came tramping through her backyard, placing stakes to mark off the future interstate. They paid her parents about $2,000 for a couple acres. Carnahan remembers walking through the family’s orchard with her younger sister, pulling up stakes, thinking if they did so, perhaps the highway would go away. Surveyors always returned and replaced the stakes.
By summer 1960, the first segment of the interstate was nearly complete. George Edson was 16 and the proud owner of a 1947 Ford two-door coupe. There was only one police cruiser in Montpelier at the time, so when he and his friends would pass the police on the street going in the opposite direction, they felt free from the law. They’d drive up on the interstate and whiz back and forth from Montpelier to Middlesex.
As a child, when Edson’s family drove from Montpelier to Boston, they’d drive the winding state highways, routes 14 and 12. Those roads followed Native American walking paths through the valleys, tracing the river. With the family in the car, and the windows open, they’d slowly pass through every town on the way to Boston. It took hours. The new highway would carve a path of least resistance. When it was finished, you’d be able to drive from Highgate to White River Junction and never have to stop.
By November 1960, down the street at the Carnahan veterinary clinic, the brook, orchard and waterfall were gone, replaced by a crushed rock wall leading up to the new interstate highway.
Larry Wiggan was 22 when he bought his house in Williamstown. He was the home’s third owner, and the people he bought it from had owned it the previous 99 years. He was a beer delivery truck driver and drove from White River Junction to Canada, stopping for deliveries at country stores lining the route along the way. Eventually, those many stores would be whittled to a few.
As the highway cut through pastures, it killed farms and associated businesses and vendors. The bottling plants would eventually die, too. The construction economy was good, though. There were jobs for any man who wanted to work on the interstate.
Wiggan was 26 in 1967 when he’d started working at Jordan Milton Machinery. “Better get over there quick — they’re hiring mechanics!” Wiggan got a job as a mechanic trainee and learned how to fix the heavy machinery that would come to shape the land. The equipment arrived on a railroad fresh out of the factory: bulldozers, tractor-scrapers, autograders, and “Screaming Jimmies” — the General Motors airtrack drillers that sounded like a jet taking off.
Wiggan remembers getting to work so early, he’d see the sun come up over the unpaved highway. The hours were long, and the job didn’t pay well. But he loved it. It got in his blood. It got under his fingernails. The grease and grime followed him everywhere. To this day, he jokes, if he lays on a clean pillowcase, you can see the outline of where his head had been.
Fred Costello graduated from college with an engineering degree. He was offered a job in Boston for $100 a week; he was also offered a job in Vermont for $110 a week. That $10 difference decided his life: His first job was surveying state highways near the Canadian border.
Costello remembers working with two Vermonters, and said even though they were all speaking English, between their French Canadian accents and his from Boston, they couldn’t understand a word the other was saying.
For a year, he worked on Interstate 89 in the Right of Way division. Unlike Delano, Costello wasn’t bothered by the work of visiting landowners and telling them that the interstate was coming through their property. He was impressed, actually, by the way Vermonters seemed to easily acquiesce for what he deemed a minimal amount of money. They seemed to roll over “for the good of the state,” with minimal squabble or lawyers. It was something he thought Massachusetts people would never have accepted — then or now.
Costello said he could see the change the highway would bring to the area. Every day, he’d get lunch at the Mannequin Restaurant in South Royalton. It was a popular spot, and wondered if it always would be.
Dwight Porter worked at the Mannequin Restaurant. It was owned by his parents, Fred and Dot Porter. Business was booming during the construction years. They would open in the early morning hours and the workers would stream in for breakfast, come back for lunch, and then hit them up again for dinner after a long hard day. On busy days, Dot would make as many as 28 pies; Fred would boil a turkey on the stove to make the meat moist and tender.
The Porters were terrified the interstate would take their business; it would be too easy for motorists to sail on by. But the opposite turned out to be true, Dwight Porter said. Their reputation was so good, drivers would get off in Sharon (where the was an exit at the time) and take Route 14 to stop for lunch then continue on to the Bethel exit to get back on the interstate. It would be so busy some days, they would have to put up a “Closed” sign in the window (at) lunch (time) because they couldn’t fit the people waiting.
