Vergennes

by Susan Abbott
"...and the smallest city, Vergennes, boasts that it is the smallest city in the United States." Charles Edward Crane


What's the point of driving from town to town in my Toyota, juggling camera, map and sketchbook? I'm not an historian or economist gathering data, but I'm not just sightseeing either. I think this project is my way of trying to get a grasp on where I live (like realizing that there's much more to learn about a spouse ten years into a marriage--and I did move to Vermont because I fell in love with the place). My way of understanding is to look, draw, paint, gather images. Love, art and road trips are passionate processes with indefinite conclusions.

So, I slow down as I drive into Vergennes on Route 22A, and take in the small factory on the left (looks really old-- empty now or put to a new use?) and the first ornate downtown building on the right. I park, take my sketchbook and stroll down quiet Sunday Main Street.


The downtown of "the smallest city in the U.S." (only in Vermont would that be a bragging right) is in wonderful shape: ornate 19th century facades fastidiously painted in a spectrum of colors, and most buildings occupied with trades and services that make a town useful to locals. Even the laundromat is elegant.

And as often happens in Vermont, I sense ghosts here. This tiny city's heyday was in the 1800's, and today I'm looking at the beautifully maintained remnants of another century's energy, creativity and wealth.

Many towns have a "Mechanic Street", and it never disappoints. I find Vergenne's own version and follow it downhill a few blocks to Falls Park on Otter Creek. And as usual a bet made on rambling pays off, this time with a jaw-dropping view of three powerful waterfalls tumbling from the town past a jumble of old factories. Now I understand why Main Street is so fancy, the library so large, and homes so ornate in Vergennes!

Here's the phantom Vergennes that I feel still alive behind the empty factory facades: This first city in Vermont, established on Otter Creek in 1788, was a vital transportation hub serving stage coaches, river boats and then trains from up and down the East Coast. The falls provided energy for a self-sufficient economy: tanneries, grain mills, creameries and sawmills transformed and traded the bounty from miles of surrounding valley farms, and in return gave rural people the chance for stores-bought goods and cultural life.

I drive back up to Main Street and take a closer look at a pretty little Italianate building perched on a patch of grass at the top of the falls. According to the historical marker, it was built by the owner of the town's machine shop to house a pumping system he invented.


So here is a last ghost: the Vermonter who came off his father's farm with the skills and ambition to harness his city, state and the world itself to a new industrial dynamo. The Vermont town had always been enclosed in a strong circle of self-sufficiency, but it couldn't hold against that force. I'll have to keep driving and looking to try to figure out what vanished when that circle broke, and what remains.

Vergennes facts and figures