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Peering into a time capsule of change in Vermont

Trove of photos showing the building of Interstate 91 comes to Dummerston

DUMMERSTON—The building of the Interstate Highway System in Vermont was an event that changed the state forever.

It was the largest public works program in Vermont history — 321 miles of highway built between 1957 and 1978 stretching from Guilford to Derby Line through the Connecticut River Valley, and from White River Junction to Highgate Springs through the Green Mountains and the Champlain Valley.

It was also a well documented construction project, as state photographers took more than 36,000 photos of the farms and houses that were in the path of the proposed highway, as well as the progress of the road building from the first scoops of the excavators to the final ribbon-cutting.

But the negatives were tucked away in the state archives for decades, until researchers from the University of Vermont’s Landscape Change Program discovered them.

Now, thanks to a $200,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities, these photos are being digitized and teams of researchers are fanning out around the state to find the stories behind the photos, and to see how this glimpse into one of the most transformative moments in Vermont history can help us plan for the future.

UVM graduate students Katie Briscoe and Ana Vang came to Dummerston last week to present the team’s research, and to gather information and stories for the project and the Vermont Folklife Center on the coming of the Interstate.

Dummerston is one of 12 towns that is being visited by program members this summer. Briscoe and Bang are among the more than 40 students traveling the state to present and collect information.

Of the more than 36,000 photos that were rediscovered, Briscoe said about 20,000 have been described, key-worded, and put up on their website, www.uvm.edu/landscape.

“We want to make sure these photos aren’t stuck in the archives,” she said. “We want to make sure the public can see them.”

Some were easier to identify than others. Briscoe said the discovery of the journals of the state’s main photographer, Donald Wiedenmayer, was a big help. Wiedenmayer kept meticulous records of the date and location of each photo.

But there are still hundreds of photos that lack identification, and that is one reason the project is touring the state. The Dummerston Historical Society, which sponsored a brief slide show at the Evening Star Grange last week, helped steer some of the town’s residents who worked on the interstate, or have vivid memories of watching the construction, to Bang and Briscoe.

Road work

The first segment of Interstate 91, 5.879 miles between the Massachusetts state line and Vernon, opened Nov. 1, 1958. The next 1.942 miles, to today’s Exit 1 in Brattleboro, opened on July 31, 1959.

The next 3.918-mile segment, first called the Brattleboro Bypass, opened on Oct. 5, 1960 and created the second and third Brattleboro exits. Finally, the 11.055-mile segment between Exit 3 in Brattleboro to Exit 4 in Putney — the segment that passes through the easternmost side of Dummerston — opened on Dec. 6, 1961.

While the state took great care in routing Interstates 89 and 91 away from downtowns and village centers, Briscoe said the interstate divided farms and razed homes, barns, and other structures in the road’s path.

This process of destruction, she said, was perhaps the main motivation behind the historic preservation movement that picked up steam in the 1960s and led to the creation of the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

“The interstate project got people thinking about history, and how to preserve it,” said Briscoe.

The UVM students have been busy taking pictures of sites that were first documented in the 1960s during the construction period. Briscoe said her favorite picture of a pair of barns beside a quiet road in Thetford. The original was taken in 1969. Returning to the site this year, it looked exactly the same.

There are very few pictures on the website that one can say that of, she said. Most chronicle the drastic changes to the Vermont landscape as the interstate was built.

But while highway construction was one of the more drastic events of the past century, Briscoe pointed out that humans had been altering the Vermont landscape for centuries.

From the deforestation of the state by the white settlers who arrived in the 1700s, to the Marino sheep boom in the early 1800s that turned the state into one big pasture, to the reforestation of Vermont as hill farms faded into oblivion in the years after the Civil War, human intervention has shaped the land, she said.

The interstate, she said, simply followed in the footsteps of the canals, the railroads, and the first highways — all things that made travel into and around Vermont easier.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #161 (Wednesday, July 18, 2012).

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