Four Decades, 36,000 Photographs: The Construction Of I-89 And I-91

Nov 21, 2013

One of the biggest changes to Vermont’s landscape came in the middle of the last century with the construction of the Interstate Highway system. If you’re zipping down Interstate 89 today, it might be hard to visualize what the state was like without it.

But now a new exhibit at the Vermont History Museum can help you see what that bygone time looked like. It’s called “Interpreting the Interstates,” and includes historic photos from before, during and after the construction. The images are part of the University of Vermont’s Landscape Change Program, which has collected photographs of landscapes around Vermont.

“This project began about five years ago, when a large cache of photographs taken during the construction of the interstate were scanned and put online,” explains Amanda Gustin, public programs coordinator for the Vermont History Museum.

By "large cache," Gustin means more than 36,000 images.

“There are some really dramatic ones of just a lot of earth being moved to make way for a bridge, or a section of highway that had to be blasted through the mountains, or the openings that were held each time a new section of highway was opened,” Gustin says.

Construction on the interstate spanned four decades, from 1958 to 1982, and was comprised of 39 sections. Over the years, each completed stretch of road prompted a celebration: bands performed, ribbons were cut, people set up folding chairs on the new asphalt to listen to speeches.

The Bellows Free Academy Band plays at the completion ceremony for Interstate I-89 at Highgate and the border crossing into Canada in 1966.
Credit UVM Landscape Change Program / Vermont State Archives and Records Administration

"It was basically 20 years of parties," Gustin says. Perhaps everyone needed the staggered incentives: Building an interstate in a mountainous place like Vermont was a logistical feat. 

“One 23-mile stretch near St. Albans took 17,000 cubic yards of concrete, 3 million pounds of re-enforced steel, 8 million pounds of structural steel, 38,000 linear feet of steel piping and 11,000 linear feet of timber pilings," Gustin says. "And that’s just one small stretch.”

The project was not without controversy. Even during the planning stages, many raised concerns about changes to the way of life in the state and warned that the road would dilute Vermont's natural beauty. After all, Vermonters had already rejected a different highway project: the Green Mountain Parkway, a road conceived in the 1930s that would have run along the spine of the Green Mountains. Proponents had touted the economic benefits, including more tourists. (If they had won the contentious fight, the Long Trail as we know it would not exist today.)

Thirty years later, the debate replayed - it even claimed a life. An Ascutney farmer named Romaine Tenney committed suicide rather than allow the pavement to cut through his property. 

“He had been saying, I was born in this house and I’m going to die in it," says Gustin. "He ... set his house on fire the day that they meant to come and demolish the house and the outbuildings that had been part of his family’s farm to make way for I-91. And his body was found in the house afterward.”

Not all Vermonters welcomed the massive development project. When Romaine Tenney's farm in Ascutney was slated to be demolished to make way for the road, the farmer barred himself inside his house and set fire to the structure. He is pictured here, left, with his right-of-way agent in 1964.
Credit UVM Landscape Change Program / Vermont State Archives and Records Administration

A section of Interstate 91 runs where his family’s farm had been for over 150 years.

Gustin says that case is by far the most tragic - but many other houses were cleared, and some farms were cut in half. In Windham County alone, 340 properties and 2,000 acres were seized to make way for I-91.

As for Gustin's favorite image from the exhibit? It's of a sign announcing the interstate project and how much it will cost. "It's just pounded on wooden posts along the side of this incredibly muddy dirt road in the middle of the forest ... And it's really that juxtaposition of the older Vermont and the new Vermont that's coming."

A large sign in Brookfield promotes the interstate that will soon replace this dirt road. "And it's really that juxtaposition of the older Vermont and the new Vermont that's coming," says Amanda Gustin.
Credit UVM Landscape Change Program / Vermont State Archives and Records Administration

This project was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities to the Geology Department at the University of Vermont. "Interpreting the Interstates" will be at the Vermont History Museum in Montpelier through April 26, 2014.