In 1933, the midst of the Great Depression, Col William J. Wilgus, former chief engineer of the New York Central Railroad, propose the construction of a scenic highway with a 1,000-foot right of way through the Green Mountains. Modeled after Virginia’s Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the road was viewed, in historian Richard Judd’s words, “as an imaginative solution to the state’s apparent need for a big project which would employ many people, stimulate the Vermont economy, and confer lasting benefits on everyone concerned.”
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Col. Wilgus’s proposal quickly gained many supporters. In Washington, D.C., President Franklin Delano Roosevelt convinced Congress in April 1934 to approve $50,000 for a ten-month study by the National Park Service and the Bureau of Public Roads to determine the plan’s feasibility. Many prominent Vermonters similarly applauded the proposal, among them Governor Stanley Wilson; the Vermont Chamber of Commerce and its executive secretary, James P. Taylor, one of the founders of the Green Mountain Club and early promoter of the Long Trail; the State Planning Board; the editors of the Burlington Free Press, Brattleboro Reformer, and Bennington Banner; and Vermont’s celebrated resident authors Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Sarah N. Cleghorn. For a nominal expenditure of $500,000 to cover the purchase of lands for a National Park, these people argued, Vermont would receive federal funds in excess of $18 million, not to mention the untold millions that would pour into state coffers as a result of increased tourism. Moreover, they argued, the parkway would open Vermont and Vermonters to a wider world and break through Vermont’s reputation as isolated and provincial.
Opponents, led by the Speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives, Judge Ernest E. Moore, the Rutland Herald, and author Sinclair Lewis, joined with members of the Green Mountain Club—guardians of the Long Trail—to rally for the defeat of the proposal. A highway through the mountains, they warned, would forever scar Vermont’s landscape, poison the pure mountain air with carbon monoxide fumes, and substitute the “profane clamor” of automobile horns for the peace and solitude Vermonters had always treasured. Accepting tainted federal monies, they insisted, rendered it impossible for Vermonters to make rules on the use of their public domain at a future date. Some, like the Rutland Herald, argued that the highway would perpetuate and emphasize the geographic split between east and west-side Vermonters.
The intensity with which the issue was argued, first in the legislature, where C. Edward Crane recalled hearing “the best but bitterest [debate] I have ever seen or heard anywhere,” and later amid the general population, where polarization was so intense, W. Storrs Lee reported, that “every citizen in the state became a parkway or anti-parkway man,” made this a landmark issue in Vermont history. On the surface, the proposal pitted environmentalists determined to preserve Vermont’s “unspoiled wilderness” against those who championed economic development and prosperity in the face of an unyielding economic Depression.
The 1935 legislative session, where the parkway was first debated, yielded inconclusive results. On March 27, 1935, the House defeated the parkway plan, 126 to 111. The Senate, however, on April 3, passed an enabling act carrying a $300,000 appropriation for the parkway. This, however, was ruled out of order by the House.
In the fall of 1935, Governor Smith called a special session of the legislature to reconsider the issue. This time, the House reversed itself, endorsing the Green Mountain Parkway project on a vote of 131 to 105. There was, however, one contingency: The final decision was to be rendered by the people in a public referendum scheduled for March 3, 1936.
As the fateful day approached, the media, both inside and outside Vermont, fanned the fires of controversy. Opponents, such as merchant and author Vrest Orton, founder of the Vermont County Store, warned that the parkway would turn Vermont into a “Coney Island,” and the New York Sun, in a February 1936 editorial, observed that “with a 1,000-foot swath lined with gas stations and refreshment stands cut through the heart of her most beautiful scenery, Vermont would have been Vermont no longer.” Proponents of the plan, however, remained unswayed. In its February 29, 1936, edition the Burlington Free Press recorded, that the question could be “generally viewed as the most controversial issue which has been placed before the people in many years.”
As a result of the referendum, the parkway went down to a crushing defeat: 42,318 against; 30,897 in favor.* Richard Judd explained the results by suggesting that Vermonters simply followed their traditional economic conservatism and “dislike for spending money.” Political scientist, Frank Bryan, after closely examining the statistics of the vote, argues that wracked by economic depression and despair, legislators charged with the task of finding “quick fix” solutions viewed the transfusion of federal money as nothing less than manna from heaven, whereas the public proved wiser than their leaders and placed an unspoiled and uncontaminated natural environment above projected economic benefits.
More recently, Hanna Silverstein re-examined the results of the vote, and agrees with Bryan that Vermont towns were of course worried about the local effects of the parkway [while] . . . state government, for its part, was attempting to maximize benefits for the state as a whole.” She concludes, however, that regional differences also played a significant role: Southern towns, seeing little benefit from tourism, tended to vote against the parkway, whereas northern town, which anticipated greater gains from tourist dollars, tended to support it. Silverstein suggests that the vote also reflected disagreement on the priority of national goals—which included providing short-term employment or skilled and unskilled labor, serving conservation and recreation needs, and advancing a much larger project to link and unify the eastern seaboard—with the more local interests and concerns of Vermonters. She adds, however, that “perhaps in the end the most critical factor was the most personal and therefore the most difficult to prove: taste. Those who appreciated the aesthetics of the built environment had little trouble supporting the proposal to build a parkway intended to be scenic in both its setting and its design. Vermonters who fought and voted against the parkway could not reconcile their idea of ‘unspoiled’ nature with a permanent, artificial structure.”
The history of the Green Mountain Parkway continues to inspire Vermonters today. It has taken on almost mythic status as symbolic of Vermonters’ commitment to their environment and the preservation of its natural beauty and recreational resources. It also continues to challenge Vermonters to think about where and how to resolve the demands for economic growth and development as against those values of taste, conservation, preservation, and limiting access to the state’s wilderness areas.
-P. Jeffrey Potash
*These are the results reported by Bryan, Yankee Politics in Rural Vermont, 208. Bryan got these numbers from The Vermont Legislative Directory and State Manual (1937), 129. However, the numerical results of referendum differ in several accounts. Silverstein, “No Parking,” citing the Burlington Free Press (4 March, 1935), reports 43,176 to 31,101; Hand, The Star that Set, reports 42,873 to 30,795. Sherman et al., followed Silverstein.
Bryan, Frank M., Yankee Politics in Rural Vermont (Hanover, N.H., University Press of New England, 1974), 202-233.
Goldman, Hal, “James Taylor’s Progressive Vision: The Green Mountain Parkway.” Vermont History 63:3 (Summer 1995): 158-179.
Hand, Samuel B., The Star that Set: The Vermont Republican Party, 1854-1974 (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2002): 138-139.
Judd, Richard M., The New Deal in Vermont: Its Impact and Aftermath (New York : Garland Pub., 1979), 85-88.
Lee, W. Storrs, The Green Mountains of Vermont (New York, Holt, 1955), 156-158.
Sherman, Michael, Gene Sessions, P. Jeffrey Potash, Freedom and Unity: A History of Vermont (Barre, Vt.: Vermont Historical Society, 2004) 442-445.
Silverstein, Hannah, “No Parking: Vermont Rejects the Green Mountain Parkway,” Vermont History 63:3 (Summer 1995): 133-157.
Citation for this page
Woodsmoke Productions and Vermont Historical Society, “The Green Mountain Parkway,” The Green Mountain Chronicles radio broadcast and background information, original broadcast 1988-89, accessed on the web at http://vermonthistory.org/research/research-resources-online/green-mountain-chronicles/the-green-mountain-parkway-1933.