The City of Vergennes (population 2,741) is the smallest and oldest chartered city in Vermont. As early as 1764, a sawmill was constructed at the falls of Otter Creek, and the surrounding community was incorporated in 1788. The city’s name was suggested by Ethan Allen to honor the Comte de Vergennes, who served as the French Minister of Foreign Affairs and negotiator of the Treaty of Paris.
Because of its proximity to Lake Champlain, Vergennes became the site of a U.S. Navy shipyard during the War of 1812. Later in the 19th century, trade on the lake and the arrival of the railroad encouraged extensive commercial development. Growth slowed in the 20th century, however, and Vergennes’ historic downtown declined, but recent revitalization efforts are reversing that trend. A major catalyst for this revitalization has been the rehabilitation of the Vergennes Opera House (1897). Vacant for two decades, the building was in serious disrepair when a $1.5 million restoration began in 1994. The building now serves as a performing arts center and is also used for City Council meetings and civic functions. The project has been a partnership of the City of Vergennes, the Friends of the Vergennes Opera House, and other organizations.
On the heels of the Opera House reopening in 1997, entrepreneurs began to take a new interest in the downtown. The Vergennes Partnership, a Main Street program, was established in 1999. The City has invested in traffic calming and beautification projects and is working to restore the Old Train Station, possibly the oldest clapboard station remaining in Vermont.
The Otter Creek Falls and Basin
With easy access to Lake Champlain waterway and the Otter Creek Falls as an attractive water power source for industry, Vergennes was thought to be a fertile place for commercial growth. Industry boomed in the late nineteenth century, in particular, shipping and wood-finishing. Today, the falls and basin offer free boat dockage for visitors traveling from Lake Champlain, picnic areas in the surrounding parks, boat launches and fishing areas. The historic Vergennes Pump House still resides at the top of the falls.
Built in 1897, it cost $12,000 and took one year to complete.Adorned with the same beautifully painted mainstage curtain you see today, it opened its doors to many famous people including President Taft and Tiny Tim.It hosted political rallies and debates, weddings, school graduations, town meetings, and scores of musical and theatrical performances.In 1901 the Edison Company brought an amazing invention to the Opera House, the Projecting Kinetoscope and showed three short films by the famous director Edwin S. Porter.That was the first time moving pictures were seen in the Addison County area.
By the early 1970s the Opera House had fallen into a bad state of disrepair and was closed.It stayed in darkness for 24 years until a group of volunteers decided to raise money to save it.The Opera House proudly reopened its doors in July 1997 with a performance by the Vermont Symphony Orchestra.Today it serves the 2,500 residents of Vergennes and a population of over 20,000 people from the surrounding area.
William Gove Bixby was born in Vergennes, Vermont in 1829, one of four children of William and Lucy Bixby. When he died in 1907 he bequeathed money to several institutions and former servants, but the bulk of his estate was left to establish a public library for Vergennes. This was a surprise to all, as he had told no one of his wishes. It should be mentioned that the bulk of his money had come from his sister Eleanor who had been married to a Chicago hotel man. Upon her death her Chicago real estate and wealth of stocks and bonds went to her brother. It was largely these funds which made the building of the Bixby Library possible. Today, it is a major cornerstone of Downtown Vergennes.
City Park in the center of the downtown hosts Monday evening summer band concerts community festivals such as French Heritage Days in July and Vergennes Day in late August, and encourages strolling on a summer’s evening. The park serves as the location for a farm and craftsperson market from May through October.