The City of St. Albans, also known as ‘The Rail City’ is comparable to a chapter book in that it is filled with so many great stories to tell. Its historic downtown district has shown such resilience over the past two centuries; after all it has survived the St. Albans Raid, several devastating fires and many industrial changes and economical challenges.
St. Albans was chartered August 17, 1763 by Gov. Bennington Wentworth of the Colony of New Hampshire, and was named after St. Albans in Hertfordshire, England. Local historians believe that Revolutionary War veteran Jesse Welden was the first to plant his roots in St. Albans. It was on land that we now know as Main Street that Welden built his family a log cabin to call home.
By 1785 Welden was joined by many other settlers who came to the area that was rich in agricultural opportunity. They planted crops, raised livestock and produced an abundance of butter and cheese. During late 1700’s Ira Allen surveyed a route connecting St. Albans from Boston and then north to Montreal, and soon thereafter the area was a favorable stop for travelers. With them came the need for food and drink venues, places for folks to rest their weary bones, as well as stables and various other services.
Upon becoming a county seat in 1793, St. Albans saw the construction of stately new buildings to house the courtroom and the assembly. Larger, grander houses that were often combinations of family dwellings, businesses, and taverns with guest housing were going up. The first was the Hathaway House that was built by 1794, and still stands on Main Street.
Visitors of today continue to awe over the wonderful old Victorian style homes that have stood proudly along parts of Main and surrounding streets throughout so many decades.
A Place of Industry
Thanks to Vermont and Canada Railroad president John Smith and other financial backers, St. Albans saw the building of a rail station and the first trains were coming into town by the summer of 1851. Before long Vermont Central had a connecting line from Essex Junction to Rouses Point, NY, and by 1868 they were running from Vermont into St. Jean, Quebec, establishing a very profitable link from Boston to the Canadian and western markets via the Grand Trunk Railroad. St. Albans was dubbed Rail City as the Vermont Central facility grew to include the operations center, freight stations and repair shop, the roundhouse, other offices and shops; by 1923 it encompassed some 51 acres.
Today New England Central continues to operate freight trains and Amtrak offers rail service to Washington, D.C.
Financial woes hit Vermont’s railroad industry; the train whistles do continue to blow, but much less frequently. In its heyday Rail City saw over 200 trains per day. Today New England Central continues to operate freight trains and Amtrak offers rail service to Washington, D.C. Throughout the years St. Albans saw the comings and goings of hotels, department stores, lumber yards, manufacturers. Some were taken out by fires, others succumbed to economic stress – some were destroyed by both. The Tremont House, built in 1820, is just one example of that; it was a grand hotel that also housed businesses. In the face of a closure, it was bought out by The Glenn’s Falls Shirt Company, and later destroyed by fire. It was replaced in 1896 by another impressive architectural structure, the St. Albans City Hall.
The fire of 1870 that wiped out a good portion of Main Street, and in 1895 another desolating fire started at Fonda Lumber Yard, consuming much of the business district. Fortunately some of the structures were saved, and those lost or damaged were rebuilt or replaced.
The City of St. Albans, a two-square mile area situated in the center of the town, was incorporated in 1902.
The Civil War Comes to Town
Today as tourists shop historic downtown St. Albans they shop an area rich in historical and cultural value. As people discover the many culinary experiences along the newly renovated Main Street they can look out into Taylor Park and see the northernmost battle ground of the American Civil War; the place where that while many of the men were sent off to war was surprised by an attack by Confederate soldiers that literally ‘banked’ on the confusion they created.
Twenty Confederate soldiers had come to town, some staying at local establishments, and planned to rob three of St. Albans’ financial institutions. One person was killed, others were wounded; they stole horses, and attempted to set fire to the town before escaping to Canada with a heist of $208,000. Luckily, committing arsonist was not their forte, and they may have fled, but they were captured. Most of the stolen money was already sent south to help fund the Confederacy, but $88,000 was retrieved and returned to the banks.
There, in Taylor Park, stands the angelic water fountain that was donated by Gov. Smith in 1887, serving as reminder of the lives lost, the suffering endured and the sacrifices made by the many brave local soldiers of St. Albans, known as the Vermont Boys. Other monuments set throughout the greens have been dedicated to all the Vermont soldiers who fought for this country.
Watching over the park and the city are several magnificent churches that feature incredible stained glass windows and steeples that tower above and tell of the faith and strength that have allowed the people who once walked here, and those who still do. St. Paul’s Methodist was the first to be established; by 1821 their building was completed. Episcopal, Universalist, Catholic, Presbyterian and Congregational churches followed, some were razed by fire, some weathered and worn, others were outgrown and reconstructed, and some remain intact. The one commonality is that their presence serves as inspiration to those who call St. Albans home and those who will settle here in the future. They are symbols of hope as times move forward and efforts to keep the City of St. Albans shining prosperously continue on.