Mike Gilbert graduated Spaulding High School in 1966 and went to Castleton State College (now Castleton University). While in college, he got a job painting lines on the interstate. He spent long, hot days riding on a truck spraying paint and the little beads that made lines shine at night.
In winter 1970, most segments of the highway were completed. Gilbert and his friends would ride snow machines up and down the unfinished highway segments, paying special attention to where bridges had not been completed.
Gilbert lived in South Barre, so when he would drive toward Rutland to go back to school, he would take winding Route 14 to Bethel, before he turned southwest to Rutland. That segment of his ride used to take 45 minutes; but when the interstate was completed, he could do it in 25.
Rutland is the largest Vermont city without an interstate exit. In the early days of planning, Rutland was considered for the interstate, though. One of the proposed routes for Interstate 89 was to dip south in New Hampshire, cut through Claremont, across to Rutland and then go on to Burlington and St. Albans.
Another proposed route would have come up the western side of Massachusetts by way of Bennington, Rutland and Burlington. But Massachusetts and Connecticut lobbied instead for I-91 to come up from Hartford and Springfield to make a direct route from these areas into Vermont.
In the first half of the 20th century, Claremont, New Hampshire, was the heart of the twin state valley, with a bustling downtown shopping area. Stevens High School was one of the top schools in the state, and their marching band performed in Eisenhower’s 1957 inaugural parade. If Interstate 89 had cut through Claremont, the city might have become the I-89/I-91 junction — filled with big-box stores like Lebanon, or artsy and craft brewed like Brattleboro.
One has to wonder how things might be different today.
As the interstate was being built, classified ads popped up in newspapers in Boston and New York, beckoning city dwellers to the ski slopes of the Green Mountains. Many people visited, and ended up moving to Vermont.
Thomas Watson Jr. came to ski at Stowe Mountain and ended up buying a home there in the 1950s. He built an IBM manufacturing facility in Essex, which went on to become the largest private employer in the state at a time when the unemployment rate was in the low teens and other factories were reducing workforces.
It is certain the interstate brought prosperity to some and downfall to others. Vermont’s population grew just 10% between 1850 and 1950, but between 1960 and 2000, the population grew by more than 50%.
In the last 20 years, the population of Vermont has been stagnant. The amount of people dying and people being born in the state are about equal. More people are moving out of the state than moving in, with the lone exception of a small population of immigrants moving from out of the country, mostly Canada.
Art Woolf, associate professor of economics at the University of Vermont, predicts the population of the state will shift to Franklin and Chittenden counties. Rural populations will continue to dry up, and the population will continue to shift to those urban areas that are a nice place to live and, as the saying goes, “so close to Vermont.”
Each year, about $600 million of state and federal funding is invested in Vermont’s interstate highway system. The state economic agencies see the highway as an integral part of the future of the state’s growth. Yet of the 15,000 miles of public roads across Vermont, more than half of them remain unpaved. The dirt road is not a relic of an older time, but a reality of the infrastructure of the state.
David Newhall lives in farmhouse on a dirt road in Orange with his small dog, Vicki. When he was a young man, he lived in a farmhouse with his family in Middlesex. He photographed the interstate construction that broke up his family’s and neighbors’ land. Newhall says the town lost 16 taxable buildings, including three barns, a chicken coop, and the creemee stand. His family acquiesced without complaint. He donated his photographs to the Vermont Historical Society, so others can know the history of that area and the project.
Newhall is 83 today. He speaks of the construction of the highway with near reverence. It was an amazing thing that happened, he says. The earth moved. His neighbor’s house was loaded onto a truck and moved. It turns out the home was simply in the way of where a highway needed to go.
Colleen Goodhue, of Dartmouth College, is a documentary and nonfiction television producer who has worked for PBS, National Geographic, MTV, HBO and Red Bull Media, among others.