The Village Tour: Railroad and Marble Works District

Railroad Bridge over Otter Creek, site of the first passenger and freight depot as well as the previous ford and ferry across the creek. Source

Railroad The first train on the Rutland & Burlington Railroad puffed into town on September 1, 1849, followed by the first passenger train on September 19th and the first run to Boston in December. The line’s name was changed to the Rutland Railroad in 1867. Initially, trains were served by a passenger and freight depot located at the end of the first Depot Street (now a driveway, just south of present-day Cross Street) and the creek. A marble finishing shop (long gone) was nearby. This was also the location of the early ford and ferry across Otter Creek.

The freight depot burned down in 1871 and was rebuilt on a more spacious site along Seymour Street. The original passenger depot also burned in 1889 and was replaced by a new one on the west side of the tracks adjacent to Seymour Street and the new freight depot in 1891. Prior to 1908, Elm Street was known as Depot Street (the second so named) in honor of the new passenger depot. In 1912, the station was jacked up and moved to a new foundation on the east side of the tracks to make way for the construction of the Seymour Street underpass that replaced the original grade crossing. The underpass was completely rebuilt in 1992. The passenger station and freight depot, originally separate structures, have been connected and considerably altered for retail use, but are still recognizable.

Passenger depot in 1900. Source

The railroad’s main line crossed the heart of town in a deep cut beneath Merchants Row, through the Green, and under Main Street. This arrangement made the railroad less obtrusive and far safer for the townspeople, but it was not without its disadvantages, for there are numerous accounts  of horses being frightened by the locomotive’s whistle, often resulting in injury, or on some occasions, even death. Perhaps the town’s first railroad accident was that involving prominent local silver smith and clock-maker, Joseph Dyar, who was fatally injured by a runaway team in 1851.

The arrangement with the sunken track caused additional problems for the town. Whenever larger equipment was introduced on the railroad, the Main Street and Merchants Row bridges had to be raised and street levels adjusted accordingly. The streets were regraded three times between 1849 and 1907, the last instance causing particular controversy, since the town had just repaved the streets when the railroad announced that they would have to be raised again. Economically, the railroad also proved to be a mixed blessing for the town. Not only did it make distant markets more accessible to Middlebury’s manufacturers, but it also acted as a conduit into Middlebury’s home territory for the. goods of cheaper competitors. In the end, Middlebury lost the contest, and her days as an important manufacturing center passed.

The Rutland Railroad discontinued passenger service during a strike in 1953, and all service in 1961 due to a series of bitter strikes. Much of the railroad was subsequently abandoned, and the Burlington to Bennington section was bought by the State of Vermont in 1963 and leased to a new operator, the Vermont Railway, which continues to operate the line. To render the railroad more viable for freight and for a possible reestablishment of passenger service, in 2017 the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the town were again faced with the problem of replacing the bridges to accommodate higher equipment. The solution this time was a four-year, 71 million dollar, process of lowering the tracks and covering the railroad cut between Merchants Row and Main Street with a tunnel.

32 The Marble Works District Down the alley and newly landscaped Lazarus Park just beyond the railroad tunnel can be seen a handsome stone warehouse-like structure now occupied by offices. This building, constructed as a gas works in 1836, is typical of the mill structures built in town in the first half of the 19th century. Its limestone and marble walls are from twenty-four to thirty inches thick and carry the great beams (some of them over eighteen inches thick) that support the floors and roof. Beyond it are a series of marble-walled industrial buildings constructed in 1898–1899 as sawing and finishing mills for the Brandon Italian Marble Company, whose previous mill in Brandon had burned down. The mills were powered by a series of long cables, supported by tall wooden towers with pulleys, that were driven by a huge 250-horse-power water turbine located in what was referred to as “the wheel house,” located just below the falls (the “wheel house” was reconstructed from the remains of the old cotton mill, which had burned in the fire of 1891). The cables turned a series of shafts in the mills that, in turn, were connected to the machinery by leather belts that had a nasty habit of snagging the clothing of careless workers, occasionally dragging them to their deaths in the machinery. The company, which soon became the largest employer in town, was lured to Middlebury by both excellent water power and attractive tax incentives.

Marble Works District with the wheel house in the foreground around 1892. Source
Marble Works District in 1913 when it was occupied by Brandon Italian Marble Company. Source

The complex of mill buildings was located conveniently near the railroad, and a new siding was constructed that facilitated the arrival of the huge blocks of marble from the quarries, most of which were now located out of town. The blocks were unloaded by a heavy overhead crane that operated between the siding and the sawing mills, where the blocks were cut up into slabs of different thicknesses. The slabs were then transformed into finished products in the finishing mill located on the north end of the complex. The Brandon Italian Marble Company was bought out by the Vermont Marble Company in 1909, which continued to operate the plant until the depression caused its final closure in 1931. The mills, as well as other buildings constructed later, became known as the Cartmell Complex, and were converted to a variety of commercial uses. In 1987 the complex was purchased by the Marble Works Associates, who restored many of the structures to their earlier appearance and adapted them for a variety of commercial and retail uses.

Among the long-time tenants of this district is the Addison County Independent, a participant in Middlebury’s long tradition of journalism and publication. The first printing offices in town opened for business in 1801 and over the next years published the Middlebury Mercury (1801), the Vermont Register (1802), and a number of books and pamphlets. Thereafter, both newspaper and book publishing and binding were to become significant industries for the town in the 19th century. From 1812 on Middlebury readers benefited from at least one and sometimes two and three local weekly papers, among them the: Vermont Mirror, Columbian Patriot, National Standard, Religious Reporter, Vermont American, Middlebury Free Press, Northern Argus, People’s Press, Northern Galaxy, Middlebury Galaxy, Middlebury Register, Addison County Independent and Valley Voice. All are preserved in the Sheldon Museum — a treasured record of the tastes and topics of Middlebury’s past.

33 Pulp Mill Bridge Constructed to serve the 1804 Waltham Turnpike possibly as early 1808–1820 and rebuilt 1853–1854, this historic bridge is one of only a handful of double covered bridges left in the United States and ranks as the oldest surviving covered bridge in Vermont. The Burr arched truss structure has been entered into the Historic American Engineering Record. From here the turnpike made its way to Vergennes and was intended ultimately to serve as Middlebury’s stage link to Montreal.

Pulp Mill Bridge in the 1930s. Source
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