Early Autos in Vermont, 1902

two carriages pulled by horses passing car

Prior to World War I, automobiles in Vermont functioned by and large as novelties or objects of curiosity. They were few in number (in 1906, there were 373 registered vehicles) and, according to William Wilgus (The Role of Transportation in the Development of Vermont), usage was confined to “individual pleasure and convenience.”

Oral history transcriptions

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Background information

Many images convey the spirit of the age. With few paved roads (as late as 1943 only 9 percent of the state’s 14,000 miles of road was paved, although about half was graveled by that time), automobiles were forever getting stuck and breaking down. State laws (still on the books?) required automobile drivers to give advance warnings to oncoming drivers of animal-led vehicles. In this quaint and somewhat comical vein, Earl Willard Williams’s recollections in his “Billy Richards’s Tales of Old Motors” are particularly amusing and insightful. Williams, whose father manufactured some of Vermont’s first automobiles and sold others (Stanley Steamers), was obliged to give purchasers a ten-day lesson in the idiosyncratic operation of their automobiles. Doctors (who were avid purchasers), politicians, young men seeking to impress dates by taking them on lengthy day-long excursion, and others frequently found themselves indebted to the mechanical quick wittedness of “Billy” and others like him who exercised good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity to find solutions to innumerable unforeseen problems with their automobiles.

The prosperous 1920s and the genius of Henry Ford brought automobiles into the mainstream of Vermont as indeed all of American life. Two issues arising during the era are particularly interesting. Rural dwellers were far more likely to own a car than their urban counterparts, a fact that was attributable in no small way to the availability of mass transit in urban centers and larger towns.
One noteworthy event here was the organization by Bill Appleyard, owner of the Dodge dealership in Burlington, and of the Burlington Rapid Company (later to become Vermont Transit). Trolleys had long been a fixture in Burlington (see program #20), but within three short years after Appleyard put his buses into operation, offering far wider service throughout the city and its environs, they had co-opted the trolleys business. To publicize his victory, Appleyard purchased the Burlington Traction Company and, on August 4, 1929, before a large assembled audience, set one of the trolleys on fire as a symbolic gesture to signify the end of the trolley era.

Early buses, as Robert Redden observes in his pictorial book, Vermont Transit Historic Photograph Portfolio, came in a variety of shapes and sizes and required unusual strength and assorted skills to operate. Nevertheless, they offered Vermonters easy access to the big cities and, in the summer, to such exotic ports as Old Orchard Beach—a popular vacation destination for Vermonters then as now. Perhaps more important, bus service provide an invaluable resource for boosting the tourist trade.

The second big issue of the era of early automobile transportation was the debate in 1932 over whether to construct the “Green Mountain Parkway” (see program #44). The proposed highway—similar to the Skyline Drive in Virginia—was intended to link Vermont with New York City via a network of similar roads through the Berkshires in Massachusetts and through Connecticut. And to extend the length of the entire state along the ridges of the Green Mountains, “being located so as to embrace as far as possible typical examples of all forms of outstanding natural scenery characteristic of the Green Mountain region.” To Depression-weary Vermonters, the road was seen as injecting new life blood into the tourist trade. Opponents lambasted the Parkway, charging that it would produce irreparable environmental damage and further extinguish the quaint spirit of small town Vermont that natives and visitors so highly esteemed.

Notwithstanding the fact that the proposed parkway would be built at only minimal cost to the state, in March 1935 the Vermont House rejected a bill to acquire land for the parkway that had been passed by the Senate. Governor Charles M. Smith called a special session of the legislature to reconsider the proposal, and this time, both houses passed the bill providing funds for the acquisition with the stipulation that it gain endorsement in a public referendum. In the spring of 1936, Vermonters cast a firm negative vote (43,176 against; 31,101 in favor of the parkway).

The third issue to consider is the development of the interstate highway system and as assessment of whether its performance has lived up to its promise. Governor Joseph B. Johnson, in his 1957 inaugural address, insisted in uncompromising terms that “highway improvement continues to be at the very core of Vermont’s future development.” As in the past, economic factors were paramount: amid continued deterioration of the rail system, Vermont farmers required a cost-effective alternative to compete for traditional markets to the south. And as in the case of the doomed Green Mountain Parkway, the interstate was deemed critical to sustain tourism.

Has it worked? Benjamin Huffman in his monograph, “Getting around Vermont: A Study of Twenty Years of Highway Building in Vermont,” published in 1976, argued that Vermont could expect no incremental benefits from proposed additions to the interstate. Vermonters, his figures revealed, only occasionally used the interstate in the course of their occupations and, more significantly, he noted that the interstate in its first 20 years, yielded few immediate benefits to the 22% of Vermont’s urban populations who did not own cars in 1976. Consequently, Huffman lobbied for monies to be expended upon adequate mass transit systems rather than continued highway construction.

Now, more than fifty years after construction began, three interstate highways run into and through Vermont, gasoline prices are far higher than they were when the interstate highway was proposed and when Huffman conducted his study, and new options for mass transit are developing to connect towns and cities using the interstate roads as well as other major transportation corridors. It may be useful to ask again about the value and impact of those major arteries on the state’s economy and environment and about the impact on communities along the routes of the interstate roads. By contrast, it may be useful to examine the impact on communities and whole sections of the state that do not have easy or direct access to the interstate highway system.

Further reading

Wilgus, William J. The Role of Transportation in the Development of Vermont (Montpelier: Vermont Historical Society, 1945).

Williams, Earl Willard. “Billy Richards’s Tales of Old Motors,” Vermont History 41 (1973): 61-77.

Huffman, Benjamin, assisted by J. Walter Sipler and David P. Tarrant. “Getting around Vermont: A Study of Twenty Years of Highway Building in Vermont, with Respect to Economics, Automotive Travel, Community Patterns, and the Future.” (Burlington, Vt. : Environmental Program, University of Vermont, 1974).

O’Connor, Kevin. “25 Years Later: The Impact of the Interstate,” Vermont Sunday Magazine, Sunday Rutland Herald and Sunday Times Argus, (7 December, 1989): 4-5, 14-16.

Citation for this page

Woodsmoke Productions and Vermont Historical Society, “Early Autos in Vermont,” The Green Mountain Chronicles radio broadcast and background information, original broadcast 1988-89.  https://vermonthistory.org/early-autos-in-vermont-1902

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