Montpelier’s 200th

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(HOST) This weekend, Montpelier will be celebrating its 200th anniversary as Vermont’s capital. Commentator Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and has these thoughts on the upcoming celebration.

(SLAYTON) The worst moment in Montpelier’s 200 years as capital of Vermont came on a January night in 1858 when Vermont’s beautiful little State House was destroyed by fire.

That loss was bad enough. But the catastrophe also rekindled the long-running dispute over whether Montpelier should be capital of Vermont at all.

Montpelier had never been a strong candidate for state capital. It was a little backwoods community, and there were several larger, more powerful towns that seemed to have a better claim. For ex- ample, Windsor had hosted the legislature 14 times before it set- tled in Montpelier and was a perennial favorite.

Historian and State Senator William Doyle notes in a recent re- search paper that Montpelier was originally chosen in 1805 partly because it was a compromise location – neutral ground that the bigger towns like Windsor and Burlington could agree on – and partly because Montpelierites donated land and money to lure the new State House to town.

For 20 years after that decision other towns tried to wrest the captial – and all the prestige and development opportunities it offered – away from little Montpelier. They failed every time.

But the burning of the State House in 1858 reopened the contro- versy, and this time the fighting got nasty. Montpelier’s prime opponent was its arch-rival, Burlington. During a seven-day battle in the 1858 legislature, the two towns engaged in a long and testy exchange of insults.

Burlington claimed Montpelier was unhealthy – it was a foggy sumphole next to the Winooski River where members of the Legislature got sick as soon as they arrived.

Montpelier supporters shot back that Burlington was even worse – that prevailing winds carried all the vapor and dampness of Lake Champlain and dumped it right on Burlington, causing consump- tion.

Burlington declared that Montpelier had no scenery. It was an out-of-the-way hole in the hills so remote that travelers would never see the State House.

Montpelier shot back that Burlington was more like New York than Vermont and to go there was like going out of state.

Burlingtonians declared that Montpelier was immoral, that the people there “drank most nonchalantly and flouted the state prohibition law.” Montpelierites declared that Burlington was rife with crime and one legislator knew of someone who had had his pocket picked there. “What kind of place would that be for a capital?” they asked.

And so it went, back and forth for a full week. Eventually the vote was held, and Montpelier won by an almost 2-to-one margin. The new State House – the building that all Vermont is proud of today – was erected upon the site of the old one.

This coming weekend, Montpelier will be celebrating its 200th anniversary as Vermont’s capital. There will be a parade and fireworks and music. Everyone will note that Montpelier is the best place for a capital, after all, the best place in Vermont, really. They’ll probably say that a lot.

After all, though 200 years have passed, you can never really be too safe.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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